The hardest thing I ever climbed took me probably 50 tries to finish. It was a boulder problem in the woods of New York, and from start to finish it couldn’t have been more than 15 feet long. Each hold was so small and each move so strenuous that I would frequently spend a whole afternoon just trying to puzzle out one little section.
The irony wasn’t lost on me when, after finishing this climb at the very outer limit of my skill level, I turned and walked down to ground level via the boulder’s sloping backside.
I could have easily walked up this backside in sneakers and ended up in the same spot I got to through weeks of concerted effort directed at the overhanging face. A non-climber might see this and think I had wasted my time, and from a practical standpoint, he’d be right.
But really, the thing that makes any climb worth the time has got to be the challenge. The challenge itself, often viewed as an obstacle, is the source of something deeper. It’s the tool we use to dig into ourselves and find that beating, luminous core.
Things that don’t challenge us often bore us. Art that’s merely pretty is decoration; art that challenges can transform. A job that challenges us is engaging; while one that requires little thought or special effort is monotonous.
Luckily, as with that boulder problem I tangled with, we can find challenges almost anywhere, even where easier paths already exist. The challenge isn’t necessarily inherent to a thing or an act, but is something we create for ourselves.
In the book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about an assembly line worker who sets challenges for himself that allow deep engagement in his very repetitive job. In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we follow master chef Jiro Ono, who has dedicated his every breath to the perfection, tiny step by tiny step, of the art of sushi making. Both used the challenge of continuous improvement to generate a deeper sense of significance in what could also be seen as workaday employment.
We climbers are sometimes criticized for our obsession with quantifiable improvement, also known as number chasing—indeed, I think a grasping mindset can easily become detrimental to balance and happiness—but most of us are just looking for a well-matched challenge. It’s that feeling of total focus that takes us out of ourselves and while teaching us about ourselves… that fully engages us with the act of living.
As climbers, we choose the hard way not because we’re masochists, but because the path of most resistance is often the fastest route to our true objectives.