What the El Capitan Climbers Can Teach Us About Greatness

I’m not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed.” – Kevin Jorgenson

Today, Kevin Jorgeson of California and Tommy Caldwell of Colorado made history with the first successful free climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park. The climb took weeks of effort and multiple attempts while captivating millions who followed news of their climb, listened to interviews and watched them on video.

For anyone unfamiliar with the climb’s degree of difficulty and challenge, consider these facts:

  • 3,000 foot, granite wall (the size of 3 Empire State Buildings)
  • Challenging route, perhaps the world’s most difficult
  • Only using hands and feet
  • Nearly 18 days
  • Climbers slept in tents attached to the wall
  • Rest days needed to allow fingertips and skin to heal
  • Required 5 years of training

Such an achievement inspires us. Leads us to reconsider what is possible. Helps us aim a little higher and dream a little bigger. So, what can we learn from Kevin and Tommy’s historic climb about the quest for greatness?

Pursue Big Dreams

This is not an effort to ‘conquer,’ it’s about realizing a dream.” – Kevin Jorgeson

Free climb a 3,000 wall of granite over 18 days? Launch a rocket and then bring it back to land on a barge in the ocean? Rid the world of the polio disease?

These are all incredible endeavors. To use a term from leadership expert Jim Collins, they are Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). They cause skeptics to scoff, “Impossible!” They make us wonder if we have what it takes. But, they also help us move beyond thinking small, pursing bite-sized goals quarter to quarter, and towards dreaming big, pursing meaningful achievements that may take a decade, a quarter-century, or longer. Big dreams are about inspiring ourselves and others to pursue goals worthy of our very best efforts. The first lesson from the El Capitan climbers is to dream big. The reason we feel the way we do when we learn of these achievements is that they cause us to stop and wonder at the art of the possible, to re-think our notions of human limitations, and to be inspired by those who pursue them.

Find Your Flow

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi spent years researching what makes people happy. What did he learn? He discovered that the happiest people were those who pursue activities that require complete absorption, and rock climbing is a good example. He called this experience “flow.” You’ve probably experienced flow many times yourself. Think of times in work, study, conversion, or sports when you’ve become more fully focused on what you’re doing and time seems to stand still. These experiences tend to involve a higher degree of skill and concentration while pursuing goals that matter. They are simultaneously demanding and rewarding. Pursing greatness, while utilizing more of our skills, helps us get “in the zone” or “in the groove” and leads to some of the most enjoyable experiences people can have. The second lesson of the El Capitan climbers is to pursue activities that are both demanding and meaningful–to find our “flow.”

Don’t Climb Alone

Most big dreams and audacious goals require the combined effort of many people working together. Tommy and Kevin climbed together and relied on a team of people and the support of their families. The two spent much of the past five years training together, practicing every pitch and mapping out their strategy. And, they weren’t alone during their climb. They had a support team with them, bringing extra equipment, food and more.

“It’s a bit like an expedition, like an expedition going up Everest in that way. We have a base camp; we have porters.” – Tommy Caldwell

Success requires teamwork with those who share similar dreams and aspirations. Teams of people moving in the same direction accomplish more together, are greater than the sum of their parts, and have more fun in the process. High-performing groups of people who achieve greatness tend to have shared purpose, passion, and values while building strong relationships. The third lesson from the El Capitan climbers is that greatness requires a team–never climb alone.

Originally posted to LinkedIn by Dave Birckhead (COMM ’95, MS ’96), Solutions Executive, Customer Intelligence and Big Data and Infinitive.

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