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Tips for Successful Projecting (Even When Things Turn South)

Hard climbing brings out the best in people. It also brings out the worst. If (when) things go south, here's how to turn it around.

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“Dirt me! Dirt me to the f*cking ground!” 

I roll my eyes as the angry outburst reverberates through the canyon. This guy had been repeatedly punting off of his project for the last several hours straight, expletives intensifying with every attempt. Every single climber at the crag on that otherwise quiet Tuesday morning knew exactly how his day was going. I wasn’t looking forward to this particular phrase showing up in my dreams that night. 

At the same time, I couldn’t really blame him. No one in earshot could. That voice could have just as easily belonged to any of us. I’d just let loose my own eruption of emotion earlier that morning after an especially upsetting foot slip—my own outburst was quieter and more sullen, but it was a temper tantrum nonetheless. 

Hard climbing brings out the best in people. There’s nothing like witnessing the kind of joy that radiates through someone’s entire body when a project they’ve poured themselves into, sacrificing time and energy and so many layers of skin for, finally unlocks. Whittling a climb down from unfathomable to possible to doable to done takes a person on a soul journey that might as well be a religious experience. 

I’ve never felt more at peace in my own skin than right after a particularly hard-fought send. It’s not just the feeling of accomplishment. It’s also a sense of reassurance that I can actually trust myself to stand strong in the face of adversity. That’s the kind of stubborn determination that transfers over to any other obstacle. Being able to sit back at the top of a climb and know that it gave me plenty of hell, but I gave even more, gives me reason to believe that I have unique strengths worth celebrating. Each ticked project represents a different code that I translated from gibberish into my own private language. The end result belongs to me; people around me can see the final product, but they can’t understand it the same way I do. That moment, reflecting back on my turbulent history with the climb as I lower down from the send, arms me with enough self-assurance to ward off the nastiest of inner critics for weeks on end. The initial glory fades. The boost to my morale does not. 

To have that effect, though, climbing also has to bring out the very worst. You have to want it. At some point or another, frustration, fear, and doubt will creep in. Queue up the screaming, crying, cursing, whining, kicking, throwing… I’ve seen and done it all. I’m not proud of the person I can become after bashing my head against the wall—sometimes literally—on the same project just to make mere inches of progress. In my lowest moments, I turn so snippy with my partner that we’ve only narrowly avoided a nasty breakup at the base of the crag on more than one occasion. Endless loops of self-deprecation aren’t easy for anyone on the outside to put up with for long. Neither are the snide retorts at any attempt to soothe me, and equal amounts of vitriol if they try silence instead. Sometimes I can almost watch myself helplessly from the outside as I unleash the interrogation: Why can’t I do this? How could I have let myself slip? Where did I mess up? What needs to change? Were you even paying attention?! They’re questions without answers, at least none that anyone else besides me can give. But I’m so desperate to escape the spiral in my own head that I let it loose on my partner instead. It’s not a good look. 

[Master dynamic movement with this course by Carlo Traversi]

But I’ve come to the conclusion that uncovering a little ugliness is a necessary part of the process, a prerequisite to the eventual elation. The triumph wouldn’t feel nearly as gratifying without sitting in the suck for a while first. It might not even exist at all. As Brené Brown, PhD researcher specializing in shame and vulnerability, explains: “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” The joy only has permission to shine through if the opposite does as well. 

Unleashing the ugly means that I care. It shows that I’m allowing the act of climbing to expose the deepest layers of my humanity. I’m not trying to hide from the pain of such an experience. At the same time, I don’t want to feel so powerless to that pain that I forget my values in life. The key is finding the right balance. That way, the ugliness is both felt and managed. Owning the less attractive sides of ourselves removes the shame and stigma around being a multifaceted person. Shame is what makes the ugly latch on; without it, we have the confidence to laugh off the pain. 

Embrace the ugly climber in you. Make the try-hard intentional and surrender to the absurdity. 

  1. Perfect your bellows. Do them loudly. Pick out the phrases that best express the feeling of unmatched disappointment after dry-firing off the same hold five times in a row. Bonus points for accompanying groans, shrieks, and the occasional sob. Get the pain out of your head and let it be heard in a healthy way, directed toward the universe at large rather than at yourself or anyone else. Research shows that vocalization improves grip strength, so you’ll reap both mental and physical benefits. 
  2. Play the blame game. Bad condies, blown tips, seeping holds, not enough sleep, indigestion, went too hard yesterday, going hard tomorrow…the possibilities are endless. The more ridiculous, the quicker you’ll crack a smile. Plus, humans are narrative creatures. We appreciate the story behind every success and failure. In the grand scheme of things, there are many outside factors that contribute to each struggle we face—in climbing and in life. Write the full story for yourself so that you can see your efforts in context. 
  3. Dive in deep. Think about your project non-stop. Bring it up on first dates. Text your mom with every development. Mime the crux sequence in the bathroom mirror at work. Cry about it on the bus. Sleep with beta notes under your pillow. Let it impede your daily functioning. If you’re going to bother getting upset about the climb, let it in all the way. You’ll gain some helpful perspective on how your project fits into the bigger picture. What can it teach you about your learning styles and your emotional habits? What insights might arise in the middle of your daydreams? 
  4. Eat your feelings. Gummy bears. Chocolate squares. Cheese sticks. Sushi rolls. Whatever your sad-sack self craves, have it on hand. You can’t cry very well with your mouth full. And if nothing else, you’re all fueled up for the next go. Lack of energy leaves many a climber feeling more hopeless than the situation really warrants. Have a snack before you let yourself go down that rabbit hole.
  5. Give up. Walk away. Take the dramatic exit you’ve always imagined, with a swish of your coat and a “Good day, sir; I said GOOD DAY.” Backing off for now, or even a few days or weeks, could do your spirit good. Give yourself permission to not hang everything on this one endeavor. Explore your options elsewhere. Whenever you make your way back again, it won’t feel the same because you won’t be the same. 

Climbing isn’t just something most of us do for fun. It’s an enormous part of who we are, where we send our energy, and how we plot out the future. But loving something so strongly gives it the power to hurt us, too. Let it—the wins are worth it. Just do yourself the favor of owning the ugly before it owns you. 

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