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.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio, Via Appia, Rome, Italy

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
– Steve Jobs

Free soloing is by all measures a contentious practice. Climbing without ropes at a height guaranteed to be lethal stirs up all manner of controversy amongst climbers and flatlanders alike. The main charge leveled against the free-soloist is that of irresponsibility. Specific critiques include:

  • The soloist does not really understand what he is risking. Here is the assumption that most soloists can’t truly feel or understand how close they come to death. The common image is of a person who is brave as long as his illusion of invulnerability goes unchallenged, but as soon as this bubble is burst, a fear and regret will take hold. If only they really understood the risk, they would not solo. (See the comments on this thread as an example)
  • The soloist is suicidal or otherwise lacks respect for his own life. In this light, soloing is cast as an act of sadness, desperation, or (most condemnably) selfishness, disregard for the living who will be left behind to mourn.
  • The soloist makes trouble for the rest of us. If a climber gets stuck or falls to his death, search and rescue professionals will be dispatched. In the course of their job, it is possible that they also will be injured or killed, and even if they escape unharmed, just think of the financial cost! (An example here)
  • The soloist sets a bad example. For the impressionable of all ages among us, the soloist (and the media enamored of such feats) offers a dangerous message: climbing sans protection is the purest form of the art, the most exciting, and the most impressive. The soloist’s actions, especially high-profile climbers like  Alex Honnold, John Bachar, Peter Croft, Michael Reardon, Dan Osman, etc., entice others less skilled to give it a shot, often without a good understanding of what it is they’re actually doing. (Another example here)

But for all these complaints, many of which contain facets both valid and poorly reasoned, the real source of free soloing’s taboo lies in the observer as much as in the soloist. The free soloist is a living memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality and the fine line that divides life from death. We are attracted to the spectacle of the free soloist as an act of freedom, but at the same time it’s easy to be offended by it — we picture our children, spouses, or friends similarly risking everything. We want to be safe. We want our loved ones to be safe. Mortality is something we are loath to face.

The Latin phrase memento mori can be traced to ancient Rome. The Romans believed that awareness of mortality helped instill humility, important for a prudent life. It was adopted by early Christians as a way to warn us off sins of the transient flesh and keep us focused on the afterlife. In either case, contemplation on death was accepted as an important part of life. (Little wonder, considering life expectancy in those days was less than half what it is today.) Up through the 20th century in America, it was not unusual for families to keep close quarters with the deceased, washing and tending to their bodies and housing them until the burial took place.

Today, most of us are spared the sight of death and dying. The modern medical system transports the sick and elderly to sterile rooms as the end of life draws near. When an accident occurs, victims are immediately shuttled to the hospital or morgue. When my girlfriend, now wife, and I encountered the corpse of a fallen climber in the Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, it was as if a curtain was pulled aside. A stark patch of drying blood and awkwardly twisted limbs lay before us. We had never seen anything like this firsthand. Later, it struck me as odd; surely people were dying — of old age, of disease, in accidents or homicides — around us every day. How was it they had been so effectively hurried out of view? Kristin and I were eager to move on and forget the incident at the time, but in retrospect, it seems somehow valuable — the original and once ubiquitous memento mori.

I choose not free solo myself; it grips me with an almost paralytic fear and offers little joy in return. And as someone who knows many climbers who free solo at varying levels of difficulty, I admittedly feel a sadness at the thought of losing my friends and acquaintances. But the memento mori reminds us of our shared and universal fate. When we lose sight of this, it becomes all to easy to imagine ourselves living forever, or that our success and wealth will somehow shield us from mortality. Death is the ultimate context, and we must live and act accordingly, whatever that means for each of us.

In the end, the motivations of the free soloist, just like the motivations of any individual in any walk of life, will vary greatly. It is certainly possible for a person to solo out of a desire to end it all. Or to solo without fully understanding the risks at hand. But it is just as possible to solo out of joy, because proximity to death makes the act of living all the more vibrant … or just because it feels right.

In ancient Rome, the memento mori was meant to warn against hubris. In the Christian conception, it played a moralizing role. Perhaps in our time, one in which death is held, for as long as possible,  at a “safe” remove, the image of the soloist — or anyone who risks his or her life for reasons not immediately evident — serves as a reminder not just of our own precariousness, but also that there is no time to waste.

Like any concept, Memento mori implies its own opposite — in this case the phrase memento vivere, “remember to live.” Remember to live particularly because we must die. It’s funny to think that we need such reminders, but, especially now, we do.

Farewell, Summer Weekend. Adieu.


Scarcity can create value, any economist will tell you, and so it is with weekends. The working stiff must wedge into two days all the daydreams (and, alas, the chores and obligations, too) accumulated in the course of the workweek. Thus, each weekend hour is heavy with possibility, dense and precious as a gold doubloon. And of all the year’s weekends, the summer weekend, with its broad swaths of daylight and its jovial warmth, is perhaps the most precious of all. It beckons us to backyard cookouts, jaunts into the high mountains or wind-combed beaches.

But take note! As you read this, there remains but one last weekend to the year’s warmest season. In the northern hemisphere, the astronomical summer meets its end on Friday, the 21st of September. As the sun sets on this final sunny summer Sunday, who could but pine for more days of freedom? ‘Tis understandable, but as one wise old wanderer once scribbled in his leather-bound journals, “Waste not your precious minutes lamenting the weekend’s brief respite! Instead, cherish what time ye do have.”

With that in mind, I’ve here compiled a much-abridged inventory of those things that make me impatient for the next weekend before this one be yet over. I’d much appreciate it if you’d add to this list with your own favorite summer weekend things in the comments below.

  1. Ignoring your alarm clock, set for the typical and ungodly workday hour, and sinking back into sleep until sunlight fills your room.
  2. Having the time to take your dog for a long walk to an open field and play fetch; the sight of your dog’s tongue lolling out of his mouth, flicking slobber pearls onto the dry earth; satisfaction as he flops onto the cool grass in the shade of a tree.
  3. The long breakfast. Or even brunch.
  4. An unhurried tie-in for the first climb of the morning, complimented by the smell of chalk, pine, sun-warmed lichen on stone.
  5. The midday nap in the shade, preferably in a hammock or in the grass with your head propped on a pack.
  6. A beer chilled in a cold stream after a long day on the rocks, or perhaps a late-night whisky, neat, imbibed out-of-doors and containing, faintly reflected, the 300 billion (give or take) stars of the Milky Way.
  7. Grillin’.
  8. Tomatoes from the garden, sun-warm.
  9. Spending a whole afternoon reading that book that’s been loitering on the bedstand.
  10. Orange mocha Frappuccino™!
  11. Just before leaving for a weekend trip, you check to see that the front door is locked one last time. Then, that moment when you turn towards your car and see your travelin’ companion in the passenger seat, shades on, head nodding rhythmically to this song.
  12. Storm clouds billowing up into their customary anvil shape, as if taking a deep breath to blow slanting rain and lightning bolts down onto the earth. Also, the alien yellow-green light that precedes these storms.
  13. Meandering campfire discussions with friends, punctuated by the wood’s fiery crackle, your faces lit from below.
  14. Flip flops.
  15. Sitting down to work on a piece of writing in the afternoon and not lifting your head until your wife turns on the light in the now-dark room and gently asks, “Will you be ready to eat, soon? It’s getting late…