What rock climbing teaches me about success and failure

I spend a lot of my free time rock climbing. And when I’m not climbing, I’m certainly thinking about it.

Sending, footwork, calluses, heel hooks, crimps, bailing, dynos, shoe pain, belaying, chalk.

Those thoughts get tied up in the concepts of success and failure pretty regularly (meaning all the time). Here’s what climbing 3+ times a week since May 2017 has taught me.

Falling is not failure

If your definition of success while climbing is never falling, you aren’t climbing hard enough. Climbers who consider falling and failure to be synonyms are kind of missing the point. Just because you fall doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

The best climbers in the world fall over and over again! But they certainly aren’t failures. They just know that falling is part of the process and vital for figuring out a problem/route.

So I’ve had to rethink falling. Because if I only thought that success occurs if I don’t mess up, I would have quit trying a long time ago.

Anna lead climbing wearing an orange Petzl harness and a white Petzl helmet in Rock Canyon in Provo, Utah.

Falling isn’t failure, though it certainly is inevitable. So instead of saying “I’m never going to fall” or “If I fall,” I say things like, “When I fall…”

  • I’m going to do it safely.
  • I’m going to try again.
  • I’m going to try something different.
  • I’m going to ask for help.

Notice that it’s WHEN and not IF. Because you will fall. And that’s okay. You get to keep trying and know at least one more way something doesn’t work. That’s progress.

You don’t achieve anything alone

In sport climbing especially you really can’t get anywhere without your climbing partner. You need someone to catch you when you fall. Even in bouldering you often have a spotter.

Your partner can give you beta, help you physically figure out the moves, remind you what to do when you’re on the wall, or simply offer words of encouragement. That’s all part of your success.

And that’s what makes climbing great. You can be high up but still know you have a great support system on the ground.

Anna climbing in Rock Canyon in Provo Utah while a friend belays from below.

Even if you don’t have someone directly helping you solve a problem or complete a project now, somewhere along the way you were taught, supported, or encouraged. Your achievements were made possible because you had some help along the way.

Recognizing the help I’ve received in climbing, even if it wasn’t from a person (I’ve gotten help from books, videos, and blog posts) helps remind me how good the world really is. It helps me identify the help I’ve received in other aspects of my life too.

Sending a problem or getting through the crux is cool, but looking back and acknowledging what helped me get there makes it even better.

It’s your climb

How you make it up a wall is up to you. Sure, you may have a belayer or spotter at the bottom to encourage or help you. But they’re really only there to catch you. You have to figure out how to execute the moves in a way that works for you.

Getting there, unfortunately, means you can quickly fall into patterns of comparison. It’s easy to find yourself comparing your abilities or progress to that of other climbers.

  • “Everyone else flashed it so easy.”
  • “She didn’t get scared and have to downclimb.”
  • “He never struggles with topping out.”
  • “Both of them started climbing V3 way before I did.”

Anna bouldering in Joe's Valley with Organic Climbing crash pads below her.

We compare ourselves to others in the name of motivation. We see someone else’s progress and achievements and use their benchmarks as our own. And then we get mad and sad and frustrated when we don’t measure up. We forget that someone else’s success doesn’t diminish our own — there is not a finite amount of success in the world.

Yes, we need standards and goals. But trying to follow exactly how someone else did something will only help you in the short term. Their choices or achievements can give you context, but ultimately you need to tailor your progress to you.

It’s your climb.

How you do a move or complete a route is specific to you. How quickly you move between grades is specific to you. How your body and brain work is specific to you.

I am not a failure simply because it took me multiple sessions to figure out a problem that all my friends figured out the first day it went up in the gym.

I am not a failure because I chose to downclimb on a route instead of finishing it even though I just saw a stranger finish it easily.

I am not a failure because I didn’t send a single problem on a bouldering trip.

It’s my climb.

Anna bouldering in Moe's Valley in St. George, Utah on Jabberwock Arete.

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