In 2017 Alex Honnold realized his dream of climbing the epic face of El Capitan without a rope, becoming the first person to do so. This is one of the most significant human achievements of all time, certainly of my generation, and it required substantial physical, emotional and mental endowments and massive preparation and training. But deceptively, he did not achieve this alone. What dream do you have that will force you out of your comfort zone? Whose help do you need to pull it off, even if the event itself is an individual sport?
There are team sports and individual pursuits. For pretty much all of my adult life I have been self-employed and recharged myself in mountain pursuits like climbing and biking. Even on more civilized terrain like a golf course, my work is self-directed and self-performed. But I have not been alone. Far from it.
Any mission worth accomplishing requires help.
Pretty much every great human achievement required partnerships, teams, organizations and entire communities to pull off. If a mission is something I can do completely on my own, I'd argue it's too small for me. That's been a lifelong paradox for someone like me who has operated independently for so long.
I recently watched the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo detailing the first ascent of the Freerider route on El Capitan in the Yosemite valley. I've been to that valley and looked at that massive wall; watching the documentary I was utterly mesmerized.
The wall is 3200 feet high. Alex Honnold climbed the route in just under 4 hours. This likely required something like 12,000 precise movements of his two hands and two feet, with an error on any placement sure to lead to a fatal ground fall. Most climbers who have been serious about free soloing at a high standard are dead. The law of averages always wins out. And yet, in my mind, this stands out as one of the singular most significant achievements of all time.
Even great individual achievements are rarely done in isolation.
I had considerable experience as a younger man climbing frozen waterfalls without a rope, sometimes unsupported in remote areas. It's not a practice I've kept up as a more mature man with mounting responsibilities, but despite the very moderate level of these achievements compared to Alex Honnold's, I think I have an added appreciation for his process: I watched the documentary tensed up and one notch away from succumbing to the animal terror inside. And even then, I have only a small inkling of what it actually took him to pull it off. Tommy Caldwell, one of the top rock climbers in the world since he came on the hard rock scene at the age of 14 and Alex's rehearsal partner said, that even he doesn't know what it truly took to pull of the climb; only Alex knows.
I'm not entirely sure that Alex would have survived this apparently solo achievement without the support of Tommy and other great valley climbers like Peter Croft (an important mentor for high-grade free soloing). Alex has a degree of mental focus and toughness that's off the charts and an amygdala with a very high threshold for kicking him into the fight or flight response that for most of us would trigger with congested traffic. Despite these natural endowments his attitude is to do substantial preparation and rehearsal as a way to fight through his fear as an expression of commitment to a goal that demands it. He also has a girlfriend, who, despite having considerable emotions about the process, managed to modulate them around him, knowing that invalidating his dream would only build unrecoverable contempt and resentment in the relationship. In the end, a village raises every child. Even the super independent ones. Alex's village raised him particularly high.
Every great innovator has somehow learned to ask for help.