Routesetting Wu Wei

Holds and an impact driver for routesetting - The Stone Mind

We Petzl employees are lucky enough to have a bouldering wall at our Salt Lake City offices, and sometimes a few of us use our lunch breaks to put up holds. During one such lightning setting round, I noticed we had a surplus of one particular kind of hold: a rounded, pad-and-a-half edge colored like the marbled paper I used to make in elementary school art class. On a whim, I grabbed all the marbled edges and went to work on a traverse.

My lunch break drawing to an end, I slapped up the edges in a hurry, with only the loosest sense of the moves I wanted to create. In a state of “flow,” I bolted on all the handholds in five minutes, then nabbed a box of foot jibs and sprayed those up even more quickly. Certain I’d have to do some serious editing to this hastily crafted route, I grabbed my chalk bag to give it a test run.

Right away I was surprised. Everything flowed better than I suspected. I hadn’t pictured every detail of the climb, but was pulled by an intuition of the moves as I set them. The result, I think, was a more complete representation of my intent than I could have reasoned out with precise planning and goal-oriented forethought.

In routesetting as in climbing, the best performances often come when following our instincts. First we must assiduously practice our art of choice, of course, but then, when given the appropriate circumstances, we can go beyond what we could have done by willful action alone. Many view this state as the unification of body and mind or even self and universe. Ultimately, this idea of acting without striving or “non-doing” (wu wei) is a cornerstone of Eastern religions, from Hinduism to Taoism to Buddhism.

One of my favorite Zen stories, “The First Precept,” deals with this concept nicely:

The Obaku temple in Kyoto has a carving over the gate which says “The First Principle”. The 200-year-old carving, with exceptionally large letters, is admired by many as a masterpiece of calligraphy. It is the work of Kosen, the master carver.

Kosen would sketch the letters on paper and they would be carved on wood by his workmen. Now, Kosen had a rather audacious student who prepared large quantities of ink for his master. He was often very critical of his master’s technique.

“Not good enough!” said he, about Kosen’s first attempt.
“How about this one?” asked Kosen after his second drawing.

“That’s worse than the previous one!” exclaimed the bold pupil.
Kosen wrote out eighty-four sheets of “The First Principle”, but none met with the student’s approval. Then the young man stepped out of the room for a few minutes. Kosen thought to himself “Here’s my chance to escape his sharp eye!” Freed of distraction, he hurriedly wrote “The First Principle.”

The student returned. “Brilliant! A masterpiece,” he exclaimed.

It’s so simple: we practice with intention again and again, always weighted down by the desire for a particular outcome. Then, eventually, we find ourselves freed from the desire for whatever reason, and we are able to act from a deeper place. You might say this place is within us, or that its part of some underlying force (the tao), or that they are one and the same. Regardless…

So what’s the lesson then? That to do our best, we must let go of the desire to do our best. It’s another of those pesky puzzles that reason can’t solve. Words can only point us towards the answer, but as the old Zen saying goes, “Don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Instead, quiet the conscious mind and let the answer appear.

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?