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:
“We’re all rough drafts of the people we’re still becoming.”#EverybodyAlways
— Bob Goff (@bobgoff) May 21, 2018