Why El Capitan free soloist Alex Honnold will change how you view mastery

The wall of El Capitan

Like many, I watched the documentary Free Solo on Channel 4 a few weeks ago. Breathless is literally the way to describe how it felt watching climber Alex Honnold tackle the slab of rock that is El Capitan without a harness or rope.

That’s right – one slip, one tiny mistake and he would fall to his death. Of course, he’s not dead and so it wouldn’t be a huge spoiler to reveal he succeeds at being the first to free solo all 3,200 feet of El Capitan in a little less than four hours.

That achievement in itself is impressive but there is an important lesson that comes out in the documentary that is far, far more powerful than his specific achievement. Just.

And it’s a lesson everyone can take and apply to whatever they’re doing.

Right now, there’s a fistful of great climbing documentaries available to stream, with special mention to Dawn Wall and Valley Uprising on Netflix – both of which focus on climbers in Yosemite and the ascent of El Capitan, particularly.

Just to be clear right off, I’m not a climber.

It doesn’t particularly interest me as a sport but these documentaries really capture the imagination and are a fascinating insight into the lengths some people go to explore the limits of human endeavour.

So back to Alex and his ascent of El Capitan. The reason we’re talking about this now is because this documentary was made.

Now climbers can tend to be quite lonely characters. Some of the other climbers Alex spoke to in preparation for his attempt highlighted many didn’t like the attention nor the pressure of having people watching or filming what they do.

While Alex fit the mould, he didn’t have the luxury of doing it without a film crew. The whole point was to film his climb and the production crew were really clear and sensitive to his needs. They weren’t to appear in his line of sight or interrupt his climb in any way. Just one distraction and it could be game over.

But that wasn’t the real problem.

Alex felt pressure. In fact, a year before he successfully completed it shows him abandoning an attempt before it ever got started. He knew he needed to prepare more because he had to overcome the additional challenge of having the pressure of being watched.

And that’s when he delivered his lesson in mastery:

“Having all these people around requires a higher level of preparation, a high level of confidence basically. I need to dial it in so much that, you know, it doesn’t matter if there’s a stadium of people watching me because it’s so easy for me that I’m just like: ‘Check this out.'”

Let’s break this comment down.

Alex recognises his task isn’t just climbing El Capitan free solo. He believes he could do that. But his real task is climbing El Capitan while being watched and followed.

It’s always tempting to think for people who we believe are naturally great at something, this comes easy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What makes it look easy isn’t natural talent or ability. It is practice.

And not just some practice. Enough practice so that the very moves you make are part of you that it almost impossible to forget. So much practice that it is seared into your subconscious.

What I took from Free Solo was Alex’s complete dedication to mastery. His unflinching resolve to understand every inch of the rock he would be climbing so that not only could he climb it… but he could climb it with such confidence nothing could distract him.

That was the key. Even watching him as he tackled the most difficult parts of the climb, it was nerve-shattering to see these brilliant, expert climbers struggling with the infamous Boulder Problem and failing again and again knowing he would later be tackling this without any fallback.

Just look at him in action. He moves with all the confidence and grace of a dancer or gymnast. His every move is co-ordinated and practised. It’s little wonder it took him eight years to finally close the curtain on this climb. Any less and we may not have had the privilege of seeing his achievement.

What else is really telling from this documentary is Alex’s assessment of risk and confidence. He explains he experiences fear like everyone else, yet his preparation means he sees his endeavours as less risky than we would.

Also, there’s another point worth mentioning. The all-or-nothing equation is one of the reasons for being able to maintain such sustained focus, which is vital to the success of the project.

As I’ve seen it stated elsewhere, these situations are “perfection or die” moments. The reason the human body is able to push and push and push is because the alternative is death.

In a similar way, I’ve heard discussions on “flow” touch on the same point. The reason why so many extreme records have been broken in the past few years and the limits to what we can do as human expanded is because of being able to get into these “flow” states. This is partly mastery and partly the consequences of failure – when the stakes are potential death, the brain switches into a different gear.

While most of our jobs won’t ever verge into the realms of potential death for failure (no-one has ever suggested I write or die… yet), the important requisite is mastery.

For me, the big lesson here is to push what we understand as mastery.

It’s not just about being great at what you do.

Being good isn’t about making it look easy. It means developing mastery to a level where the performance of your activity is so deeply embedded in your subconscious you can perform any time, anywhere.

Now that’s mastery.

Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash