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By John P. Weiss
My hands are still sweating. I recently saw the outstanding documentary Free Solo. It chronicles the stunning achievement of free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he scales the famous El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
El Capitan is 3,200 feet of sheer granite, and Honnold climbs the whole thing in under four hours.
I read Honnold’s fascinating book, Alone on the Wall, but there’s nothing like watching him in action on the big screen.
The documentary shows his exhaustive preparations, practice runs, climbing journals, and more. It also examines the relationship he has with Sanni McCandless, his girlfriend.
Dating a guy who risks his life climbing vertiginous walls of granite can’t be easy. Not to mention Honnold’s emotional remoteness, which helps him stay focused.
An article in voanews.com quotes Honnold:
“Soloing always comes from some kind of particular mental space. And it has taken some effort to cultivate the right space for a relationship, the right space to still climb at a high level and just try to balance it.”
There’s a fascinating part in the documentary where Honnold contrasts McCandless’s desire to have a happy and comfortable life with his push for climbing excellence. He mentions how being comfortable doesn’t lead to achievement.
Clearly, Honnold would not be happy resting on his laurels, because excellence comes from serious effort, not settling into a life of leisure and comfort.
In the documentary, we watch as Honnold and McCandless buy a new house and shop for refrigerators. Honnold previously embraced an ascetic life, living out of his van, shunning alcohol and red meat.
While Honnold’s fame brought endorsements and money, he remains largely unchanged. Still focused on the next climb.
For Alex Honnold, settling into a conventional life won’t do it for him. Happy and comfortable won’t get him where he wants to go. He knows that to achieve greatness in climbing, he has to keep pushing. Keep training. Keep his eye on the next prize.
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I doubt the cat volunteered
Alex Honnold isn’t the only person to accomplish a dangerous challenge. Consider the life of Annie Edson Taylor. She was born on October 24, 1838, in New York.
A school teacher, Annie met David Taylor and they were married. The couple had one son, who sadly died in his infancy. Shortly after that, David passed away.
Life does that sometimes. It completely destroys the happy and comfortable world you made for yourself. When that happens, what do you do?
Do you give up? Throw in the towel? Or do you find a way forward? Rebuild and craft a new life?
For Annie Taylor, she chose a bold, unorthodox way to move forward.
After her husband died, she pursued various jobs and moved around. Concerned about finances for her later years, she decided to become the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
She acquired a custom barrel made of oak and iron and cushioned the interior with a mattress. Then she tested the barrel by putting a cat inside and sending him over the waterfall.
I doubt the cat volunteered. Thankfully, the cat survived and emerged from the barrel with only a small gash on his head.
Wikipedia describes the rest of the story:
“On October 24, 1901, her 63rd birthday, the barrel was put over the side of a rowboat, and Taylor climbed in, along with her lucky heart-shaped pillow. After screwing down the lid, friends used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air in the barrel. The hole used for this was plugged with a cork, and Taylor was set adrift near the American shore, south of Goat Island.
The Niagara lake currents carried the barrel over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, which has since been the site for all daredevil stunting at Niagara Falls. Rescuers reached her barrel shortly after the plunge. Taylor was discovered to be alive and relatively uninjured, except for a small gash on her head.”
Annie Taylor never achieved the financial success she hoped for. A corrupt manager took off with the barrel and some of her money. In her final years, she managed to craft a living. She posed for photographs with tourists at her souvenir stand and pursued a few other ventures.
The point is, however unorthodox her plan, Annie Taylor didn’t give up. There was a time when she had a happy and comfortable life, but it didn’t last. So she lifted herself up, crafted a bold plan, and moved forward.
“Only in giving up the security of the known can we create new opportunity, build capability, and grow influence. As we do, we expand the perimeter of our ‘Courage Zone’ and our confidence to take on bigger challenges in the future.”
Warrell goes on to write:
“In short, we must be willing to get comfortable with the discomfort involved with taking risks.”
We tend to live in our comfort zones
I live in Southern Nevada, in a Del Web type community of mostly retired folks. I enjoy coffee a few times a week with a bunch of guys who are older than me.
I like hanging out with these men because they have many life lessons and wisdom to share. These guys could simply enjoy their homes and play golf, but they do more than that.
One guy goes off on mountain hikes that many young people would fail to accomplish. Another guy, who is 80 years old, rises early every day and lifts weights. These guys are intellectually curious, travel frequently, and keep pushing themselves.
What I’ve learned is that “happy and comfortable” isn’t enough. Human beings thrive when we have challenges to tackle and goals to achieve.
“We tend to live in our comfort zones.
Most people rarely, if ever, venture outside of theirs.
For most, it’s about going through the motions.
It is a life of routine, slackness, and minimal effort.
Yet, to reach new heights you have to push yourself.
You have to do the work. And you have to test your limits.”
There is a caveat. Important as it is to have goals and focus on achievement, we also need periods of downtime. Space in our lives to rest, think, and renew our creativity and drive.
Being happy and comfortable is fine. It’s a state we all aspire to, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the spoils of our efforts. But in order to keep growing and achieving, we have to push ourselves. Sometimes, when we get too comfortable, we get lazy.
I’d much rather sink into my leather couch and get lost on my laptop than drive down to the gym for another, brutal workout with my trainer. But the couch and laptop won’t help me achieve my fitness goals.
How about you? Have you been seduced by a comfortable routine and happy status quo? It’s easy to let this happen, because who wants to struggle in life? And yet, pursuing goals and doing hard things is what moves the needle. It’s how we keep growing and achieving.
Take a close look at your life. Are you a bit settled? Have you let happy and comfortable get in the way of becoming the person you really want to be?
Focused effort leads to breakthroughs!
You don’t have to risk your life climbing mountains of sheer granite, or tumble over Niagara Falls in a barrel. But you do have to get off the couch, get out of your comfort zone, and chase your passions and dreams with renewed focus and determination. Do that, and watch your life transform for the better.
Before you go
This article first appeared on Medium.