What Watching Alex Honnold in Free Solo Taught Me About Goals

October 21, 2019

There are SMART goals. There are Everest Goals. Then there are El Capitan Goals.

At least that's what I learned from watching the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo featuring Alex Honnold.

Watching a human being ascend a 3000-foot granite wall without ropes or any gear is one of those awe-inspiring moments that left me wondering, "what else are we capable of given the same level of commitment and preparation?"

More than the feat itself, what intrigued me most was getting a chance to gleam into how Alex prepared himself for the climb.

I began asking myself, was there something I could learn or take-away and apply to my own goals? Something that others might benefit from too?

Part of me wished that my amygdala could be as desensitized to the fear of imminent death as Alex's. A quirky scientific marvel we viewers learn about after he emerges from an fMRI scan. 

That being a much less likely scenario, I came away with a few more practical tips and insights that could be just as beneficial to keep in mind.

Many of us carry El Capitan goals around with us in the back of our heads, thinking we'll never be able to accomplish them.

Watching Alex Honnold's breath-taking feat and learning about his journey could hold the necessary keys to helping us get there faster.

Start At The Bottom Left

Many years ago, I discovered a book called Flow by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I always thought I had a tough name, but nah) changed the way I visualize the journey to any great accomplishment.

Spoiler: It doesn't involve starting a rock climbing career by free soloing El Capitan.

The friction between skill and challenge has always captivated me. It reminded me of walking a tightrope. Lean too far on one side, and you fall prey to anxiety. Lean too far on the other, and it's death by boredom.

Honnold started his rock climbing career at the ripe age of 10. What set him apart from others wasn't his psychical prowess but his ability to tune out fear when it mattered most. You don't "try" Free Soloing. You either do, or you don't (i.e., you die).

After dropping out of university, he set out in a white van to devote himself exclusively to climbing.

Before accomplishing the equivalent of landing on the moon for climbers by climbing El Capitan, Honnold free soloed routes like Astroman, the Rostrum, and Moonlight Buttress.

The most incredible thing about his ability to push himself to new heights (quite literally) is that it is just an event in his mind. Not the end-all-be-all. He's managed to become so fine-tuned into the process of rock climbing that everything else fades away into the distance.

Rehearse Without (Severe) Consequences

Feats of the nature accomplished by Honnold aren't something you can wing.

Though, after listening to the audiobook of his memoir "Alone on a wall," it's clear that he is more than up for the challenge as when traveling through Chad, he found himself intrigued by the strange rock formations.

Getting an insight into how Honnold trained for the main event via the documentary was just as eye-opening. Ropes and gear were involved. It also took several months and hundreds of hours of pain-talking practice.

This enabled him to make as many mistakes as necessary and to become intimately familiar with every crevice and hold. More importantly, he could isolate the challenging part of the routes and practice them over and over again until they no longer remained scary.

"I didn't feel that stressed because, in a way I had already committed to autopilot and just put everything aside." via National Geographic

Making all those mistakes, learning from them, trying new tactics, and being able to do it all without the consequences of death was what enabled him to execute flawlessly when even a single mistake would've proven too costly.

Learning from smaller bets is the fuel required to make the bigger bets.

We hear the phrase "don't bet the farm (or house) on it," and it makes a lot of sense.

The threshold for every decision ought to be dictated not only by the consequences but, more importantly, the knowledge we've amassed.

Reflecting Ingrains Learnings

Hands down, though, my favorite part of the documentary was watching him take his beat-up notebook and jot down everything in his head about the day's climb.

Here's a sample entry:

"Left foot into the little thumb sprag crack thing. Right foot into this little dimple that you can toe in on pretty aggressively so it's opposing the left hand, then you can, like, zag over across to this flat, down-pulling crimp that's small but you can bite it pretty aggressively. I palm the wall a little bit so I can pop my foot up and then reach up to this upside-down thumb sprag crimp thing." via National Geographic

This level of detail looks insane. Still, I can only imagine how vital it is to his training recalibrating him for the next day and priming his mind to problem-solve difficult passages while he carries on with his day.

It sounds simple, but what if we reflected on our craft which could vary from managing people to designing interfaces. How much faster would our brains acclimate to the demands placed upon us?

In Summary

Though some might say that the feat is too unique to transform it into some abstract human accomplishment to draw global insights from, I say otherwise.

The specifics vary, but I whole-heartedly think there are principles to be drawn on from Honnold's climb and career that are transferrable to everyday life.

Whether it's starting small, putting in the hours of rehearsal, or just journaling as a forcing function for reflection, there's much us mortals can take in and apply towards whatever El Capitan goal we have on the horizon.

About Me

Hi! My name's Humayun. I'm a multi-disciplinary maker currently employed as Product Manager for an EdTech company. I have a background in design and marketing. I also write stories.

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