The Book of Changes

A flaming log in a campfire.

“Blaming life for changing is like blaming fire for being hot.” I wrote this in my freshman year of college, in an email to my good friend Mike. We were attending schools in different states and had sought out a correspondence to deal with the newness of it all. Both of us were facing what felt like overwhelming changes at the time. We were out from under the watch of our parental units and confronted with all manner of unfamiliar responsibilities and scenarios.

I don’t recall what my point was exactly with that platitude about fire; it was the kind of thing I’d spout in a moment of poetic reverie without fully understanding why. Now though, nearly two decades on, it makes a certain kind of sense to me. Heat can cause problems—it can burn—but it is essential to the thing we call fire, inseparable, and also what makes it useful. Likewise, the mercurial natural of this ride we call life… let’s just say it’s pointless to take offense at such things.

These remembrances of things past come easily to mind of late, I think, because change looms large on my horizon. In a week, my wife and I will leave behind our little blue bungalow in Salt Lake City and move to the California coast, just a few hours north of Los Angeles. I’ll be moving on from Petzl, where I’ve worked happily for almost six years, to Patagonia, a company whose story I’ve been following with interest for over a decade. My wife and our dog will stand as constants, along with some furnishings and sundry books and artifacts, but not much else. Just life doing that change thing again. The funny thing about change is, even when you recognize its inevitability, it’s bound to catch you off guard.

The first response most of us have to change is fear. Change is scary in the same way darkness is—we can’t see what lies ahead, and so we fill in the blanks with phantasms of our own making. But it’s important to remember that there’s no real alternative to change. The things we identify with and attach ourselves to are bound to shift, evolve, and eventually fade away, one way or another. (In Buddhism, this concept is known as anicca, or impermanence, and it’s one of the three marks of existence.) A static world in which we can hold on to anything, even ourselves, exists only as a philosophical concept. Change, ironically, is the one constant we can count on.

So, with that in mind, I’m working to let go of the dualities my brain is trying to bring to this latest set of changes—the pros and cons, the fears and desires. Instead I try to focus on each step in the process and let the change happen, as it will whether I welcome it or not. The past is a memory and the future is a dream—what happens in between is an infinitesimal point that flickers and dances like a flame. The truth of this condition can only be experienced, not intellectually understood nor directly expressed. Some things never change.

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?

About A Blog: Splitter Choss on Cerro Torre

The wind-blasted beauty of Cerro Torre

I am constantly adding snippets to my running list of blog ideas. In this quest, I enlist the help of handy apps like Evernote and Google Docs, pen and paper, and even voice memos. It’s a long list with a few good thoughts and lots of junk. And, of course, not all of the ideas will come to fruition. Ideas are easy; it’s the execution that’s difficult. And then there are those times when someone just beats you to the punch. Such is the way of things.

One of the ideas on my list that actually got my pot percolating had to do with the controversy surrounding Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk’s recent bolt-choppery on the wind-blasted, knife-blade of a Patagonian peak known as Cerro Torre. (Read the dynamic duo’s manifesto official statement here.) I won’t go into detail, but basically, a climber named Cesare Maestri attempted to climb Cerro Torre in the 1970s, using a compressor-powered drill to pepper the immaculate granite wall with bolts. The route, in honor of his technique, is called the Compressor Route. This bolting spree has pretty universally been accepted as wrong, as it scarred the rock and all but ruined the climb for any future climbers who might want to do it using cleaner (i.e, much less bolt-y) means. Fast forward to 2012: two young tough guys climbed the Compressor Route (relatively) cleanly and then pulled out a bunch of Maestri’s bolts. Seems simple enough, but a heated debate followed nonetheless.

The controversy is, in the truest sense of the term, a tempest in a teapot. Climbers on the Internet have tripped over themselves in a effort to share their opinions on the topic, most of whom, as Kelly Cordes pointed out in his most-excellent appraisal of the situation, never have and never will lay a finger on Cerro Torre. Meanwhile, to non-climbers, the “ethical” debate over bolting must be confusing (at best) and, at worst, trite.

With many experts who know far more of this topic than I ever will having already weighed in, I reasoned the only value I could add would be an tongue-in-cheek explanation for non-climbers or climbers who just can’t stand to take things like this so seriously. Then, of course, BJ over at splitterchoss.com beat me to it:

Cerro Torre For Dummies & Non-Alpinists : Splitter Choss.

My favorite paragraph from the Splitter Choss post:

People leave the controversial route in place, because it’s much easier to get to the top using all the bolt ladders. Over time it becomes generally accepted, even though everyone knows it’s wrong, like porn, or watching American Idol.

I guess I can’t complain — I still managed to make a post (of sorts) on the topic, even if it is a blog about a blog. I’ll cross the idea off my list and start working on the next one. Such is the way of things.