12 Career Lessons From Rock Climbing

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I landed in Thailand equipped with the desire to experience this beautiful country and to learn something new.

I also knew which places to visit and what to learn. The places were Bangkok and Tonsai. And I was about to learn Rock Climbing.

You can read about what this challenge meant here

In short, my desire to learn rock climbing was linked to stepping out of my comfort zone and to check whether this sport had any tips on building a great career. After all, they say a great career is about climbing the corporate ladder.
It seemed like lady luck was traveling with me on this trip. Almost as immediately as I reached Ton Sai, a young Swiss rock climber crossed paths with me and agreed to adopt me as his student.

The two weeks where I hung out with a multi-national, multi-skilled group were among the best in my life. My tryst with rock climbing wasn’t an easy one. But my personal struggle is a different story.

As we used our bodies to ascend climbing routes and then chatted about our experiences, one thing was clear. I was not wrong about rock climbing’s lessons to build a career.

The lessons are not exhaustive, neither are they cast in stone. But if these do give you some workable career tips, my efforts would be worthwhile.

  1. Your Life, Your Goals:

It is easy to have unrealistic expectations looking at others when you start learning to rock climb.

What keeps it real is your evaluation of your own strengths and weaknesses. Because it is your body and you know it better than others on how much you can push it. And it is your mind; you know what level of stress it can manage.

That is how you create your own goals linked to your intrinsic ability.

More often than not in our work life, we compare ourselves with others and forget focusing on our own desires, strengths & weaknesses. Hence we set unrealistic goals. So we want to be CEO because someone else is. Or may be choosing a field just because it pays someone you know really well.

We fail to realise that most of the times we play by others’ rules to get disappointed & disillusioned later.

Be an amateur rock climber. Choose your goals linked to your intrinsic desire and ability. Stay away from becoming a subconscious slave to others’ achievements or abilities.

2. Success Is Determined By The Goals You Set

Most rock climbers are always trying to improve their level. They go from relatively easier routes to the tougher ones. That happens because consciously or sub consciously they are setting goals. It is common to hear a rock climber say ‘I am going to do this 7A soon’, while he/she might still be on 6C(a kind of climbing grade easier than 7A). This is goal setting. He then starts visualizing himself climbing this difficult route and creating strategies for it.

The point is without setting a climbing goal, most climbers won’t get better. Or probably will not even learn to climb.

Similarly, the best way to build a career is to have goals. Your goals might be vague in the beginning. But it is important to have an idea where you want to reach in x no. of years and then break it down into short term goals. Many co-workers in my previous jobs did not have career goals. All they wanted is the promotion in the next appraisal. These were the same set of people who would then get disappointed early on in their work life.

Like becoming a legendary rock climber, building a fabulous career is a long term process. It is only goal setting that actually helps you make more than just default progress.

3. Trust Is Really Important

Rock climbing does come across as an individualistic sport, but is not. It is a pretty social and in fact even a team activity. While you climb, someone belays you. That is the person who is holding the rope to your safety.

As a rock climbing aspirant or experienced climber, one needs to trust both the rope and the belayer. Because if you don’t trust, your time on the rocks is spent worrying than actually ascending.

Most times at work our success is linked to the team’s success and vice versa. A great camaraderie, mutual trust and respect amongst team members are an absolute must for anyone who wants to unlock his/her potential.

Rock climbing taught me that you choose people with whom you develop a comfort level and then you trust them. If you aren’t able to trust your team, then you either do something to change that or quit that team.

Imagine you are at a work place where you feel your values are not aligned with those of your colleagues. Then you either work to change the situation or quit that job. Because lack of trust amongst team members does not work in anyone’s favour.

4. Overcome Fear Of Falling

My rock climbing mentor, a 24 year old Swiss guy whom we called Tobi gave me an interesting piece of advise.

He said fear of falling delays or even stops your ascent.

The thought lingered in mind and I realized that it is true of work and even life. After a point we really start fearing failure. This results in slowing down or even stagnation. We feel there is so much to lose that we’d rather just hold on without moving.

But then, Tobi had also mentioned that fear of falling is irrational. You always have the rope and the belayer(partner) to keep you safe.

In the career context, isn’t it true that our real anchors are family and friends? Even if a risk results in a failure, it is not going to be the end of your life.

Because without taking a risk, the sure shot consequence is failure anyway.

5. Over thinking Drains You

Another peculiar problem of mine is over thinking. And it was exaggerated while climbing. My mentor would keep yelling from the ground ‘Sachin, you are thinking too much! Just do something!!!’

The drill was that I would climb a few metres and then start planning my options for the next moves. Then scrap the plans in my head and make others. All the while I would hang on to the rocks and exhaust myself. And then I would give up.

So rather than working to my advantage, over thinking was stalling me.

Over thinking is a common mistake even in career and life.

We keep thinking about the future or brood over the past for way too long. This takes time away from required action and puts you at a disadvantage.

Tobi would say ‘Think for a few seconds and just implement the plan. If it doesn’t work, you will figure something out anyway.’

So if you have a thought, a plan – action it. Because you will have to refine it as you go along. Try not to waste your time by over thinking.

6. Determination Overcomes Failure

Like there is no permanent success, there isn’t permanent failure either. This fact is far more apparent while climbing.

It is only your determination that directs the outcome.

Most rock climbers fall multiple times on more difficult routes before they actually get comfortable with the grade. The fall or failure does not actually mean much to determined rock climbers. Except that they change their strategy, work on their weaknesses or simply take a break.

Contrarily, most of us non-rock climber folks, take failure too seriously. Almost as if it is a judgment on who we are. This stops us from committing to bold paths or to gun for an exciting role or position where success is not pre-guaranteed.

But the fact is, even if we fail, our determination can help us move beyond it in no time. All it means is that we need to change our strategy, work on our weaknesses or we simply need to take a break to come back re-energised.

7. Stay On Your Toes

Now this is an interesting word play. Staying on your toes applies to both rock climbing and career life, but means complete opposite things.

Rock climbers will tell you that staying or resting on your toes is the best way to get a good grip, rest and conserve energy.

So staying on toes is good while rock climbing. Similarly it is a good thing in work life as well. However, at work it means that you don’t take things for granted and step out of your comfort zone regularly. Because before you know it smarter career climbers will overtake you if stay too relaxed for too long.

So be aware of what’s happening around you, keep re-skilling yourself and don’t get too comfortable for too long.

8. Choose A Mentor

The unsung character of rock climbing is the belayer. It is the person holding the rope and guiding the climber.

The belayer takes significant responsibility for the climber’s safety, yet does not intend to control the climb in anyway. In my mind, that is the role a mentor plays in your career.

He/she has a keen interest in your growth and also guides you. However, does not intend to control your career path at the same time.

Such individuals shape who you are without expecting anything in return. It might be a good idea to seek such mentors and then invest in the relationship.

So if you haven’t found your career belayer yet, it is time to start looking for one.

9. Resting Is As Important As Climbing

It was quite foolish of me to think that I could climb for straight two weeks in Thailand. After the third day, the pain in my arms was unbearable and my mind was losing commitment due to exhaustion.

Everyone who is into climbing takes a rest day after every two-three full days of climbing. That is how most climbers build their muscles, reinvigorate their spirit and thereby improving their level.

Not applying the same process to your career can be counterproductive. You may feel you are getting ahead by working long hours, staying connected even on breaks. But you are not, because it will cause a burn out in the long term.

New ideas, new energy and new conviction come with mindful resting. All you career junkies should take regular breaks. Not just from office space but from office space in your mind too.

Most top performers respect rest as much as they respect work.

10. Blood Sweat And Tears

In Ton Sai it was common to see many rock climbers with bruised fingers, dripping sweat or almost teary eyed.

Then very soon, I was going through the same things. Only that I was trying the easier beginner routes.

The blood, sweat and tears might seem extreme, but later you realise that it is part of the sport and none of it is detrimental to your body or otherwise. Over time you accept it and laugh about the bruises.

The career journey is pretty much the same. There are disappointments, frustrations and set-backs. But it is all part of the career game and we should be able to accept it and may be look back to laugh at it.

11. A Community Helps

The best take away from my days in Ton Sai was being part of this amazing community of rock climbers from different parts of the world. Everyone was connected through the love for the sport and nothing else mattered. People became friends in matter of minutes and the next moment you were hanging out together and eating together.

Since I did not enroll for a class and decided to learn from climbers, the community came together to help me. As many as 10 rock climbers guided me, belayed me, shared their knowledge and invited me to visit their country in those days.

Everyone seemed happy to have an addition to the community.

It would be ideal to have a community for a work place, but that might not be in your control. The second best thing is to become a part of a community that will help you with career skills.

Communities are not bound by monetary profit and hence have no targets like companies do. People tend to be far more giving in a community than they might be at work place. My experience with Toastmasters – a leadership & communication community has been a life enriching one (just in case you are looking for ideas).

12. Climbing Is Not Everything

Now all this talk of climbing might make you feel that it is everything.

Well passion is important and desire to get better is too. But many climbers are not just about climbing; they have other facets & interests too.

‘Climbers who only talk about climbing are boring’ said my friend Martin Dunaj from Slovakia. And I agree with him.

It is important to develop other facets of your personality even if you have only one passion (and assuming that is your career). Otherwise you might be great at work, but without any real relationships outside of it. That will make you spend even more time at work and the vicious circle will continue.

So if you are a career junkie with no other interests, it is time pick one up.

I have one ready suggestion for you. Rock Climbing J

There are more than a few reasons why I fell in love with rock climbing. It is as much a mind sport as it is a physical one. It takes you to beautiful places and gives your travel a sense of purpose.

The idea of this post is to share what I learnt. I am not a rock climber so the finer aspects of the sport are still alien to me.

Maybe some of you will take my advise and travel to rock climb. That, my friends, will be my tribute to this beautiful sport.

Thank You.

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Better still will be that this makes you pick rock climbing.

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