What I’ve Learned from Alex Honnold about Fear, Patience, and Perseverence

Source: National Geographic

Source: National Geographic

I often use plane rides as a space to catch up on movies. It’s quite thrilling to settle into a trans-continental flight and scroll through the new releases – Hollywood and independent films alike.

This spring I saw Free Solo on the list. A film by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, it follows free solo climber Alex Honnold on his quest to do the (seemingly) impossible: scale Yosemite’s 3,000 foot El Cap wall without ropes. While Honnold’s expertise and training make the risk of falling – in his opinion – calculably low, the consequences of a fall are clearly extremely high.

They’re life or death.

Perfection is a necessity in free soloing. This is part of the appeal for Honnold, who was raised in a household where perfection was expected and yet always remained somehow out of reach. With a genius-level IQ and abnormally nonreactive amygdala (the part of the brain that registers danger), Honnold seems to find the right challenge in free soloing. And he simply loves climbing. It is his life’s joy.

And yet this film does not document the life of a reckless thrill-seeker. Far from it. The exactness, preparedness, and awareness with which Honnold approached the climb fascinated me. In fact, he mentions at one point that if an adrenaline surge does arise when he’s free soloing, “something has gone terribly wrong.”

His focus and demeanor remind me of a Zen warrior on the wall. And his process illuminates the possibility of human accomplishment – especially when one is attempting an “impossible” feat.

There is a gap between our thoughts and their materialization into reality. The stories we tell ourselves crystallize only when we believe them. Popular teachers like Brené Brown and Byron Katie address this in their work. A teacher of mine consistently reminds her anxiety-prone students: “don’t believe every thought that crosses your mind.”

When we become aware of a thought being a thought, as opposed to the truth of our reality, we create space between for ourselves to make a choice:

Will I believe this thought, this story I’m telling myself, or not?

These stories that create themselves seemingly spontaneously are often fueled by conditioning (past experiences and/or standards of normativity within families and societies) or powerful feelings like anger, guilt, and fear.

When it comes to moving forward and pursuing challenging or new projects, fear is often the primary contributor.

 

I want to change my career, but I might not succeed.

I’d like to befriend that person, but I fear they won’t like me.

I want to solo travel to India, but it’s too risky.

 

In Alex Honnold’s case, there is also fear. But instead of (a) letting the fear deter him from a pursuit that is clearly calling to him or (b) forcibly pushing through the fear, he does something else.

“I try to expand my comfort zone by practicing my moves over and over again.  I try to work through my fear until it’s not scary anymore.”


In the documentary, you’ll see the rigorous preparation and step-by-step process that Honnold uses to train himself into a comfort zone by expanding the zone itself.

And we can learn from his process by also taking small, achievable steps to expand our own comfort zones.

In such a way, the impossible becomes possible.

—>Check out the trailer to Free Solo

—>Learn more about Alex Honnold