green trees near rock formation
Photo by Todd Trapani on

This series on optimism (and training optimism as a skill) threw me off balance for a while. Then, in true spirit of being a connector and a catalyst (my North Star), I realized that I didn’t suck at optimism as much as I originally thought. I read Brian’s post about why we should train optimism and thought of my days as a rock climber.

With a bit of reframing, I’ve come to understand that I’m ok at optimism. Ok enough to get to the top of Devil’s Tower.

The new frame: Optimism is the same as “picking a line” when rock climbing. You have a general route to follow, but the path is never exactly what you expect it to be. Constant adjustments and constant feedback loops are required. Footholds crumble. Good looking handholds get slimy with sweat and wear. Dust gets in your eyes and mouth. Sweat obscures your vision.

Our Devil’s Tower climbing party included 4 people. One experienced climber who has an amazing level of stamina, strength and grace. Two mostly indoor, technical climbers with great reach – they are both 6″ 4′ and have an unbelievably wide wingspan. Then there was me. I’m 5″ 2′ on a good day, so I have to use different techniques than the guys do.

Climbing and optimism both require a plan and flexibility to create flow. I always think about my rock climbing days when I think of principle 2 because curiosity is essential for flexibility and flow.

Agile Best Self Principle #2: Welcome change with curiosity.

We followed a well-known, well-documented route. Following this path and the guide’s advice worked for me most of the time, but I frequently had to adjust and change footholds and handholds slightly. I’m comfortable standing on the edge of a quarter so it is rarely a challenge for me to find a foothold outdoors. Each adjustment for my reach and climbing style was a fascinating puzzle and a challenge. Whenever I think about approaching change with curiosity, I think of two things.

First: you have a plan- even if you don’t know it. Expectations and habits create most peoples’ daily plans. Most people have a morning plan that is made up of strung together habits. Snooze the alarm. Roll out of bed. Stumble half asleep into the bathroom. Turn on the shower… Eventually many of us got to some variation of “go to work”. For me, this was typically a car commute 3-5 times a week. This habit-based plan was upended on March 15th when schools shut down in Minnesota. My pre-COVID unspoken expectations and habit-based plans about workday mornings were upended immediately and abruptly. Curiosity served me well in those days.

Second: don’t waste your energy on being mad. When a plan falls apart, just skip the friction and figure out how to move forward. Optimism is based on forward movement, not dwelling on the small stuff. If the alarm didn’t go off, just focus on getting to work. Yelling at yourself does not help. If there is no hot water, figure out another way to get cleaned up. Skipping the friction doesn’t mean avoid emotions if something truly impactful happens – just skip the friction if it is wasted energy.

Rock climbing underscores these two points. 1. Pick a route so you have a plan. 2. Don’t let your emotions take over. Shake it off. Climbing is 95% between the ears. I have literally fallen off indoor warm up routes just because I was in a bad mood or something from the day was bugging me. Warm up routes are extremely simple or well known routes that are used to mindlessly warm up the body and get into the flow before attempting challenging routes.

I learned quickly that climbing demanded the many things. The ability to see the line (an essential skill in indoor climbing competitions), the ability to stay curious, a little bit of physical conditioning and trusted climbing partners. By the time the 4 of us made it Devil’s Tower, all of these critical factors were in place.

I never had any doubts that I would make it to the top of this rock with this crew. I had trained myself to be optimistic about this climb.

“Optimism is a trainable skill and it’s the fundamental belief that it’s going to work out.”

Dr. Michael Gervais, Co-Creator of Compete to Create

To extend this story into our modern day reality, we may not know exactly how we are going to get to the top, but if we fundamentally believe our endeavors are going to work out, they usually do. There are many more posts around what “working out” may mean. But that is a topic for another day.

Moving onward and upward, being my best self requires me to rethink and reframe optimism. I’m still figuring out what that means.

This what the top of Devil’s Tower looks like.

Not anywhere near as exciting as it should be. Definitely no alien landing pad. No elevator either. Nowhere near as much fun as climbing up or rappelling back down.

Copyright © 2018 – 2023 Michaele Gardner and Brian Hackerson

Published by MichaeleBestSelf

Connector, Catalyst.

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