Here's a simple narrative I bet everyone of you can relate to. You head into the gym, or out to the crag, with a project in mind. You warm up and make your way over to that project. You pull on the start holds and begin your way through the climb. Somewhere along the way, you fall. You try again, you fall. You try once more, you fall. You continue trying. You continue falling. Before you know it, your climbing session is over and it's time to head home. In this scenario we haven't accepted our failures, preventing us from engaging in a crucial step to bettering ourselves as climbers.
If we simply fail and try again, we're bound to fail again. Instead, when we fail, we've got to learn from our failure, use that to improve, then try again. Even if we're not successful on our next attempt, we can simply repeat the process, continuing to learn and grow, until we're equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful.
To learn from our failures, requires us to first accept them. This can be a difficult thing to do as it means putting our ego aside. With an inflated sense of self, our internal narrative becomes something along the lines of “How could I fail?”, rather than “Why did I fail?”. Identifying the cause of any failure starts with this asking of why, making it the most important step in beginning the learning process. Our ego may not be the only thing distracting us from this question of why, and preventing us from learning from our mistakes. Our emotions can play an equally detrimental role. When we fail, it's natural, and ok, for us to feel disappointed or frustrated, but if we don't find a way to move past these emotions and onto the question of “Why did I fail?”, we'll be unable to learn from our mistakes.
Once we've focused ourselves on asking why we failed, the learning process has begun. Unfortunately, simply asking why we failed, answering that question, and changing our approach based on that answer isn't always enough. Sometimes we'll face failure, after failure, after failure, without an obvious path to success.
Thankfully, this can be avoided. Instead of just asking “Why did I fail?”, we need to ask why four times. This allows us to find and understand the root cause of any problem we encounter. Here's a perfect example. You fall off of your project and ask yourself “Why did I fall?” (This is the first ‘why’). You answer this with “My foot came off.”. Now if we stopped here, you'd attempt the move you fell from again, but this time you'd try to keep your foot on. If your foot stays on, you'd be successful, but if your foot comes off again and you fall, you'd ask why, and be left with the very same answer, “My foot came off.”. Instead, you should continue with three more ‘why's’. Next, you'd ask, “Why did my foot come off?” (This is ‘why’ number two). You answer “I didn't have enough weight on it.”. Then you'd ask yourself “Why didn't I have enough weight on my foot?” (‘Why’ number three). You answer with “My hips weren't close enough.” Now, you'd ask the final ‘why’. “Why weren't my hips close enough to my foot?”. Asking this fourth ‘why’ identifies the root cause of the problem for you. You'd now know you simply need to keep your hips closer to your foot to successfully do the move you fell from.
The learning process doesn't stop here. In fact, at this point, it's really more of a problem solving process. To truly learn from our mistakes and develop ourselves as climbers, we need to be able to repeat difficult moves more than once. If you can do one hard move once, but can't repeat it, have you really learned anything? This is why it's equally important to ask ourselves the four ‘why's’ when we've successfully done a move for the first time. Asking yourself “Why was I successful?”, is the best place to start. Follow your answer up with three more ‘why's’, and learn from your answers. If you understand why a move worked, you'll be able to do it again and again. That's true learning.
So, the next time you find yourself at the gym, or out at the crag, all warmed up and ready to try your project, set aside your ego and emotions. Accept the failures you encounter, and ask yourself ‘why’ four times, both when you fail, and also when you succeed. Before you know it, you'll have learned so much, that those projects will become your warm ups.
Devin Cooley Head Routesetter and Youth Coach at Onsight Rock Gym Founder and Head Coach of Climbing Made Easy