Enjoying the journey – reflections on learning

After I climbed my first 7a last year, I had a little bit of a rough patch with my climbing. I got into a mindset where whenever I found myself struggling on what should be an easier climb, I’d get discouraged. “I shouldn’t be finding this hard, it’s only a 6b…” or “I know I can climb better than this, why am I getting worse?” If I was falling off something that I thought “ought” to be within my capability, it felt a bit embarrassing.

Eventually I realised that this wasn’t doing my climbing any good, and the pressure I was putting on myself was (at worst) sucking the joy out of it, and (at best) making me anxious about getting out of my comfort zone. I reminded myself that climbing one 7a, on one occasion doesn’t mean I should be able to do that (or even get close to it) every time I get on the rock. It’s one thing to be able to do one particular climb, on a good day, after a lot of practice. But to get good at anything there are going to be bad days as well as good ones along the way. There are going to be times I’m falling off the easy stuff and wondering what’s going on.

So for a while now, I’ve been trying not to think about grades so much. Instead, I started asking myself “is this climb challenging me?” If it was, it didn’t matter how hard it was supposed to be on paper, I was still learning something. I stopped worrying so much about completing every climb, and told myself that spending an afternoon working on a project that I didn’t manage to finish wasn’t an afternoon wasted; it was all good training even if I didn’t get a tick in my logbook.

This is a stage that feels familiar from learning other skills (I’m thinking of maths, music and combat sports in particular). Having a specific goal to aim for can certainly be a useful tool to focus my efforts during parts of the journey, but my experience is that spending too much time chasing performance goals and putting myself under pressure all the time, can lead to a skillset that’s unbalanced and, ironically, brittle under pressure.

Collecting enough experience to be able to deal confidently with all the scenarios you’re likely to come across takes more time than we sometimes allow for. On the occasions when the situation plays to our strengths, we might feel great; other days when we come up against our weak spots, it can feel like we’re getting worse rather than better. Wanting to avoid that feeling often leads us to avoid challenging our weaknesses.

Anyhow, this weekend I finally managed to climb my second 7a. It’s been a fair while coming. In between, I’ve climbed a whole bunch of other stuff, and improved my route reading, fitness and confidence on the rock. I’m definitely a better all round climber even if I haven’t yet had the results to show for it. There’s a lot to be said for just spending time enjoying an activity, without getting caught up too much in measurement and results.

The note to self (and anyone else who might find it useful) is that next time you’re doing something and your brain is distracting you with commentary about how you “shouldn’t” be finding it this difficult, or worrying about performance, just ask “is this challenging me?”. As long as it is, carry on. How hard it “should” be doesn’t matter.

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