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I cried four separate times during my climbing session last week. Once on each of my three project attempts, followed by a few more tears while climbing a cool-down that felt much too hard to be a cool-down. It all stemmed from the same train of thought: “I’m not climbing well enough to meet my goals today.”
Goals are an important part of the projecting process for any ambitious climber. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting your sights high and putting in the work to match. But as soon as a climber forgets how to simply enjoy what they’re doing and where they are, motivation dies and momentum slows, if not halts entirely.
The hyperfocus on quantitative accomplishment is something I’m working hard to change for the sake of both my performance and my sanity. It’s a process that, so far, involves plenty of brain rewiring, therapy, and… stickers.
Leslie Kim, founder and chief designer of Dynamite Starfish, used to feel the same way. “I was so hungry to advance in climbing, up the grades, and be a ‘good climber,’ whatever that means,” she remembers. “I didn’t even have a solid idea of that … I just wanted to be ‘good’ so that I could keep up somehow.”
Kim could sense the dark side of her mindset from the beginning. “There was something weird and inauthentic to that desire,” she admits. It dehumanized her by taking away her individuality. Kim quickly fell into habits of overtraining and neglecting other areas of her life, all while falling even further behind from where she thought she ‘should’ be.
Her answer to all that self-inflicted pressure appeared in the form of a simple drawing. She’s a graphic designer by trade; “I always wanted to be an artist, but that didn’t fly with my parents,” Kim laughs, “so graphic design was our happy compromise.” But despite her career choice, Kim needed a way to express herself more creatively. She kept up art projects on the side as time allowed, and soon gravitated toward climbing themes as the sport cemented itself more deeply into her everyday life. When feelings of inadequacy in climbing grew too, she resolved to fight those feelings through her art.
Kim’s initial batch of climbing-inspired creations was meant for her eyes only. The drawings served as visual reminders of why she began climbing in the first place, and the joys of the sport that she couldn’t find portrayed elsewhere.
“The only art around climbing I saw at that time consisted of basic silhouettes and motivation for high performance,” Kim explains. “I needed the focus of my experience to shift back toward making friends, growing, learning, and spending time outside so that I could improve my quality of life. That became my new goal, and performance could come later if I wanted it to. So I asked myself, how can I make art that represents this side of the sport?”
Kim displayed her artwork in personal and easy-to-access places for her climbing outings: in her pocket, on her phone, on the pages of her journal, in the corner of her car dashboard. During tough moments where she might otherwise wrestle with her expectations, she referenced her art. The portraits of partners meandering off into the sunset carrying humorously unwieldy bouldering pads, punny wordplays on climbing lingo, depictions of her favorite climbing destinations, and prompts to just ‘CLIMB (and pet all the dogs)’ worked by making her laugh—which turned out to be the best fuel for sending. Actively taking the attention off of achievement did her more favors than the weight of performance pressure ever did.
Dynamite Starfish was born when Kim realized that she was far from alone in that sentiment. She first started selling her art in the form of stickers and shirts at the Stronghold Climbing Gym in LA to help raise charity funds in the aftermath of the Himalayan avalanche last year. From there, she discovered a community of climbers all desperate to break free from an overwhelming fear of failure in something that used to light them up.
Through connecting with these people via her designs, Kim has made peace with her ambition in climbing. “It’s still important to me to try hard,” she understands now. “It’s okay to care about things deeply and strive for more. It’s possible to try hard without trying to be something you’re not, though. That still takes work. But the whole point of putting in that work is to have more enjoyment in life.”
The name Dynamite Starfish grew from this concept of effort over outcome and trying for trying’s sake. It’s a particularly awkward climbing move, which she defines as:
Tightly gripping handholds, simultaneously flagging out both legs then proceeding to violently kick downwards and inwards in a desperate attempt to produce upwards motion; making the climber resemble an explosive bottom feeder.
To Kim, performing a Dynamite Starfish takes real guts. You look certifiably uncool while maybe gaining mere inches of progress with every push. It’s not about metrics or aesthetics or proving anything to anyone, because no one knows how hard you’re truly trying from the outside. All that matters is the feeling of dedicating everything you have to the moment at hand.
I’ve decked out my water bottle in a handful of Dynamite Starfish stickers since that teary day at the crag. Just the act of slapping them on felt empowering in and of itself. My try-hard mentality won’t be going anywhere; if anything, it will only skyrocket from here on out. But I do believe that, with a little help from Leslie Kim’s creative spirit and the hilarious image of a Dynamite Starfish imprinted on my mind, I’ll start to think differently about why I want to try in the first place.