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On Goals, Climbing, Achievement, and Perspective – Jonathan Littauer

On Goals, Climbing, Achievement, and Perspective

Back in March, I took a rock climbing trip to the Red River Gorge in KY. Long story short, the climbing was beyond incredible, and once I returned to Boston, I was so amped up that I created a massive training program for myself, bought more and more gear, and spent too much time watching all of the bad-ass climbing videos YouTube has to offer. And, most relevant to this post, I set the long term goal to climb my first 5.12a by my 30th Birthday in September, a deadline which was roughly 6 months away.

In the process of sending Six-Foot Man Roof, 5.11d, at Farley Ledge.
In the process of sending Six-Foot Man Roof, 5.11d, at Farley Ledge.

Now, in climbing, the rating 5.12 is oft considered a benchmark grade, a rating of difficulty that is straddles the line¬†between ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ climbing. For me, with my 5+ years of climbing experience, it was a lofty but attainable goal. And I really wanted it. So I trained¬†hard. I climbed¬†harder. I spent¬†3-4 days a week at the climbing gym, and tried to squeak in outdoor trips as often as I could.¬†I read books and learned new techniques, and devised a whole training regimen.¬†My climbing improved, as did my confidence. As the spring passed,¬†I started ticking off harder and harder outdoor climbs. First a 5.11b, then a couple of 5.11c routes, and then towards the middle¬†of the summer, I sent my first 5.11d–one ¬†grade below my elusive goal. I was on track!¬†Ahead¬†of track, even. I was going to reach my goal. Nothing could stop me.

Then I got injured. I tweaked¬†my AC joint, and I couldn’t move my shoulder without a significant amount¬†of pain. I was furious!¬†I had a goal, damnit, I didn’t have time for this! I was only going to turn 30 once, and I wanted that goal! I needed¬†that goal. Seething with anger and frustration,¬†I begrudgingly took ten very long¬†days off climbing. Those ten¬†days crawled by in painful slowness, and I felt like an antsy student¬†again, counting down those horrible¬†last days¬†of school before summer vacation.¬†On day 10, my¬†pain was a bit less (read: almost the same), and I decided that it had been MORE than enough time off. My shoulder had had plenty of rest. I¬†started climbing again.

…Two weeks and many climbs later, my shoulder was worse than it had been at the time of the initial injury. It hurt just to sleep on my side and to wear a backpack, let alone hoist my body up steep, overhung rock walls. I had a tingling sensation running down my arm from shoulder to fingers. At that point, my body really left me with no choice. So, though it really sucked¬†to do so,¬†I tossed my shoes and harness into the back corner of my closet and I stopped climbing. I didn’t know how long it would be. I tried as best I could to just let it go.

4.5 weeks of rest later, (which included many mobility exercises and a few physical therapy sessions), most of the¬†pain in my shoulder was gone and I had regained my¬†mobility and range of motion. So I got back to¬†it–slowly, this time, and with low expectations. Being able to climb again was¬†amazing.¬†I was just grateful that¬†it didn’t hurt! I could move up the rocks again! I could get to the crag! Yes,¬†I was weak. I struggled on moves and grades that had seemed¬†easy before the injury, but I was just so pleased to be back.

My birthday came. My birthday went. I did not send a 5.12.  And,  I found out that despite that outcome, I was OK. I was not a worse climber for not reaching this goal. I was not a worse person. I was still me, and I still loved the sport. I kept training and kept climbing. I pushed myself some days, and other days I relaxed and climbed fun, easier routes, routes that were not a challenge but had incredible movement and great views. I tried to remind myself, every time I got on a wall, of the way I felt when I first came back from the injury. That joy and that gratitude.

Fast forward 6 weeks, and sent¬†my first 5.12a. It felt great. It had been a long time coming, and I had worked hard. And yet climbing that elusive grade¬†didn’t change me. I was not a different climber, a better person, nor had I ‘made it.’ After all, it was just a grade, just a number, just another climb. There had been many climbs before, and (knock on wood), there would¬†be many yet to come.¬†My next thought, shortly¬†thereafter, was, “I can get a 5.12b now! Maybe someday a 5.13!” To which I now think, if I hold onto that numbers-inspired mentality, where will it end?

The answer, I think, is that it will never end. I can always try to climb harder. And no grade–no matter how hard–would bring me the fulfillment that I initially sought after when pursing this birthday goal.¬†And that’s a huge insight for me. This whole process ¬†has taught me to focus on the drive behind¬†my performance, and to let the whole ¬†idea of achievement go. The¬†love of climbing, the love of pushing myself, the love of overcoming fears and honing my body and my mind–those are the drives behind my number-fueled grade ticking. Those, not the grades or the deadlines or the goals, are what are important.

And this is a lesson I can apply to my writing. Throughout the process of writing ‘The Heirs of the World’ I have set many¬†goals and many¬†self-imposed deadlines. I have reached practically¬†none of them–and the ones I did reach were done at the expense of writing quality, and my love for honing my craft was overshadowed by word counts. I ticked off chapters, faster and faster,¬†without creating the best content I could. I find that¬†when I make achievement my goal, something is lost. As with my climbing, I want to focus on being grateful that I¬†can write, that I have the time to write, and that I’ve found something that I enjoy so much, something that I find such incredible meaning in. When I’m in that space, when I’m in my story,¬†I’m alive. When I’m in that space, I feel like I have a purpose. When I’m in that space, I’m me.

So for now, I try to start off every writing session with one phrase–I am doing this because I love it. Yes, I still set goals. Yes, I still try to reach my writing 5.12s, so to speak. Yet I’m trying very hard to make sure that those goals are not tied to my self worth. For achievement does not lead to fulfillment, nor does it lead to happiness. Pursing meaning and fulfillment are what I strive for.