In 1976 Jim Erickson, an important climber in the development of Colorado free climbing said: “Historically, ultimate climbs have tended to be achieved by dubious means”. This is true of first ascents as well as when we repeat established routes. The term “dubious means” points to the justifications we make to keep our motivation high… “Well, I did the hard part; I fell after it was over. I could have easily climbed those ten feet if my foot wouldn’t have slipped.” We come up with justifications like these to convince ourselves that we really did achieve our goal. Motivation is dependent on what we can gain from the experience. Does our motivation come from checking climbs off our tick list? In other words, does it come from being able to climb certain grades, achieving certain end-result goals, or climbing better or harder than our buddy? If so, we’ll only be highly motivated if we achieve those things. Our motivation will depend on things we can’t control. This puts us at the mercy of the external situation. When we plateau—hit that barrier where it is difficult to continue to progress—we won’t be achieving those grades or end goals. Therefore, it will become increasingly difficult to stay motivated. When we have less chance of achieving the grades and end goals we’ll lose interest and motivation unless we justify our effort, as in the climbing example above, and claim the redpoint anyway. This attitude will take us only so far until it is all too obvious to our scheming and deceptive mind that we are lying.
Attention is the touchstone of mental fitness. When we’re motivated by end-result goals, our attention is distracted because we focus on what we want (the top) rather than the effort needed to climb our best. When we don’t achieve what we want we’ll either quit climbing or resort to deception. We deceive ourselves thinking we really did achieve the end goal even though we fell. We end up becoming very Machiavellian in our approach where the end justifies any means.
There is another way to be motivated. We can be motivated by what we learn and the fun we experience. Again, staying motivated is dependent on what we gain from the experience. We can learn from every climb no matter how high we get. Here motivation is no longer dependent on the external situation—the climb—but rather on our internal state which is something we can control. When we plateau, we have even greater opportunities to learn because we are face-to-face, so to speak, with specific skills we need to learn before we can progress. When motivated by learning we’ll still be focused on what we want, but what we want is now the same as what we need to do to climb. The means—the learning—justifies the end. Looking at the climbing example described earlier, when we fall on that easy section, we’ll be excited and curious as to why that happened. This curiosity can lead us to an understanding of why our attention was distracted, why we choose that particular foothold, why we placed our foot as we did, and if we were thinking about the top instead of the climbing. We actually learn more from falling than achieving the end goal. This is because when we don’t make it to the top we come up against the present limit of our abilities. We’re, again, face-to-face with that place where doubt, stress, chaos, and attention leaks are maximum. Getting to the top doesn’t bring us to that place.
Some would argue that we need the intense desire of end-result goals to stay motivated. Consider this…we can have an intense desire to learn just as we can have an intense desire for achieving end results. In order to maximize our learning we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Therefore, being motivated by learning isn’t a lax process where you justify a fall by saying “Well, that was fun, but I’m learning and that’s what’s important.” No, in order to maintain a learning-oriented motivation we must push ourselves into situations that demand learning and those situations aren’t in our comfort zone—they are in the uncomfortable, stressful, risk zone. To fuel our desire to learn, then, requires fun—a love for the activity we’re doing. We have to love climbing and the stress of risk zone so much that we want to be there. In other words, attention is focused in the moment--on learning and climbing—because there is no place else we’d rather be.
Set end-result goals—certain grades and routes—but also, and more importantly, set process and learning goals. Enjoy the practice and training that you’ll be doing in order to achieve the end result. Your life is made up of those long practice sessions, those days of working a route, the years of learning skills. End results only last an instant. Don’t live from instant to instant; live in each moment of the practice.