Failure - It's good for the soul

Author: administrator   Date Posted:30 June 2014 

(from Paul Watkins, owner and coach @ CrossFit Warrnambool) 

I was a nerd at high school. 

Ok let's be honest, I'm a nerd now, it's more of a lifetime commitment than a 'phase'

And I'm talking a quality nerd - I wasn't just the last to get picked for a sport team, sometimes I just wasn't picked.

At all.

Period. (aahhh the good 'ole days). 

I actually understood the rules of Dungeons and Dragons and thought that maths and chemistry weren't really that hard - not ideal survival skills when you attended a boys school that glorified success on the football and cricket field. 

When I was young I wanted to be an architect, then an archaeologist (thanks Indiana Jones for the realistic career expectations) and finally a Doctor. 

Two decades of formal study, numerous certificates, bachelor and masters degrees later and not a single one of these aspirations came to pass. 

Thank God.

Now, one year shy of racking up four decades of existence and I'm deeply involved in the fitness industry, run an import and retail business, have a pretty impressive climbing and adventure resume and can pass as a half decent chippie.

I'm a nerd - How the hell did I end up here?

Greg Glassman once said that people require three essential skills to thrive and survive - 

  1. Move
  2. Swim
  3. Fight

Be able to move, remain mobile and get yourself from A to B. The loss of mobility as we age is a major determinant in people losing their independence and quality of life.

The majority of the planet is water, a few inches is all it takes to drown a person so how about being able to handle yourself in it. (we do live on an island)

Fight - or more accurately, be able to defend yourself (or your family) and get out of danger.

I think he got it 75% right - in my opinion he missed one - probably the most important one.

The ability to adapt.

Now I'm not talking about some crazy Darwinian capability to suddenly grow gills because the West Antarctic ice shelf just slipped off. I'm talking about the mental capacity to realise that all is not going to plan - and to deal with it. 

The ability to adapt is a mental skill. It's emotional, even visceral. And whilst in may rely on physical capabilities the reality is that your mind is driving the bus. 

So the how the hell do I train 'my ability to adapt'?

More leg days? Run more? More motivational you tube videos?

Nope, personally I've found the best way to develop an ability to adapt is to fail. 

"...Tell me the truth and I'll believe you, tell me a fact and I'll listen but tell me a story and I'll remember...."

So let me tell you a story.

In 2003 I was running multiple businesses, working ridiculous hours and needed a break - preferably somewhere with no phone reception or email. Kathmandu sounded exotic and remote - that was literally my entire criteria. I booked a holiday and a trek because it sounded cool and the lower Himalayas didn't have 3G reception. A two week trek up to buddhist monastery at the foothills of the Himalayas.

This is way off reservation for a nerd. Trust me. 

But I loved it. I came back eager for more but work dominated again for a few years until I finally faced a decision - keep working, be successful, relatively unhealthy and eventually retire. Or get out and see what happened.

So I got out.

Sell everything, hit the adventure trail, see what happens. These 3 'bullet points' represented my entire strategic plan. 

I Trekked Kokoda, retraced my grandfathers wartime footsteps through New Britain, headed back to Nepal and climbed Mera Peak. One thing lead to another - no plan, just going with the flow. Went to New Zealand and spent time learning crevasse rescue, glacier travel and bagged a bunch of peaks. Headed to Antarctica and climbed the Vinson Massif - I went their simply because it was Antarctica but now I had bagged one of the fabled 'Seven Summits' - the highest peak on each of the seven continents. 

So a dream was born - one down, six to go. I headed to Africa and summited Kilimanjaro (tick number two), came home for two weeks to refuel and admire my mountaineering beard before heading off to South America to add Aconcagua to my list. 

Turns out mountains don't give a stuff about your ambitions. Or plans. Or even your life. They can be a little harsh like that. We started with ten climbers, by high camp only three of us would be in any state to attempt the summit. I would fail and turn back about 500 vertical meters from the summit. The other two made it to the summit but at the cost of a helicopter trip down and third degree frostbite for one of them. 

It was my first (and not my last) mountain climbing fail. I was shattered, Aconcagua is high (almost 7000m) but not technically difficult by any stretch. It's just a hard slog and the altitude has a tendency to hand you your arse on a plate. 

I came home, regrouped, and immediately booked in for the next season. 

Why?

What separates those that can suffer a setback and get back up? What makes someone quit whilst others continue. What the hell is going on inside their heads?

This is where the capacity to adapt I believe becomes paramount. The mental capacity to accept an uncomfortable or unpleasant reality and come at it from a different angle. To suffer but learn. To strengthen your mental resilience. 

This is a skill - and like any skill it takes practice. Don't want to go to the gym because it's early and cold and raining? The very decision to get up and go - or not - is training your mind. Strengthening or weakening your mental resilience. To accept an easier path or a harder path. Might skip today's workout because it has heaps of running, won't verbalise that goal (run a marathon, start a business, change my job) in case I fail. All these mental rehearsals, choices silently made, have consequence.

In your physical training,  in your personal life, in your work - take the path less travelled. Put yourself in the uncomfortable place, risk the failure, the discomfort, the agony of defeat. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it wont, but every time, regardless of the outcome you will be learning, and becoming tougher mentally and emotionally. You will be building that ability to adapt and overcome. 

'Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth' - Tyson.

Sometimes you will win and sometimes you will fail. But you will be making unrelenting progress. And next time you will be harder to stop, harder to stall, harder to keep down.

I went back to Aconcagua a year later, a team of two guides and five climbers.

Only one guide and one climber made it to the summit. 

I called my wife via sat phone from the top - 'I made it, I didn't stop, I made it.'

'...It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves..." E. Hillary

 

I still can't ocean swim for shit, but hey I'm working on it.

Do the uncomfortable work, and be truly stronger for it.


 

(originally posted @crossfitwarrnambool.com.au - reposted and shared with permission)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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