Chris Weidner: The Key to Learning and Self-Improvement (Spoiler Alert: It’s Embarrassing)

An uncomfortable Bill Serantoni after a long, wet pitch in the middle of the 2,000-foot north face of Cima Grande, in the Italian Dolomites. (Chris Weidner – Courtesy photo)

“You have to feel like maybe you can’t do it. Otherwise, why bother?”

Chris Weidner / Wicked Gravity
Chris Weidner / Wicked Gravity

At this time of year, I am reminded of these words from Dave MacLeod, one of the best all-around climbers in the world, as I reflect on 2023 and look ahead to 2024.

As always, climbing goals and training ideas are high on my list and I tweak them every year in an effort to improve. After decades of failure and some success, and researching how others think about human performance, there is one consistent element that seems key to learning and improving in almost anything: discomfort.

Seems a little cruel, doesn’t it? Alas, the human condition…

Heather Weidner just manages to stay attached to Black Pearl (5.13c) in Eldorado Canyon.  (Chris Weidner – Courtesy photo)
Heather Weidner just manages to stay attached to Black Pearl (5.13c) in Eldorado Canyon. (Chris Weidner – Courtesy photo)

Discomfort often means doing things where we have the most to lose, in terms of ego, and little to gain – at least visibly. It is a scary, humbling place that we avoid at all costs, yet where we have the greatest opportunity for growth.

I have noticed that climbers, for example, avoid discomfort in one of two ways. They tend to climb within their abilities and comfort zones, or so far outside them that failure is expected; the first because it’s fun and enjoyable, the second because it’s so difficult that nothing is actually at stake (with the bonus of being seen as trying something “difficult”).

It is that ground in between, which does not bring praise, but presents a personal challenge where, most importantly, the outcome is uncertain. On paper we “should” be able to do these climbs, but for a variety of reasons – rock angle, exposure, distance between screws or gear, unknown rock type, weather and conditions – we might fail.

This uncomfortable environment makes us squirm because it reveals our weaknesses and, if we want to improve, forces us to face them. Right here, in our discomfort zone, we have the most to learn.

Like most people, I tend to stay out of my comfort zone, preferring to feel comfortable and confident, thank you very much. Day after day, I’d rather have fun and stagnate than force myself into that uncomfortable arena of uncertainty and fear, whether it’s fear of heights, fear of failure, fear of success (yes, that’s definitely a thing), or simply fear of looking like a complete idiot.

According to Steve McClure, one of the world’s most successful rock climbers, “fear is the single factor that holds most climbers back from reaching their potential.”

I was fighting fear on the rock just the other day, when my brain kept churning out reasons why I shouldn’t go on my project: a long sport route I’d been trying for over a year. Keep practicing the moves, my head said. Don’t try too hard until you feel more confident.

Liam Foster, of Durango, embraces discomfort on his long-term project, the Green Mile (5.14c) near Sonora, California.  (Chris Weidner – Courtesy photo)
Liam Foster, of Durango, embraces discomfort on his long-term project, the Green Mile (5.14c) near Sonora, California. (Chris Weidner – Courtesy photo)

I have never regretted giving my all to something, regardless of the outcome. Paradoxically, this seems to be exactly the kind of effort we need to avoid. On my project, I somehow overcame my internal narrative and did my best to climb without falling. In fact, I was afraid of falling (even though the falls were completely safe) and I was afraid of failure, but I pushed through anyway.

In the end I did fall, but as I spun into nothing at the end of the rope, I felt deeply satisfied with the effort, even though I had “failed”. I even discovered a few subtle ways to move more efficiently for the next attempt.

Trying and failing is always better than not trying at all.

Additionally, our habits tend to spill over from one aspect of life to others, so it’s no surprise that most of us avoid discomfort in our daily lives as well. The stakes here are obviously far higher than the success or failure of a rock climb, but still experiencing discomfort is where we have the greatest opportunity to become better people.

With 2023 only a few weeks away, I’m not the only one thinking about next year. Just imagine what we can accomplish if we’re willing to be a little more scared and a little less comfortable.

Contact Chris Weidner at [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and X @cweidner8.

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