With the rope/without the rope

I saw Free Solo again. It’s an extraordinary film. Literally extraordinary because that dude is out of his mind and beyond the definition of ordinary.

Before Alex Honnold climbs El Capitan “free solo” aka without a rope, the filmmakers follow his rigorous preparation. He climbs the rock multiple times taking meticulous notes of each movement and each crevice down to the tiniest of thumb-holds. As I watched Alex taking a toothbrush to a tiny surface on this 3,000 foot rock looking for the slightest crevice to rest his life on, it reminded me of an idea I’d once heard but hadn’t made as much sense before.

I heard a Ted Talk from Eduardo Briceno about how to get better at things. His idea was that the mind operates in two zones: the learning zone and the performance zone. When he gave the talk, I found it interesting, but I didn’t have a picture or perhaps better said, a story, to help me understand it until I saw Free Solo a second time.

For Alex, climbing without the rope is the learning zone. The key to this zone is the ability to make mistakes. If he falls, the rope catches him then he takes notes and tries again or finds another path. Either way, he’s not dead. Low stakes.

Then there’s the performance zone. Simply put, no rope. If Alex makes a mistake here, he’s dead. High stakes.

In the film, Alex talks about how during the process of rehearsal, when he’s in the learning zone, his goal is not to be less afraid, but to expand his comfort zone. And this can only be done in learning, in taking low-stakes risks, trying it and perhaps failing but having that safety rope. And that’s what Briceno was talking about. Learning is taking risks and trying things knowing we’ve got a rope that will hold us up if we fall.

I thought of how much of my life I feel compelled to be in that performance zone, how often I treat mistakes as if they are fatal. So the result is often instead of taking a risk, I’ll look down at the ground, imagine how terrifying it would be to fall and then I stay put, safe, comfortable.

The mistake for me is two-fold:

First, in thinking I’m good enough at something or special enough to “wing it,” jump straight to performance without putting in the effort needed in the learning. Maybe this is overexagerating, but in a lot of ways, that would be like free solo-ing a rock that I’ve never climbed before. Yeah it’s arrogant but it’s also sad that some of us feel this pressure to be a finished product right now.

Second, and I think much more relevant to us: in treating life as the performance zone. I’d venture a guess that 98% of the time we think we’re in the performance zone where failure = death, we’re not. There’s a rope. We can fail and the rope will hold, the sun will come up tomorrow and people will still love us. Maybe we fall a couple feet and get some scrapes, bruises and maybe broken bones but we’re alive. Those become battle scars of learning. I’d say the real failure here is to never take the risk at all.

And for my arrogant self, it’s buying the notebook, making some notes, asking for help and committing to the process of learning rather than expecting to walk in and be perfect. Life’s greatest stories are the result of practice and failure.

The stories we tell are always metaphors for life, sort of like practice stories for our own real life story. And I think in that real life story, we’re all in the learning zone. We like to think everyone else is accomplishing major high-stakes feats without the ropes on and we’re stuck here in our lame harnesses. It’s not true. 

Alex says the reason he likes to free solo is he likes that momentary feeling of perfection. That’s great for him. I’m glad he did it and maybe that works in the rock climbing practice stories, but in life, none of us are ever going to be able to pull that off.

It’s all rehearsal with the toothbrush and the “Oh ****” of jumping for that next ledge and not making it. The rope catches and I think we ought to swing and laugh for a minute, thank God for ropes and then try again.

One last note: perhaps this learning zone could be really helpful for us with anxiety. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, a writer pays to have Alex take an MRI. The writer was curious if Alex’s brain was different from the rest of us. Well, it is.

Alex’s brain doesn’t respond to fearful stimuli the way the average person’s does, often times it didn’t respond at all. But the doctor theorized that this wasn’t genetic but the product of Alex’s past experiences. Facing our fears in low-stakes environments gives us the courage to face bigger ones when the stakes are raised.

I think it’s a product of embracing the learning zone, the rope, and the the toothbrush. Of letting go of the need to be a finished product right this instant. I think Bob Goff said it well in his book Everybody Always:



A short one on keeping a notebook

I think everyone should keep a notebook. Maybe your brain is big enough to keep all the important things that run across it throughout the day, but it’s probably not. My brain actually needs to take those things and write them myself. It’s like taking ideas and working with them in your hands.

Your life is a story and no one else is going to remember or put it together for you. We’re all too busy. So take a few notes, remember something beautiful, express where your head or your heart is, I don’t know maybe writing it down will remind you to do that one thing you keep forgetting.

And that’s a few minutes away from your social media addiction. I think that’s always a good thing.

I don’t enjoy watching Alabama play football

I was really excited to watch football on Saturday.

#3 LSU was hosting #1 Alabama in the legendary Death Valley on a Saturday night. LSU’s coach Ed Orgeron is walking, talking college football joy and his team had dismantled fellow SEC titan Georgia earlier this year which gave us all hope they could give the juggernaut Crimson Tide a game.

Well, Alabama won 29-0. The Solid Verbal (the best college football podcast) has described what Bama does to team’s as a “crock potting.” They put teams in and they slow cook ’em with staunch defense and body blow offense.

The game will be within reach, maybe 14-0 at halftime and into the 3rd quarter. But trust me, it’s been over for a long time. Your offense’s inability to move the ball will leave your defense vulnerable and then Bama hits a deep ball,, run a kick back, or block a punt for a touchdown putting the game at a comfortable three scores that can then be coasted to the finish. The only drama left is wether or not you’ll get shutout or not.

This is what they do to the good teams The bad ones are playing Bama’s scrubs in the 3rd quarter.

I’m a fan of the game. Sure, I love watching Tennessee play but most Saturdays, I just want to see a good game. Well, I can’t watch Bama anymore. Because the games are the most boring lack of spectacle possible. And using the principles of good storytelling, I’m here to convince you that this is not just my opinion, it’s factual reality.

A story in its most simple form is this: someone wants something and they overcome obstacles to get it. The drama is in the obstacles: how difficult is it? The more challenging the better because the hero has to delve into a strength previously unknown to overcome it. That’s what we call raising the stakes. Good stories have them.

And this isn’t just for the movies; we got to our sports to see good stories. Everyone loves the underdog, but it’s more than that. We want to see the winner emerge from facing a brutal test and snatching their victory from the jaws of defeat. We want to see the full expanse of their humanity in the toughness and grit they summon to overcome the worthy opponent. We see both poles of victory and defeat on the faces of fans with praying hands across four quarters and maybe more and with each turn we never know who is going to come out on top. And after the contest, we walk away saying “Wow, what a game. Both teams gave every inch of themselves. They should be proud.”

When Alabama football wins championships, generally this doesn’t happen. Other teams aren’t obstacles, they are busy work. The end result was only in doubt in the pre-game shows.  The only time college football seems to be fun anymore is when Bama loses. And given that’s only happened 9 times in the last 8 seasons, that’s pretty rare. What’s rarer is Bama actually being tested in a major game (thanks Georgia).

“We were supposed to win and we did” is never the hero’s storyline. Thus Bama isn’t the hero in the story, they are the obstacle that can’t be overcome.  Sauron gets the ring before it leaves the Shire, the Death Star destroys Yavin IV, and Voldemort gets Harry in the Sorcerer’s Stone or maybe he makes it to the Chamber of Secrets but not further than that.

Yes I’m a bitter Tennessee fan.

The story gap

I’m reading Story by Robert McKee. It’s taken a long time to read because it is rich with all the philosophical fun that daily teases my brain about storytelling and the magic of this art form.

According to Mckee, the gap between expectation and reality is where stories happen. It’s the difference between activity and action. Activity is you going to take out the trash and as you expect, the trash can is there at the corner, you place the trash in the can and return to your couch. All goes as expected. But that never happens in good stories (and the longer I live, it never happens in a well-lived life either).

No story is ripe with action; it’s is you going to take the trash out and finding your long lost lover Janice standing there in a wedding gown, a murderous clown with a steak knife, or a 14-foot crater where your trash can should be. It just got interesting.

Ok, maybe you like the more realistic plots that win Academy Awards: you go to take the trash out and find some metaphor for your lost childhood but really the metaphor is the loss of innocence that has become growing up in post 9/11 America. Or is it? The interpretation is up to you. Either way, not what you expected.

I hate this idea because it is true. I want life to be what I expect. I don’t want to be challenged or live in that doubtful place between what I’m sure I know and somewhere on the road to what is actually true. I’m too convinced I know everything and too darn self-righteous to let go.

But I don’t believe I’m the one telling my own story anyways so I’m hopeful my story will keep getting interesting.

Ants and Assistant Directors

One time I was a 1st Assistant Director on set. The job of the 1st AD is to keep the film on time and budget. It required me to be organized, efficient and composed. Murphy’s Law has thorough jurisdiction over film sets; it is likely chaos will ensue and you have to be the calm in the storm, a bastion of equanimity. This is a story of how I utterly failed at this and learned something in the process.

We were shooting our film on a soccer field in Ethiopia. We arrived on set and I went about my task of being organized, efficient and composed by helping us prepare the site to shoot.

Well, the field we were shooting on was covered in rocks that would make it difficult for our actors. And I mean covered. There must have been a hundred little rocks (and a Hyena’s skull interestingly enough) that were all capable of destroying ankles. They had to be moved.

There were two grips nearby and I gave them the task. Given that we were in Ethiopia doing the Lord’s work, I wanted to practice that servant mindedness that Jesus talks about all the time, so I pitched a hand.

We were rock moving machines. I was thinking ‘This must not be so bad and hey, I’m showing that I’m not too big to do little tasks, look at me.’

About the time the thought crossed my mind, one of the grips said “Hey, just be aware there are a few ant hills out here. Be careful.” I hadn’t noticed the slight stings on my leg before, suddenly they felt like tiny jabs with a knife. I looked down at my foot which was in the middle of a destroyed pile of sand that used to be an ant hill. And ants the size of nickels were POURING out of it (probably not nickel sized, but it’s a story, go with it).

My entire leg was completely swarmed. Unfortunately for me, I was wearing jeans that were extremely tight in the thigh, so the ants that had progressed that far were safe from the violent thrashing I had unleashed with my hands in vain hope. I knew I was going to have to take off my jeans. But I was in the middle of a field at an orphanage in Ethiopia I had never been to and didn’t know where the bathroom was (side note: as an AD, I should have known where the bathroom was, that’s below a rookie mistake).

Remember, an AD is to be organized, efficient and composed. Well at this point, you can forget that. I spy the nearest building with an open door and sprint for it beating my pants leg the whole way. The crew that had looked to me as a leader 10 minutes before all watched this hysteric chubby white guy sprinting across the field yelping like Wiley Coyote with his tail on fire then disappearing in a random classroom.

I spent the rest of the day finding rogue ants and having to go inside to pull them out.

So, here’s the rules I learned for AD’s:

1.) Always know where the bathroom is.

2.) Be organized, efficient and composed.

3.) Rule #2 may not apply when you have ants in your pants.