If You Want to Be Good at Something

Woman sitting on a bench overlooking Boulder, Colorado

Most people want to be good at something. They want to be like the characters they see on TV: doctors, fighter pilots, FBI agents, writers, musicians… all at the top of their game. Our social order is built around this type of obvious success. Wealth, influence, virtuosic skill that draws the attention of the many. A good number of us want to be good at making money, as this is a proxy for many other types of success. If you’re reading this blog, you probably dream of being a great climber, and choose to center your life around this goal.

But it has been my experience that people who are very good at things, the type of people who most of us look up to and admire for their excellence, are not necessarily the happiest people. Often the focus and determination required to be the best spring from a sort of restlessness, a dissatisfaction with oneself or one’s position in life. It is all too common for a person rich in possessions or achievements to suffer from a certain paucity of spirit. The major religions of the world tend to agree on this point, which is why they like to remind us that the king and the peasant are equal in the eyes of God or gods.

I have met few people who would say they strive first to be good at life. What do I mean by being good at life? I mean to be generally happy, to live by one’s own moral code as closely as possible, to be accepting of the world as it is and people as they are, to be comfortable in one’s own skin, to be balanced and stable yet not stubborn, to be honest with oneself and others, to see with eyes unclouded by fear and desire, etc. I think of a person who is good at life as one who, for no obvious reason, makes others feel at ease; a person who has a certain naturalness and realness. It’s a vague concept, I’ll admit. Like most things of true value, you can’t fully define it or directly measure it.

She who seeks to be good at life cultivates certain skills, I think: patience, self-awareness, the art of putting things in perspective. She should have empathy, without being easily swayed by others. Help others without neglecting herself. She must be flexible, fluid, adaptable. She must strive to improve without succumbing to the delusion of perfection (even the most finely crafted blade is a jagged mess when viewed under magnification). She seeks to learn when to hold fast and when to let go, and how to carry the profoundest things lightly in her heart.

When one endeavors to be good at life first, and good at everything else second, much becomes clear. (Although in practice they are typically parallel, and even interwoven, pursuits.) The world’s greatest baseball player might also abuse his spouse, seek competitive advantage through illegal drugs, or suffer from great egotism or rage. We would say this person excels in his sport, but not in his life. This seems like the most absurd of scenarios, but it is common, perhaps because there’s no organization dedicated to identifying and rewarding those who are skilled in the art of life. Scientists have the Nobel Prize, writers the Pulitzer. There are Emmys and Grammys and all manner of lifetime achievement award. But to win any of these is no guarantee at all of one’s aptitude for living.

It is a bit of common wisdom that one should set his own house in order before trying to change the world. Likewise that a person who does not love herself is handicapped when it comes to loving others. So it is with those who care only about being the best at some external thing while neglecting the internal—they have it backwards. How long should a person wait before turning attention to the real root of their problems? In Buddhism, it is said that our conscious understanding of this world is like a house on fire. As soon as we realize it’s on fire, we need to turn our efforts to getting out. There is nothing lasting for us there.

Academically rigorous minds will likely see these words as fluff… and maybe they are. It is only a sense I get; something I’ve noticed in my decades on this planet, trying to make sense of things. Still, it seems clear that if you want to be good at something, you should first aspire to be good at life, after which everything else will probably make more sense.

Goals vs. Process

goals-vs-process

Climbing is a funny game because it lends itself to a goal-focused mentality and at the same time requires us to be in the moment.

We climbers tend to go from one project to the next, often focusing on doing what’s needed to attain a specific end result. Through this constant project questing, we naturally enter moments of intense presence, when all the training and the preparation fades away into a flow experience.

But it’s easy to spoil the perfect simplicity of these in-the-moment moments when our goals loom up and influence decisions, stirring feelings of inadequacy or disappointment when things don’t go as planned. The goals seem so important, but instead of chasing them, I think life can be more satisfying and free when lived from a core understanding that guides each moment.

The nature of water as it interacts with gravity, earth, and stone is what dictates each twist and turn of a river. So too can our own nature, our own central principles, serve as guides for a sort of effortless action.

In the book Mindful Work, former Patagonia CEO Casey Sheahan describes a boyhood fly fishing lesson from company founder Yvon Chouinard:

“He got me to work on my casting, and slowing down, and working on an efficient, easy-to-perform cast as opposed to just going out and trying to hook a bunch of fish,” Sheahan said. “So if you focus on the process and get better at that, you will actually have a happy outcome. You’ll have a better process, and you will catch fish because you’re in tune with what’s happening in the water and your surroundings, instead of going out and just trying to catch fish.”

In other words, the less focused you are on a goal (catching fish, climbing a certain grade, making money, etc.), and the more engaged you are with the process, the more likely you are to achieve your goal. (Paradoxical, isn’t it? It conjures up the Chinese concept of wu wei, or the “flow state” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about.)

Fly fishing gives us a good metaphor for talking about ambition and goal-focused behavior, but I think Sheahan’s story is missing an important component: when your motivation comes from the right place, catching fish at all is not so important. Fish or no fish—send or no send—it’s still a “happy outcome” when your approach is grounded in process and in the moment.

This can be a particularly hard thing to embrace for a CEO, whose job is to make a business profitable, but really it’s hard for us all. If we’re not focused on goals, how do we know we’re improving? How do we judge ourselves against others? How do we know whether to be disappointed in ourselves or proud? The simple answer is, “we don’t.” But maybe that’s for the best… .

After all, what is today’s outcome but another step in an endless process? Where does the process stop and the goal begin? And if life is all process and no goal, what choice to we have but to make the most if it, every step of the way?

Big Goals, Little Goals

A boulderer strives to reach the hold on Round Room, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Photo - J. Roth / The Stone Mind

“The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
—Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel

We all have goals. We want to improve, be better, have more, do more… This is the natural state of affairs, especially here in the West. The opportunity strive, to rise above, to achieve greatness of stature and wealth—it’s the American dream, isn’t it? The reason so many immigrants have sought a life here…

At the same time, this goal-focused mind is also the source of a lot of problems. For many, having enough isn’t satisfactory. There is an excess of greed and thoughtless waste. On average, we’re wealthier than many other nations, but not necessarily happier with ourselves and our lives.

I think what’s happening is that many of us focus only on the next goal, the next want or need, without considering the foundational goals that are lifelong and fulfilling, that give lasting happiness instead of just a temporary fix. Constantly focusing our energy on small goals and their transient rewards, I’ve noticed, can lead us farther away from where we really want to be.

As a long-time rock climber, I’ve been striving to improve for over 20 years, always chasing some goal or other: a new grade, a particularly proud route, a powerful boulder problem… . When I’m not in shape, I feel a little frustrated and want to climb at least as I did when I was fitter. When I’m fit, I want to climb harder than ever before. Of course, at a certain point, I will climb the hardest route I’m ever going to climb. I’m not sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but I might have and don’t even know it. It would be hard to accept, but accept it I must—we all will peak and, in keeping with the basic rules of living, decline. What then? Will climbing no longer bring me happiness?

I don’t think people want to ask this question, or they’re come up with a funny answer to deflect the unpleasantness of it. But it’s worth asking, because it can put our motivations in a different context. Just as the man on his deathbed isn’t likely to say, “I only wish I could have bought more stuff,” so will we find few climbers facing their final hours saying, “If only I could have climbed one grade harder.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the desire to improve. There are many valuable lessons to be learned in the perfection of one’s craft. But it’s the fixation on the improvement, the numbers and personal bests, that can muddy our vision. It’s the gaining mindset, an addiction to the rush of accomplishment or accolades rather than a steady seeking of a deeper sense of fulfillment that a well-centered, lifelong practice can bring.

Sometimes I’m happy with my climbing performance, and some days I’m not as happy, but I always try to let those feeling pass through me and not hold on to them. Instead of seeking my satisfaction in the latest challenge, I try to let myself enjoy each day as it comes; to be comfortable with myself, my thoughts, and my mortality; to act in accordance with my beliefs and values. Like distant peaks, goals like these can seem impossibly large and far away, but when taken one moment at a time and one step at a time, the become more manageable.

In the end, climbing can lend itself to the goal-seeking mindset, but I think it can also can show us the way to larger understandings, to spiritual fulfillment, if you want to think of it in those terms. In his introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, Daisetz T. Suzuki explains that the practice of archery in Japan and other Eastern cultures is “not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but [is] meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”

Big, right? But by working tirelessly and in earnest for mastery for its own sake, without the desire to hit some specific target (or tick some grade), art forms like archery or climbing can afford us such contact.

If only we can learn to let go of the little goals that obscure the big ones.

Climbing Season

 

a climber crimping and a pair of hands typing on a keyboard

Years ago, a friend of the family and a very smart fellow gave me a book of short stories called Winesburg, Ohio. He handed the faded little Penguin paperback to me with a sense of reverence.

“I’ve been really into Sherwood Anderson lately. His prose is just amazing. I think you’ll really like it—the way it captures the lives of the people in this little Ohio town.”

That night, I read the first few pages and fell straight asleep. Nothing about the writing or the subject matter engaged me. I should have given the book back, but it slipped my mind and it ended up following me from state to state as I moved across the country. It’s been riding the pine on my bookshelf for some seven years now.

Last week, I picked up Winesburg, Ohio again for no particular reason. I’m not sure what changed since my first attempt, but now I was fascinated by the observations that Anderson put on the page. In the very first story, “The Book of the Grotesque,” I found this passage:

“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth became a falsehood.”

There was something going on here—something vague and barely graspable, yet deeply important—that was pushing through the surface of his words, and it immediately resonated with me. I felt I understood why my friend had given the book to me. But why hadn’t I seen it before, the first time I read the story?

I ran into an old friend at a party a few weeks ago and we started talking about climbing. No big surprise. As a Salt Lake climber who has worked in the outdoor industry for more than 10 years, that’s what most of the people at most of the parties I go to want to talk about.

“Yeah man, I’m just really psyched about climbing right now!” my old friend said. “I’m focused on climbing a lot and building a base and just ticking all the classics in the area.”

My friend’s sentiment stood out to me because not a week earlier, another acquaintance had, nearly verbatim, expressed the same thing: Focused. Stoked. Climbing.

I remember that feeling, when climbing was all I wanted to do. It was a good feeling. Pretty simple. Scaling rocks was the focus of my life, and I built my schedule and my budget around it. But these days, I’ve had a lot of other goals and interests (writing this blog, which is surprisingly time-consuming, being just one of them), and climbing is no longer the main character in my life; it plays a supporting, yet enduring, role.

There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes that goes something like, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Beyond skiing season, mountain biking season, or climbing season, I take this to mean that the interests and the goals in our life are bound to change, and this is natural. We might look back and the things we can’t image living without don’t mean as much, while the things that floated in the background, uninspiring, can suddenly rise to the surface and become significant.

Things change. Interests change, contexts change, relationships, passions, perspectives… . To those who close themselves off to new discoveries and cling too tightly to old beliefs, there’s a danger of becoming one of Anderson’s “grotesques.”

In a recent blog post, the writer Andrew Bisharat said, “I think it is OK to be open to changing up your interests. What is important is that you still find a way to have goals that remain relevant and interesting to your life. We are human beings first and our goals are simply supplements to our own weird journeys.”

I feel this sums it up nicely. The key to navigating the shifting landscape of life, as far as I can tell, is be open to the inevitable changes. It’s up to each of us to either reject and lament change, or to accept change as the wellspring it is—a constant source of energy and surprise.

Nothing Is Unpossible

Kristin after her run

The first time I talked my wife Kristin into going for a run with me, it was around the 1/4-mile high school track by our house in Boulder, Colorado. After the first lap, she had to take a break, partly due to the altitude (she’d just moved out from Philadelphia), and partly because she hadn’t done much in the way of physical activity in her 25 years of life. I don’t think we made it to a mile that day.

Despite at first hating that oh-so-special feeling of heart, lung, and leg exhaustion you get from running, Kristin didn’t give up. She felt it was important to get active and live a healthy life. Plus, we were in Boulder — it just felt natural to do as the Boulderites did.

Over the years, we had an on-again, off-again relationship with running, and Kristin eventually got fit enough to run three or four miles without keeling over. Then, about four months ago, unprompted, she declared she wanted to run 10 miles, whatever it might take. We Googled up a basic training program and started running four days a week, with increasingly longer runs on Sunday. We’d rise at 5:45am to beat the summer heat, pull on our shorts and lace up our shoes, and hit the road. The runs didn’t always feel great while we were doing them, but we always felt refreshed afterward and into the workday. Kristin got hooked on that feeling, the way most people do if they stick with running for long enough.

Just over a month ago, we made it to eight miles, but then Kristin tweaked her foot. She finished her run that day but could barely walk the final block back to our house. She was despondent, afraid she’d never get to her goal. “Maybe my body isn’t made to run 10 miles,” she moped.

We started up running again last week. We ticked off one three-miler and then, on Sunday, halfway into a planned four miles, we decided to just go for it. Nearly two hours later, we finished the elusive Mile 10.

We certainly didn’t break any speed records that day, but we finished, and pretty much off the couch, too. I know: people run 100 miles across Death Valley in the summer, so in the scheme of things, our 10 miles was not what you’d call a “big deal,” but what’s important is that Kristin set a goal for herself, a goal that at the time seemed distant, and she worked until she met it. Sunday’s run was, for her, one big step towards learning to ignore the niggling gremlins of self-doubt that plague us all. Genuine confidence (and, dare I say, happiness) is built on a foundation of moments when you did what you set out to do — when you did more than you thought you could.

Sure, I’m happy — I haven’t run 10 miles in many a year — but I am most proud of Kristin. She is now 10 miles closer to understanding that, with hard work, confidence, and a willingness to just fucking try, all things are possible; nothing is unpossible.

The only question now is, which half-marathon should we do?

Chris Sharma and the Difficult Balance

Letting Go: Chris Sharma and Mark Coleman from Prana Living on Vimeo.

“Some of these things are so difficult, I have to want it more than anything else in the world. It has to mean so much. But that can work against me…”
— Chris Sharma

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, although the title of this blog comes from a Zen story, I’m no Buddhist. Like a bird building a nest from odd scraps and detritus, I take only the parts of Buddhist philosophy I need and leave the rest. The concept in Buddhism that seems to resonate most with me is the lesson of non-attachment.

In the video above, there’s this exchange between Chris Sharma and “Mindful Living Ambassador” Mark Coleman:

Coleman: You’re balancing the intense desire…to achieve something — but as you say you can’t do that and be tight, because it just contracts everything: body, mind, and your climbing — so how do you balance holding a goal, and at the same time not being attached.

Sharma: It’s a difficult balance, because, if you don’t take it seriously, then why even try so hard?

Here the riddle of greatness is stated clearly. And, of course, the video never actually answers any questions, only identifies the challenge. “It’s a difficult balance,” says Sharma. He probably strikes it more often than most, and yet he cannot express how to strike it. It is something you must seek without seeking. You must care, and work, and try… and then it just happens.

In Zen, similarly, to reach enlightenment is the goal, but the means of reaching it involve not focusing on the goal. Like Zen koans, the logical inconsistency is uncomfortable to the brain, like an Escher print. However, with assiduous practice and constant repetition, one can enter the state of doing without trying.

Chris Sharma at RocTrip China
Chris Sharma at Petzl RocTrip China

Many classic Zen stories identify a moment of sudden awakening. For example: a monk is walking through the market and overhears a conversation between butcher and customer. The customer asks which cut of meat is the best. The butcher answers that they are all the best; he carries no cut that is not the best. And with that, the monk is enlightened. (So simple, but what the story doesn’t mention is the many years the monk would have spent in a state of constant effort, trying to understand the nature of existence.)

In my life, I try to hold many goals in mind, but to hold them lightly. A violinist should not clutch his bow, nor a painter her brush. Similarly, to make use of our bodies, we must practice letting go, loosening ourselves until we are pliable like a reed and not stiff like a dry old stick. In climbing, constant tension is the enemy, always defeating us on our way to the top. In life, too, a constant clenching of the mind is self-defeating.

To know this intellectually is simple — just a matter of linking one word to the next. But to live it every moment, now that truly is a difficult balance.