How learning to rock climb made me a better entrepreneur
by Katy Tynan
I should mention before we get into this that I’m not a huge fan of working out. I only run if I’m being chased, and then only if I can’t buy off my pursuer with whatever I have in my wallet. So last year when my son came back from an afternoon at the rock gym with his uncle, raving about how much fun it was and how he wanted to do it again, I wasn’t immediately on the bandwagon.
The thing about rock climbing, though, is that you need a belay – someone to hold the other end of the rope so that you don’t come plummeting back down. If my son wanted to climb, I had to at least come along for that part. So there I was at the rock gym a couple of times a week. At some point I started to wonder if I could make it up those walls.
I’ve been climbing for a few months now, so I’m still definitely still a beginner. But it’s a surprisingly interesting process. Every time I climb, I discover how applicable it is to the act of starting and growing a business.
1. Without Trust You Spend More Time Looking Down Than Up – My son is 13. He weighs a bit more than three quarters of what I do. But because of the way the rope system and belay tools work, he can easily hold me up when I come off the wall. My first few climbs I wasn’t sure. He’s a great kid, but was he paying attention when he learned what he was supposed to do? Did he really get the technique? If I fell unexpectedly, was I going to come crashing down on the mat or would he catch me? I spent a lot of time on those first few climbs focusing down instead of up. But soon enough it was clear I could totally count on him. He was right there any time I lost my grip. And by being able to trust that I wouldn’t fall, I suddenly got up walls I thought I couldn’t do. I could try to reach that next hold or hang my full weight on one foot, even 40 feet off the mat.
The same is true with your startup team. If you don’t trust that they are with you, doing the right things, holding the rope for you, you spend more time worrying about what’s not happening instead of focusing on what moves you up towards your goal. Looking up is the key, not worrying about who’s doing what.
2. Strength is Good but Technique is Better – The easy climbs that beginners start on are almost like ladders. You have a series of nice holds, you go up step by step, and before you know it, you’re at the top. But once you get up a level or two, strength won’t take you to the top. Each climb has spots that require you to think, to use your whole body, and to work your angles to get in position to move up. Sure, if I had all the strength in the world I could pull myself up by my fingernails, but the harder the climb, the more your brain becomes your most important asset, not your muscles.
There is a mentality in the startup world about working hard. It’s practically a cult. If you’re not working 60-70 hours a week, you’re not really trying. But the truth is that more is not better. More hours don’t lead to smart work. It most often takes you to burnout, mistakes, and bad decisions.
3. There’s Always a Tough Bit – I have a moment in almost every climb where I’m pretty sure I can’t make it. I can see the next hold, but it’s too far, too small, or it requires me to leave this nice safe place I just got to. I get this feeling in my stomach that I can’t do it. I’m not strong enough, I’m out of breath, I might slip. I look down instead of up. Because it happens in every climb, I’ve realized that feeling is a lie. I can get past that spot, and when I do, I get to where I want to be. I could quit (and sometimes I do) but I know this is a temporary challenge and if I get over it, the road to the top is clear.
Every company, and sometimes every project has that moment. That sticky bit when it all starts to go off the rails. No plan survives contact with the enemy. Getting through the tough bit takes grit. It’s the people who don’t stop when it gets hard who make it to the top.
4. Plan, Try, Fail, Adapt, Try Again, Succeed – When I first started climbing more advanced routes, I would just launch up them like I had with the beginner climbs. I would get halfway up and find myself in an awkward spot with no clear path forward. In bouldering (lower climbs where you don’t need a harness and a rope), each route is called a “problem” and it’s typical at the gym to see people lying on the mats resting between attempts, gazing up at the route and mentally working through it. Look first. Plan what you think will work. It probably won’t work the first time, but then you can adapt and try again. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries, sometimes many, but eventually you get there.
In the startup space, this is called a pivot. Have a plan, fail fast, learn fast, adapt. It’s not so much about being right as about getting up and trying again.
5. There is No Competition – I was two thirds of the way up a route that I have never finished when I realized a woman at the bottom was watching me climb. I was stuck at a spot and trying some different grips to try and reach for a hold that was just a few inches too far. I got my fingers on it but couldn’t hold on, so I came off the wall and came back down. When I got to the bottom she said to me “I got stuck there too and I wanted to see what you were going to try.” It’s a common conversation – a mutual acceptance that we are all trying to figure each challenge out every time we go up. I feel great when I get to the top of a climb, but I never feel like I’m competing with anyone. Sure there are people who are better climbers, who have better technique, who are stronger, but they just climb different routes than I do.
This one is a little less true in business. There is competition, at least at a basic level. While everyone loves a wide open market, if no one is doing what you’re doing, it’s more likely than not that you are on the wrong track. But with that said, unless you are actively going after the same client at the same moment, there is more value in sharing information than worrying about how it could be used in a competitive way.. Finding people who are working in your space gives you the opportunity to learn new ideas and gain insights. No one succeeds working completely alone.
I’m here at the gym again, looking up at a climb that has kicked my ass three times. I’m not thinking about the rope. I’m not thinking about how sore my arms will be tomorrow. I’m not thinking about the person on the climb next to me who is half way up. I’m thinking about the top.