Climbing Up: Finding The Life Lessons In Rock Climbing

For a few years now, I have been naively proclaiming that I wanted to try rock climbing.  This summer, I finally crossed it off my list of things I wanted to do, and it's safe to say I will likely not be scaling slab again for a while. Let me be clear for all you outdoor enthusiasts, I respect your tolerance and love of outdoor adventure.  However, I am more comfortable in heels than in the middle of the wilderness. So, for me, this was a bit outside the box.  It was challenging, scary, and surprisingly enlightening.

I had a vision of climbing that consisted of multiple rocks, jagged and protruding, to which I would rather easily leverage my feet and climb.  You know, Catwoman style, the way Hollywood promises. Reality check: I was climbing a single rock wall, or slab really, that was steep and lacking the jagged leverage that I had imagined.  This giant piece of slab had me hanging on for dear life with my hands and feet, relying on the cracks and crevices that weren't as accommodating as I had hoped.  

A few seconds into starting my climb, I found myself dumbfounded.  Not only was this more difficult than I had imagined, I realized there was nowhere for my feet.  I had moved beyond the larger cracks in the slab and was now hanging on this concrete with no plan for getting up.  My friend and novice climber calmly explained, "Climb with your head, plan your next step, take your time..."  

I looked up and there it was: the distance between me and the top of the rock.  It was extraordinary.  I was 100 percent certain that this little shenanigan where I pretended to climb slab was over.  My conversation with myself went something like this..."This is ##$%#*# ridiculous.  Why the hell do people do this?!  Game over!" And the truth is, for most of my life it would have ended here.  I would have stopped the climb, come down from the rock, and never given it a second thought.  But this is not most of my life; this is now, and the person I have decided to be is someone who pushes past fear.  Sometimes I want to kick my own ass for committing to this new lease on life, and this was certainly one of those times. But I hesitantly moved forward and as usual, pushing through the fear proved well worth it.  

The profane conversation in my head was quickly drowned out by my deeper self, who gently and calmly told me to listen to my friend, take a second and plan the next step. "Don't look up, don't look down, just find the next crack and figure out the best way to get there."  This new conversation with myself wasn't strategic, it wasn't from on high, it was my only option for moving forward.  It's the part of yourself that kicks in when you have to focus all your energy on what is happening in the immediate moment.  This was my way through the fear. One step at a time, I planned my move, attempted to scale a little higher. Even when it was a bad move, my only option was to plan another step and try a different approach. 

After repeating this pattern for what felt like hours, but was likely 15 minutes, I paused, looked down, looked up, and was shocked that I was almost to the top.  I mean truly, shocked. Not that cliché exaggerated "I can't believe it" shocked.  I mean the "Holy @#$%, there is no way I climbed that far... someone else took over my body... this is insane" kind of shocked.

Of course I felt that proverbial sense of accomplishment that accompanies meeting any challenge that pushes us beyond what we believe we are capable of.  But even more significant was the way in which this climb represented one of my biggest limitations in life. I often get consumed with the magnitude of the space between where I want to be and where I find myself in the moment. I can see the big picture and thus, I can see the millions of steps in between.  That “one day at a time" thing is incredibly challenging for an impatient big-picture gal. 

Time and again, I focus too much on the final spot and forget about the sweetness of my step. Writing a book becomes a mind game of how on earth I could write so many pages.  Building a website involves a frustrated fit about how much technological knowledge I still need to learn. Even cleaning the house can become a distraction game where I see a larger snapshot of a million drawers and corners that need my attention.

In the past, this distance became my roadblock.  I would stop the climb, not because I couldn't handle the step, but because I couldn't handle looking at the distance still left to climb.  I would decide that I had taken on a task/dream/idea that was way to out of my reach.  I greatly underestimated the real power of my step. 

I did not make it up that rock because I am physically stronger than I used to be.  I didn't make it up that rock because I am a fearless person. I am no different than anyone else.  I was scared for most of the climb (although with each step my fear subsided a bit).  I still made the mistake of staring too long at the top and calculating the magnitude of the journey. However, this time, I had been flexing my single-step muscle, and trusting that the steps would cumulatively move me forward to new experiences, new joys and real change. And of course, in all honesty, there is nothing like hanging off a piece of slab to force you into the moment.

I have found that I am not alone in this big-picture tendency. Students, friends, and clients often share with me their desires of switching careers, starting a new hobby, moving to a new town, chasing a dream...When asked why they haven't begun moving toward this change, people often begin to list the millions of steps to reach the top. It makes sense that we want to see where we are going so we can figure out how to get there. But we tend to live in the future and ignore the power of that single step to the next crack.  And we need that step.  It shows us where we are strongest and where it feels unstable.  It teaches us what works and what doesn't.  It builds our confidence and helps us to gain the experience we need to stand atop the higher point.     

When I reached the top of the rock, I was overwhelmed with the intensity of this reminder.  When I am patient and trust myself to take just a single step, and then another, I am able to climb walls that seemed insurmountable from the bottom.  Consistency in tiny steps leads to new joys, achieved goals, and, perhaps most importantly, desired change.  Real change.  Not the "change your life in one week" kind of change.  Not the "get a new body in one month" kind of change.  The kind of change that is slow, steady, tiny, and cumulative. The kind of change that is empowering. 

It's a change that lasts because we allow ourselves to learn the lessons needed to be a better climber. Each step teaches us how to stand firmer. We adjust a little at a time, and though the exhilaration may not be as intense as leaping, Catwoman style, to the top, the power gained from the process is irreplaceable.  I was reminded that I don't need to become obsessed with the top.  I don't need to count the steps between where I am and where I want to be.  I need to simply climb with my head, look for the next crack, and have the courage to move toward it.

Dr. Erin Foley is a STRONG life coach and professional speaker. This post originally appeared here on her blog.   Sign up for a free coaching session today and take the first step toward building a life that feels meaningful, happy and STRONG.  For more information, visit