On learning to fall

I started bouldering a week ago, with an intro course at The Hive. (For the uninitiated, picture rock climbing without ropes, maybe 20 feet off the ground.) It’s been on my “list” for years, and I unabashedly fell in love with it right from the start.

I’m drawn to the technique and skill, and of course I love building my strength and gradually conquering my fear of heights. But what surprises me most is how much I love falling.

I adore feeling weightless, then hitting the mats. I know I won’t be hurt, so I just let go, fall, land, roll over, stand up. It feels safe to try. It feels safe to fumble.

I am a perfectionist–it’s really hard for me to try something and not be excellent at it from the start. I’ve worked hard at breaking this pattern over the years, reminding myself “You also learned to walk.” With bouldering, the stakes aren’t lower, just different. I find myself hanging in space, feeling afraid, then letting go. I try the route again and climb a little higher each time. I fall down. I stretch my strained biceps. I ask a fellow climber how she tackled the route. I try. I fail. I fall. I love it.

Last week after practice, feeling sore and tired, I asked my pal and writer Jan Redford for advice. “It will get better, RIGHT?” She assured me it would, that my muscles would strengthen surprisingly quickly. “Get good at falling,” she said. I joked that was useful advice for climbing and writing. For anything, really. Even after a week, I see the effects spilling over into other areas of my life: work, cycling, dating (which, for the record, is way harder than bouldering)…

This evening I was speaking with the receptionist at The Hive. He asked how my intro weeks were coming along. I explained this “fun failure” process for me, and told him a random story I read recently in a business book by Mark Colgate. Mark described learning how to ski at Whistler. Best mountain, top instructor, perfectionist student. His instructor asked him, “Who’s the best skier on the mountain?” Mark pointed at the dude effortlessly cruising by: “That guy.” His instructor said, “Nope. The person who is having the most fun.” So before they started each run, the instructor and students all yelled “WOOF!” Try to have a serious face after yelling that. I dare you to have a shitty time.

So please picture me in the gym (a gym! Can you believe it?), staring up at a wall no one really needs to climb, softly yelling “WOOF!” and then climbing, inch by inch, arms straight, hanging, falling…then doing it all over again.

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