In 1999, Nick Sagar reached the end of his rope. He had a dream: to climb The Crew, a route at the upper end of the rock climbing difficulty scale in Rifle State Park, Colorado. In his 20s, Sagar had given his life over to the monomaniacal dedication required to climb 5.14 routes (the highest rating possible), living off a few dollars of sponsorship money with his wife Heather, munching donated energy bars and living out of a truck parked at the crags for months at a time.
Then Sagar saw the dream crumble before his eyes. During a rest day while preparing for his next attempt, he got the bad news: his sponsorship from a climbing gear company—money desperately needed to survive while working on the route—failed to come through. Out of money, he had no choice but to abandon his quest for The Crew and head home, seeking work. Sagar knew that he would likely never again be fit enough to ascend the route; never again would he have an entire year to do nothing but live in Rifle Park and train all day every day, like an Olympic decathlete in the year before the games. The loss of sponsorship virtually guaranteed that he would never reach his goal. Sagar removed the gear he'd fixed on the route months earlier. Tears streaming down his face, he packed up his equipment and walked back to camp. He and Heather said goodbye to their friends and drove toward the exit, defeated.
But then, a lone figure stepped into the middle of the road, holding something in his hand.
"That's Herman," said Nick, "What the heck is he doing?"
Herman Gollner, a dedicated climber in his mid-fifties, had watched Sagar's quest with quiet admiration. When he heard about Sagar's situation, he drove back to his home in Aspen, visited his bank, and made a withdrawal. Now, here stood Herman, with a handful of cash, flagging down Sagar's truck.
"Here, take this," he said, thrusting the cash at Nick. "You must finish The Crew."
"No . . . I couldn't possibly . . . no," Nick stammered.
"You must take it," asserted Herman, in his Austrian accent. "You are so close. You may never have a chance again. I am older now—never again to climb at the top—but you . . . maybe I can help you. Please, take it."
The Sagars reluctantly accepted the cash, and Nick returned to the route for another attempt. This was his Olympic Gold Medal attempt, his shot to come through. He launched into the upper section of the wall, feeling strong, knowing he could do it. But just before the top, he heard a sickening sound—a little crackle under his foot and the skitter of his climbing shoe against stone. He had broken a key foothold!
Like one of those movie scenes where the hero grasps for something in a dream, only to watch it disappear from his outstretched fingertips as he wakes, Sagar watched the top of the route suddenly fly up out of his grasp as gravity pulled his body off the rock and into mid-air. The rope snapped tight, and he knew he'd just expended his best effort ever. And now, without the key foothold, the route would be even more difficult.
"I almost wanted to quit," he said. "But Herman and all my friends believed in me. I couldn't let them down." Foothold or not, Sagar was determined to do the route, working on it through the autumn months and into early winter. Finally, on the last possible day of the season, with snow falling all about, Sagar made a last attempt. The overhanging rock shielded his hand holds from snow, but that was the only relief from the weather. Despite sub-freezing temperatures and fingers so numb that he could barely feel the smaller edges, Sagar pulled through to the top and fulfilled the dream.
"I learned so much from The Crew," reflected Sagar three years later, "but very little of the learning was about climbing. I learned that the highest individual achievements are never solo events, that you only reach your best with the help of other people, and their belief in you. It's a lesson I will never forget, no matter what I do with the rest of my life."
The adventure of The Crew became not just a climb, but a classroom for life. It was not reaching the top that mattered most, but the lessons—the struggle and the adventure—learned along the way. Says Sagar: "I'm a better person for the experience, not the success."
I've been a rock climber for more than thirty years now, and while I'll probably never break through to climb 5.14 like Nick Sagar, my whole approach to life and career has been inextricably linked with my development as a climber. I began in my early teenage years, when my step father signed me up for a climbing course against my will. ("I'd rather study," I whined.) At the end of the first day, however, I knew I'd discovered one of the burning passions of my life. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I had one of the great climbing centers of the world as my back yard, and some of the greatest climbers in the world as mentors. When I applied to Stanford University as an undergraduate, I noted in my application that one of the main attractions of Stanford was its sandstone buildings and wonderful weather that would enable me to train year round by climbing on the walls between classes. (Climbing on the walls had long been a tradition with the Stanford Alpine Club, which had even published a small guide to routes on campus.) One day while trying an unclimbed route on the side of the philosophy building in the main Quadrangle, I heard a shuffle of feet behind me and then the voice of emeritus philosophy professor John Goheen: "Really, Mr. Collins. Do you think this is the ultimate solution to the existential dilemma?" I named the climb Kant be Done.
Rock climbing for me has been the ultimate classroom, with lessons applicable to all aspects of life, including business, management, leadership and scientific study. It is a sport from which you do not always get a second chance to learn from your mistakes—death tends to stop the learning process—but I've been fortunate to survive my own blunders. In this chapter, I offer five of my favorite lessons from climbing as a classroom, and how they apply to life and work outside of climbing:
1) Climb to Fallure, not Failure: How to Succeed without Reaching the Top
2) Climb in the Future, Today: How to Succeed by Changing Your Frame of Mind
3) Separate Probability from Consequence: How to Succeed—and Stay Alive—by Understanding the True Risks
4) Form the Partner's Pact: How to Succeed by Practicing the Discipline of First Who, Then What
5) Don't Confuse Luck and Competence: How to not let Success Kill You
Matt and I walked around the bend in the trail and I stopped dead in my tracks, looking at an absolutely beautiful sheet of rock—smooth and slightly overhanging, with a thin finger-tip sized seam splitting right up the middle of the grey and silver granite wall. "You can see why I named the route Crystal Ball," Matt said, pointing to a baseball-sized quartzite handhold fifty feet up the climb.
We roped up and I set off up the route, shooting for an on-sight ascent. An "on-sight" means that on your first try you lead the climb without any prior information about the moves (other than what you can determine looking from the ground) and without any artificial aid. Other climbers may have climbed the route before you, but they have not given you any information on how to climb the difficult sections, nor have you watched anyone else attempt the route. For you, in other words, the route is an entirely blank page, no matter how many other climbers have ascended the route. You get one chance for an on-sight. Once you start to climb, if you blow it (and thereby fall onto the rope), you've forever lost the chance.
Ten feet below the crystal, my feet began to skitter about, slipping off slick pebbles, and I curled my thumb around a little edge, thinking to myself, "If I can just get a little weight off my fingers . . ." The adrenaline of the on-sight attempt made me over-grip every hold, clamping down as hard as I could—like an overanxious runner who goes out too fast in the first 800 meters, only to pay the price for the indiscretion with lactic acid and gasping breaths.
If you've ever taken a pull-up test, you can get a sense for the feel of a hard sport climb. With the first pull-up, you feel really strong—like you can do this forever. But when you get close to your limit, the exact same movement that earlier felt so easy becomes impossibly hard. If you could just let go of the bar and rest for a minute, you could do two or three more pulls ups, easy. But when you try to do all of your pull ups in one hang, you hit a wall; drawing on all your will, you just can't get over the bar again. End of session.
A hard sport climb is similar to a pull-up session: it's a race to the top before you run out of power. The same exact moves that would be so easy if they were moves one, two, and three become much harder when placed higher on the route, at, say, moves 25, 26 and 27. (A move is simply a hand movement. If you move your right hand from one hold to the next, it counts as a single move.) As we say in the realm of steep routes, "the clock is ticking" as soon as you leave the ground. You only have so many minutes and seconds before you will reach a point where your arms and fingers unwrap and uncurl, and you go plummeting down until (hopefully) the rope catches you.
"Breath, Jim. Relax." Matt's voice soothed me for a moment.
I gathered a bit of composure, while hooking my thumb and resting my fingers, trying to get my breathing to settle down. But to little avail. My mind chattered away: "Not sure whether to go right hand or left hand to the sideways edge above . . . If I get it wrong, no way I can reverse . . . and even if I get it right, I'm not sure I'll have enough power to pull up to the crystal ball . . . and if I can't get to the crystal ball, there's no way I'll be able to get the rope clipped into the next point of protection . . . how far would I fall? . . . Matt's a good belayer . . . hope I checked my knot . . . God, my fingers hurt . . . but this is the on-sight . . . don't blow it . . . you only get one chance to on-sight the route . . . but what if I go for it and I can't clip? I'll take a huge fall . . . But I won't hit anything . . .just fly off into space . . . It's only scary, but not unsafe . . . just do it . . . just punch for it . . . what have you got to lose? . . . I wonder if I can go right left right . . . But I don't like to take big falls . . . "
Tick, tick, tick—the clock ran on while I hesitated.
"OK, Matt, here I go."
Right hand to the side pull. Left foot to the edge.
"Uh oh." Wrong call. I should have gone to the edge with my left hand! I rolled my body to the left, groping for an edge, a pebble, a wrinkle—something, anything—that would allow me to pop my right hand up and move my left onto the side edge. I smooshed my right fingers into a little edge that pointed down and sideways—the wrong direction for a good pull. I now had a less than 20 percent chance of success. If I tried to make the move up, I'd almost certainly fall, a drop of 30 feet. Even if I did manage to surge upward, the higher I went without making the next bolt clip, the bigger the eventual fall. (To "clip" means to get the rope into the carabiner hanging off a protection bolt. On most modern routes, like Crystal Ball, the first person ever to climb the route affixes permanent protection bolts in the rock, to clip the rope through. These bolts exist only to catch you if you fall; they do not help you actually climb up the rock. If you fall when leading, you descend about 2.5 times as far as the distance to your last successful clip.)
"Off!" I called down to Matt.
"No," he yelled back. "You're only three moves from the crystal. You can recover there."
"OFF!" I repeated, with angry emphasis.
And I let go, dropping onto the rope in a nicely controlled fall.
I hung on the rope for about ten minutes, recovering, and then swung toward the rock on the end of the rope, pulled myself back on to the holds and climbed to the top, just as if I'd rested below the pull up bar. But of course it didn't count. I hadn't done a clean on-sight. And even though later in the day, I managed to ascend the route from bottom to top in one shot—a success by most measures—I had nonetheless failed. Not failed on the climb, but failed in my mind. When confronted with the moment of commitment, the moment of decision, the moment of go-for-it on the on-sight . . . well, I let go. I went to failure, not fallure.
Failure and fallure. The difference is subtle, but it is all the difference in the world. In fallure, you still fail to get up the route but you never let go. Going to fallure means full one hundred percent commitment to go up, despite the odds against you. You'll only find your true limit when you go to fallure, not failure. Sure, I had less than a twenty percent chance of pulling through to the crystal ball, but because I let go, I'll never know for sure. Perhaps I would have had an extra reserve, perhaps I would have surprised myself and had an extra bit of power to hang on for one more move. Or perhaps—and this turned out to be true—the very next hold is better than it looks. And that's the rub. On the on-sight you don't know what the next holds feel like. It's the ambiguity—about the holds, the moves, the ability to clip the rope—that makes 100 percent commitment on the on-sight so difficult.
One of my mentors in life, the design guru Sara Little Turnbull, gave me a wall hanging with a quote from her speech at the 1992 Corporate Design Foundation Conference:
If you don't
you don't know
Turnbull, director of the Stanford University Process of Change Laboratory, built a distinguished career as a design consultant to major corporations such as Corning and 3M. The Corporate Design Foundation described Turnbull as "CEOs' secret weapon in product design development." Turnbull once told me that some of her best designs came when she was on the brink of a failed concept but didn't let go. Of course, many—indeed, most—of her brink-of-failure designs ended up being failures. But every once in a while, by not letting go, she would push herself to a completely different level, and something extraordinary would come about. "And of course, that's when breakthroughs happen," she told me. "You have to be on the brink of failure and then surprise yourself. You just go to a different level." Fallure, not failure.
In my research on enduring great companies, I've noticed how the best executives intuitively understood this idea. Darwin Smith made a fallure versus failure decision in vaulting his company to greatness. For one hundred years, Kimberly-Clark languished in mediocrity, with most of its business in traditional coated paper mills. Smith realized that the company's best shot at greatness lay in the paper based consumer goods arena, where it had a side business called Kleenex—a brand that had become synonymous with the category, like Coke or Xerox. But how to get the company to fully commit to making the consumer business great, when the bulk of the company's history and revenues lay in the traditional industrial paper mills? Like the general who burned the boats upon landing, leaving no retreat for his soldiers, Smith decided to sell the mills. He would sell even the mill in Kimberly, Wisconsin, and throw all the proceeds into the consumer business, going head to head with consumer rivals Scott Paper and Procter and Gamble. Wall Street derided him, the business media called the move stupid, and the analysts wrote merciless commentary. After all, how on earth could such a mediocre paper company take on the giants of the consumer business? But in the end, Smith's decision paid off. Kimberly-Clark became the number one paper-based consumer products company in the world, eventually beating Procter & Gamble in six of eight product categories.
In climbing jargon, Smith removed the ability to "take" (to tell your belayer to pull the rope tight and catch you in a controlled fall, as I did with Matt when I failed on Crystal Ball). Of course, there was no guarantee that Kimberly-Clark would succeed in the consumer business—it could have taken a huge leader fall—but Smith understood the only path to success lay in a full commitment to climb to fallure. Anything short of this commitment and Kimberly-Clark would have never become a great company.
I now see life as a series of choices between going to failure or fallure. Like an on-sight attempt, the next holds in life remain unclear, ambiguous. And that very ambiguity holds us back from making a fully committed attempt. We fail mentally. We let go. We take a nice controlled fall, rather than risking a bigger fall. But as with most hard sport climbs, going to fallure in life is scary, but not dangerous. Whether it be starting a business or publishing a book or trying an exciting new design, fallure rarely means doom. And most important, the only way to find your true limit is to go to fallure, not failure.
At age 44, my body does not allow me to pull as hard on holds as when I was 20. But I've since learned that what you lose in physical strength you can gain by increasing your mental strength. And so, I continue to work in the realm of overhanging rock, trying to go to fallure. I've even redefined "success" less in terms of getting to the top and more in terms of the quality of my mental effort. I keep a record on my Palm Pilot of my hard on-sight attempts. A recent listing reads:
2002 HARD ON-SIGHT ATTEMPT LOG
REACH THE TOP: 24
CLIMB TO FALLURE: 18
FAILURE (LET GO/QUIT): 16
TOTAL ATTEMPTS: 58
% SUCCESS RATE: 72%
(TOP + FALLURE)
Note that I calculate the "success rate" not just as the percentage of times to the top, but the percentage of times to the top PLUS percentage of times to fallure. Just the other day during a climbing session, I did not make it to the top of a single route. Not one. Still, it was one of my most successful days of climbing ever, because I went to fallure on every single attempt. I felt good on the way home because my mind felt strong that day, compared to the weak feeling on most days. For in the end, climbing is not about conquering the rock; it is about conquering yourself. And this is what fallure is all about .
The ability to change your frame of mind—to increase your odds of success not by increasing sheer physical capability, but by changing your way of thinking—is a key dimension of climbing as classroom. But the failure-fallure distinction isn't the only mental leap to make. Sometimes it means vaulting yourself into the future.
In 1978, I became obsessed with a climb called Genesis, a smooth, slightly overhanging hundred foot slab of red rock in Eldorado Canyon. The route had never been free climbed, and most people doubted it would ever fall that way. (To "free climb" a route means that you climb with ropes but only as a safety device. The whole point of a "free" ascent is that you move up the rock entirely under your own power and via your hands and feet gripped on the rock, without pulling directly on any gear or the rope. The rope and the protection devices are there to catch you if you fall, not to help you ascend the rock. )
Then one day I watched John Bragg, a 6 foot 2 blond haired giant visiting from the East Coast, attempt Genesis as a free climb. He pulled up into a smooth overhanging section (the part everyone thought would never be climbed) and launched himself upward with a huge throw. His hand hit a little something up on the wall, and he stuck to it for just a second—a momentary pause, before his hand unlatched and he plummeted down twenty five feet onto the rope. Bragg tried this throw ten or twenty times, and then gave up. "It's not going to go for a long time," he said.
Still, my imagination had been kindled. "If he could hang a little hold for even a second," I thought, "it must somehow be climbable." And so, before returning to college for my junior year, I ventured up the cliff to give it try. I just could not, however, find an obvious way to climb with precision to the little hold Bragg had been jumping for, so that I might be able to hang on it long enough to pull up to the next hold.
I made a mental map of the holds and, upon my return to school, found a building wall on the Stanford Campus that had moves similar to what I thought Genesis would be like and created a training routine called the Genocide Traverse, as a reflection of the painful intensity of the route. I trained between classes, carrying a needle in my shirt pocket to pop the blisters on my finger tips that arose from the regimen. Yet even with all this training, I failed to get up the climb when I returned for Christmas Break. I was physically strong, but psychologically intimidated by the supposed "unclimbability" of the route. I needed to change my frame of mind.
But how to do it?
In studying climbing history, I noticed a pattern: climbs once considered "impossible" by one generation of climbers eventually became "not that hard" for climbers two generations later. 5.10 seemed nearly impossible to climbers in the early 1960s, but by the late 1970s, top climbers routinely on-sighted 5.10 as warm ups for harder projects. I read up on how records fell in other sports and noticed the same pattern. For ten years, the world record in the mile stood at 4:01, and no-one seemed able to break the four minute barrier. But once Roger Bannister broke it in 1954, the world record fell six seconds over the next ten years. By the late 1970s, when I was trying Genesis, the mile record had fallen to under 3:50—people had not only figured out how to run sub-four, but they were doing so at the end of the 5,000 meters!
So, I decided to play a psychological trick on myself. I realized that I would never be the most gifted climber, or the strongest climber, or the boldest climber. But perhaps I could be the most futuristic climber. I did a little thought experiment: I tried to project out fifteen years, two generations of climbers later, and ask myself, "What will Genesis seem like to climbers in the 1990s?" The answer came back clear as a bell. In the 1990s, the top climbers in the world would routinely on-sight Genesis, viewing it as simply a warm up for even harder routes. And less-talented athletes would view Genesis as a worthy challenge, but hardly impossible. The barrier, I realized, was primarily psychological, not physical
I decided to pretend in my own mind that it was not 1979, but 1994. I bought a little day timer calendar and changed all the year dates. I walked into the canyon and tried to picture Genesis the way a 1990s climber would look at it.
With that change in psychology, I managed to free climb the route. It caused quite a sensation and confused many of the best climbers of the day. They were still climbing in 1979, whereas I had "transported" myself psychologically to 1994. And, indeed, by the early 1990s, these same elite climbers climbed Genesis routinely, no longer thinking of it as particularly hard. I watched one elite climber visiting from out of state walk to the base, nonchalantly rope up, climb flawlessly to the top, and lower down only to say, "Nice route"—and then amble off in search of stiffer stuff.
Climbing teaches that the biggest barriers are not on the rock, but in our minds. I've seen this lesson come to life with my wife's coaching of the local high school cross country team. When she first became head coach, her varsity boys averaged 5:47 per mile over a cross country course. Now, seven seasons later, the boys average 5:25 per mile—an improvement that made the difference between a team that didn't even qualify for the state meet and two state championship teams in a row. Does she have better athletes on the team? Not really; the primary difference is psychological. She has changed the psychological definition of "fast" for her varsity runners. The same kids that in a different frame of mind would have considered 5:47 to be "fast" now consider 5:47 to be slow. And when they go out in 5:25 or better, they don't even blink an eye. They expect themselves to run that fast. Same genetic talent. Different "set point" psychology. Different results. She changed their frame of mind.
Changing the frame of mind carries over to all walks of life, particularly for entrepreneurs and visionary company builders. The key is to recognize underlying patterns, often with the benefit of historical perspective, and then to project forward what those patterns will mean for future generations. When Steve Jobs visited the Xerox Parc research facilities in 1979, he saw a bunch of desktop computers using point and click devices and screens that displayed exactly what would be printed on the actual page, formatting and all. Today, we take this for granted. I'm typing these words, while looking at a display that will print exactly as I see it, and I can move around the page using a mouse. But in 1979, no commercial computers—certainly not personal computers—had these capabilities. A student of the history of technology adoption, Jobs recognized immediately that these innovations would one day be taken for granted. He pictured how computers would be viewed ten or twenty years down the road, when these features would be standard fare, for even low cost producers (as we see today with Dell).
Instead of waiting for the world to make this shift, however, Jobs decided to act as if the world had already changed. And in 1984, the Macintosh computer came forth, long before the natural forces of the market would have required such a device. It caused quite a sensation, stunning stronger and better companies such as IBM. But of course, today we think nothing of these features. Jobs had simply stepped forward in time and built his company's next generation computers with this changed frame of mind.
Fifteen years after Genesis, I applied this same idea to a significant personal career shift. In graduate school, I'd taken career tests that gave me two contradictory answers: I should be either a professor or an entrepreneur. My first solution was to become a faculty member at Stanford Graduate School of Business in the field of entrepreneurship.
Being genetically encoded to be irreverent, however, I chafed against the traditional academic path, refusing to subject myself to choosing a specific department and doing a traditional Ph.D. When you join a specific field, you become a member of the church of that field: you become a member of the church of leadership, the church of strategy, the church of organization behavior, the church of finance, etc. If you are a member of the church of strategy, your answers to questions will be framed through the lens of strategy; if you come from the church of finance, you come up with finance answers; and so forth. I wanted to be a member of the church of questions, and to be completely agnostic about which field the answers to the questions would fall into. If the answers fell in organization, in leadership, in finance, in strategy—or none of the above—then so be it.
Being at odds with the academic establishment (and being immature to boot), yet wanting to pursue a lifelong academic career of research and teaching, I found myself in quite a conundrum. But then I noticed a pattern: increasing numbers of management faculty found themselves outside the traditional academic fold, becoming essentially entrepreneurs. Even so, this did not resolve my dilemma. Those who had taken the entrepreneurial path had become consultants or built big training companies—a path that did not fit with my talents or passions. I didn't want to be in business; I still wanted to be a professor.
But then I asked myself the Genesis question: what might this same challenge look like to people thirty years down the road? If this were 2025, rather than 1995, what additional options might I have?
The answer flashed clearly in my mind: I could choose to invert the phrase professor of entrepreneurship and, instead, become an entrepreneurial professor. In the previous two decades, it had become a well-trodden career path to forgo a traditional corporate structure and launch out with your own company. So, I reasoned, why not apply that same idea to academics? Why do you need to be at a university to be a professor? Being a professor is not a position or a title; it is a role in the world. Thirty years into the future, I figured, there would perhaps be an entire group of people who became professors to the world, but outside the traditional academic structure.
That's when I moved back to Boulder, Colorado, set up my research laboratory in my old first grade classroom, and became a self-employed professor. I explicitly did not set up a consulting business or a training company. Rather, I organized my calendar exactly as I did when on faculty at Stanford: 50% of my time in research, writing and idea development; 30% of my time in various forms of teaching; 20% of my time in administrative stuff that just needs to get done. I know of few other academics who have explicitly considered this path, but perhaps in a few years many more will. Indeed, what looks like a difficult and risky path today might seem blasé to people in two decades—a path easily followed and embraced by many.
Now, you might be wondering: how did I fund my professorship? Ah, the answer to that lies in the topic of luck. Jerry Porras and I had recently published Built to Last and we were hit with the good fortune of a best seller. Not that we expected a best seller—after all, who would have thought that an idea-driven book based on six years of academic research would become a best seller? But the book came out at just the right moment (just as people tired of restructuring and craved a return to building, rather than destroying), and the zeitgeist of the times fell into our laps. Then, seven years later, my research team and I were struck again with phenomenal good luck, as the first book to come out of the research lab—Good to Great—landed in the market just as Enron imploded, the new economy fell out of favor, and the stock market bubble burst. We had the zeitgeist in our favor once again, and we had an even bigger best seller. Taken together, Built to Last and Good to Great enabled me to become a fully self-employed professor, to endow my own chair and to grant myself tenure.
Of course, it could have turned out differently. Had the zeitgeist not been on our side, my career shift might have failed, dashed on the rocks of reality like so many other entrepreneurial dreams. But that brings me to the next lesson in climbing as a classroom.
In the summer of 1975, a young climber named David Breashears set his sights on a beautiful, unclimbed sheet of rock rising from the ground on a cliff south of Boulder, Colorado. For years, no rock climber had given serious thought to climbing this section. "Someday that wall will be climbed, but not in this generation," said many a climber looking at the smooth sheet. The challenge lay not in the apparent difficulty of the climbing, but in the absence of natural protection. Breashears saw no cracks where he might slot wired climbing nuts, and he was climbing in an era before it became acceptable to drill expansion bolts directly into the rock for protection. (Wired nuts are small pieces of metal with a cable connector to which you can attach the rope. The nuts can be slotted into tapering sections of cracks, where they wedge tight and might hold a leader fall.) The wall rose dead vertical for about five stories, with little pebbles and sharp edges, then the angle kicked back to 85 degrees with holds that looked larger. To Breashears, it looked like the lower sections posed the main problem—where falling would only mean injury, not death.
Breashears headed up the route, trailing a rope and carrying a small selection of wired nuts that he hoped to slot into one of the upper pockets after the hard climbing. At the fifty foot mark, with the angle easing off just a bit, he had a horrifying realization: the climbing above would be more difficult than the opening moves, and there were still no places to slot nuts. The rock became water polished from thousands of years of runoff from above, and the sloping hand holds had no sharp edges to grip.
The rope dropped away from his waist harness to the ground in one arcing loop, clipped through . . . absolutely nothing. No gear, no placements of any type. If he fell, he would plummet sixty feet straight down on to the jumble of sofa sized boulders strewn at the base. At 32 feet per second squared, he would slam into the boulder field at nearly fifty miles per hour at a force of 20gs. Ka-Smack! One dead climber.
Was this a risky situation?
Well, it depends on what you mean by risk.
For David Breashears, it was not a risky situation. Sure, the consequences of a fall were severe, but the probabilities of a fall were close to zero. David was such a gifted climber at his prime, that—to him—the route formed a puzzle to solve, but not a particularly difficult one. It would be like handing a world-class crossword puzzle expert the Wednesday New York Times crossword puzzle (a challenging puzzle, but well within her capabilities) with the instructions: if you don't get the puzzle right, we're going to drop you off a sixty foot cliff to your death. The consequences of failure are extreme, but the probabilities of failure are low.
Of course, if the puzzle-solver allowed the consequences of failure to rattle her into a series of panicky decisions, she might slip up and be thrown off the cliff to her death. And if Breashears had allowed the sixty foot ground fall potential to infect his brain, he might have died. But he didn't. He was able to separate the probabilities of falling from the consequences of falling, and he climbed with focused precision to the top, establishing a new route aptly named Perilous Journey. Since that date in 1975, fewer than a dozen climbers have ascended the route on lead. Not because it is particularly difficult (it is 5.11 on a 5.14 scale), but because of the severe consequences in the event you happen to fall off.
To date, no one has died on Perilous Journey. The people who choose to climb it are those for whom the odds of falling are close to zero, yet who understand that it doesn't matter how easy or hard the climbing, how high or low the probabilities of falling, if you fall hundreds or thousands of feet, the consequences are severe. They go at Perilous Journey with a mindfulness that respects not just the climb, but the potential fall. They don't let the potential death fall rattle them, but equally, don't climb with a cavalier attitude.
It turns out that some of the most tragic episodes in rock climbing have come when climbers mismanaged this distinction, becoming blase on easy terrain. Take the case of Cameron Tague. On July 6, 2000, he made the approach to the Diamond Face on Long's Peak, a thousand feet of sheer granite that begins one thousand feet above another cliff called the Diagnoal. To get to the Diamond, he decided to traverse in from the side of the Diagonal, then advance along a sloping ledge at the base of the Diamond. The sloping traverse ledge, called Broadway, marks the point of separation between the two cliffs—the Diamond rising above for a thousand feet, and the Diagonal falling below for a thousand feet. For a climber as gifted as Tague, it would be an easy traverse to the base of the Diamond, and to save time for the difficult climbing ahead on the actual face, he didn't even bother to rope up. He remarked to his partner that it was going to be a gorgeous day on the face. Then somehow, just as he reached the point in the traverse where the whole thousand feet of the Diagonal fell away below him, he lost his concentration, pulled on a loose piece of stone, and stumbled backward. Tague tried to recapture his balance, his hands grasping and waving about as he skittered toward the edge of the ledge, but he could not stop. He disappeared over the edge, and fell 800 feet to the talus below. The probabilities of falling were remote, but the consequences were lethal.
Separating probability from consequence applies not just to climbing, but also to work, life and business. In 1994, when Intel Corporation first discovered the floating decimal point flaw in its Pentium microprocessor product, engineers estimated that it would cause a rounding error in division once every nine billion times, or only once every 27,000 years for the average spreadsheet user. This astronomically small probability blinded Intel's leaders from worrying about the the astronomically high consequences on the other side of the coin, given that Intel's products had become a widely used consumer brand extending far beyond its traditional customer base of technical sophisticates. When that one in a billion event happened to a math professor, it ignited an explosion of internet chat, which in turn, caught the attention of the media. As then Intel-CEO Andy Grove described in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive (a good title for climbers, by the way), Intel found itself hounded by CNN, pilloried in the press and jolted by unhappy customers. On December 12, 1994, Grove awoke to read the horrific headline: IBM stops all shipments of Pentium based computers. Ultimately, Intel took a $475 million write off—an amount equal to half a year's R&D budget, or five years of Pentium advertising spending.
While Intel didn't die from the fall like Cameron Tague, it certainly crashed onto a ledge and shattered its leg. To Intel's credit, it learned from this experience and changed its way of doing business to account for the consequences, not just the probabilities. To date, we have not seen another problematic Pentium event from Intel.
The key lesson here is to be clear on the difference between probability and consequence, and to act accordingly—to know when it makes sense to climb to fallure and when to not. On dangerous routes like Perilous Journey, or even the easy approach to the Diamond, you should avoid climbing to fallure—no matter how difficult or easy the terrain. On sport routes with big solid bolts (like Crystal Ball) you can get on difficult climbs with a 5% chance of success and throw yourself into full fallure mode. It might be scary, but it is not dangerous.
Separating probability from consequences—being able to see clearly when the consequences of fallure are minimal—is the key to leading an entrepreneurial life. When I taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, many of my students failed to grasp this distinction, and it limited their options. One student came to my office and said, "I'd really like to start my own company, but it just seems so risky, so I'm going to take a job with IBM."
"What would happen if you give your start-up the full try, and failed?" I asked. "What would you do?"
"I suppose I would go and get a job," she said.
"And with your background, energy and skills—how hard would that be?"
"Not very hard."
"So, you're telling me that the worst case scenario is that you would fail and you'd be right back where you are now: looking at getting a regular job."
For a Stanford MBA, trying a start up is like going to fallure on a well bolted sport route. Sure, the odds of success are low, but the consequences of falling are minimal. The rope will catch her. She went out on her own, gave it the full effort, and managed to climb through and build a successful start up. But she would have never known that if she hadn't separated probability from consequence, seen her MBA as a big solid bolt that would catch her, and been willing to throw herself into full fallure mode.
When in a game with high consequences to falling, be mindful, no matter how low the odds of falling. When in a game with minimal consequences to falling, you can take on challenges with low odds of success and throw yourself into the endeavor and climb to fallure.
Of course, we have left unanswered how to think about a different probability/consequence scenario: high odds of falling combined with severe consequences. Unless you are searching for true adventure or Kleos (the ancient Greek notion of everlasting glory attained through the achievement of heroic deeds), I'd recommend staying away from this combination. But if you do elect this extreme brand of adventure—and accept the very real chance that you will kill or maim yourself—be sure to give yourself the best hedge against the risks: pick the right partner. And that brings us to the next lesson in climbing as a classroom.
In 1978, Jim Logan set his sights on the North Face of Mount Robson, an unclimbed wall in the Canadian Rockies known as the Emperor Face. Logan had made two prior attempts, only to be defeated. On the third attempt, he succeeded. When asked for the key to his ultimate success, he said: "The problem lay in the fact that above the mid-way mark, you reach a point where it is impossible to retreat. No-one's going to come get you—you either summit, or die. I scoped the face from photographs, but I couldn't tell if the route I envisioned would ultimately be climbable. I realized that the most important element of my strategy lay not in the specifics of the route, but in who I picked as a partner. I needed a partner who would give the greatest chance of success, regardless of what we encountered high on the face. That's when I teamed up with Mugs Stump."
In Logan's recollection, Stump had been so deeply infected with a passion for climbing that he turned his car around on the way to National Football League training camp and returned to Yosemite Valley, where he'd spent the summer climbing. "Mugs came from one of those steel towns in Pennsylvania, the local boy who made good as a college star defensive back and NFL draft pick. His family and friends just couldn't understand why he abandoned his promising football career to climb. But Mugs didn't care. He just wanted to climb, and he threw himself into it with a ferocious intensity. He was going to make good on his decision by getting up some of the hardest climbs in the world."
Mugs' sheer physical strength and agility, combined with his fanatical dedication to making a mark in the climbing world, made him an unbeatable partner for the Emperor Face. "I had this feeling that no matter what would happen up there, Mugs was strong enough to get us out. Of course, I learned later, that he felt that I was the partner for him, as I had the intellect needed to find the most elegant path. We were sort of brains and brawn. He thought I was the strength of the team, and I thought he was the strength of the team. We had faith in each other, and it gave us the confidence to go into the summit or die zone."
Stump and Logan swapped leads, taking turns at tackling the difficulties of the face. More than once, each said something like, "Whew, I'm glad you led that pitch." On the final day, Logan held responsibility for the last hard section: a snow, ice and rock pitch all rolled into one long headwall seven thousand feet above their base camp. (A pitch is the amount of climbing between two anchor stations, no longer than a single rope length. From the ground to the first anchor station is pitch one. From the first anchor station to the second anchor station is pitch two, and so forth. An anchor station is a ledge or place where the lead climber stops to put in a set of gear that cannot pull out—the anchor—which is then used as the point of last safety, where the person holding the belay rope stands while the other climbs. If the anchor point fails, then both climbers would fall to the ground, roped together.)
"I had to climb forty feet above a single one inch angle piton—that's all I could get in. There just weren't any good cracks in the wall to place protection. If I didn't make it, if I fell, if I lost concentration, if I blew it in any way—not only would I die, but so would Mugs. Both our lives were in my hands, and I had to come through. I remember digging my ice axe into the very top of the wall and mantling over the top, tumbling into an exhausted heap over the top. But I have very little recollection of the rest of the pitch. I think I was on the final headwall—130 feet of climbing—for something like eight hours, but I had no real sense of time."
A quarter of a century after their ascent, Jim Logan remains the only living climber to have ascended the middle of the Emperor Face. It has killed or defeated every climber who has attempted it in the intervening years, and sadly, Mugs Stump died a decade later, while guiding a less-experienced group of climbers out of a storm on Mount McKinley. Everyone who knew Mugs and had the privilege to climb with him says the same thing: "I miss him. He was a great partner." In the world of adventure, there is no higher compliment.
The Emperor Face illustrates a fundamental lesson: the most important decisions we make are not about what, but about who. We live in a "what" culture: What are we going to do? What is our strategy? What are our tactics? What! What! What! The most important decision is not "what strategy should I use to get up the mountain?" but "who should I climb with?" Hand in hand with this is the idea of the "Partner's Pact": the dedication not just to getting up the mountain, but a commitment to getting each other up the mountain, and down safely. When you combine the principle of "First Who, Then What" with the Partner's Pact, you get a magical combination that increases the odds of success and infuses the whole ascent with deeper meaning.
The idea of "First Who" turns out to be a fundamental principle for other walks of life, especially building great companies. In a five year research project, my colleagues and I studied the rare companies that managed to make the leap from being merely good performers (or worse) to truly great performers that sustained that performance over time. When David Maxwell became CEO of Fannie Mae, it was losing $1 million every business day with $56 billion of mortgage loans under water. With a negative 6% spread on its portfolio, and no end in sight, most analysts saw nothing but a bleak future for Fannie Mae, perhaps even extinction. When the board asked Maxwell what he would do to save the company, he responded that this was the wrong question. Not the wrong question forever, but the wrong question at the start. He would not decide where to drive the bus until he had the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and right people in the right seats. Then, and only then, he would figure out where to drive it. Like Logan, he had a broad idea of the mountain (save Fannie Mae, and turn it into a great mortgage finance company), but no idea what exact path would get him to the top. So, he picked the right partners, figuring that great people provided the best "strategy" for ultimate success.
Maxwell's approach reflects a general pattern we found in our research. The leaders who took companies from good to great did not first set strategy and then figure out how to get people to do it. Just the opposite, in fact. They would first get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats, and then they'd figure out where to drive it. We also found that those on the good-to-great teams loved their work, in large part because they loved who worked with. They tended to become and remain friends for life, still keeping in touch with each other years after retirement. They understood that getting to the top in and of itself has very little to do with a meaningful life, while who you choose to spend your time with has everything to do with the quality and meaning of your life. And for the kicker, those who found the right people in the first place had a better chance of getting to the top in the end.
Once I understood the First Who principle, I changed my own approach to climbing. Now, I no longer think first in terms of what I want to climb this weekend; I think in terms of who I want to go climbing with, and then we'll figure out what to climb. My love of climbing and the meaning it brings to my life has increased, in large part because I so enjoy the people I choose to climb with.
I've also discovered the joys of the Partner's Pact. Jim Logan has become one of my favorite "whos" to go climbing with. When we're working on a sport climb and one of us gets up the route first, he returns to the climb as many times as needed until his partner also ascends the route. One route, Captain Crunch, required days of work to climb forty feet of overhanging rock. Being taller than Logan, I was able to get the route first because I could more easily reach a key handhold. Nonetheless, we returned five or six more times, until Logan also got up the route. The day he succeeded, I felt just as excited as when I made it to the top. The joy and meaning of the climb came not just in the individual achievement , but in getting each other up the route—and enjoying the minute by minute process of being outside in the mountains with a great friend. This is what the Partner's Pact is all about.
Of course, every climber is accompanied by another partner, silent and invisible. It's called luck. Climbing taught me that there is no pact to be made with this partner—which is why, if you rely too heavily on it, you just might end up dead. And that brings us to our final and perhaps most important lesson in climbing as a classroom.
On a spring day in 1979, I learned a lesson in humility—a lesson whose tuition was nearly my life, and the life of my partner.
In the previous year, I'd been on a roll—having done some difficult climbs and surviving some close calls along the way. On one climb, I'd felt small grains of rock skittering down the rock, then heard the awful rumble of a car sized block cracking loose and bouncing down the cliff. Somehow, it shattered into pieces, all of which bounced around me without a single hit. On another climb, I'd belayed my partner over the steep overhang looking down the north face of the Third Flatiron, with my feet dangling out over a two hundred foot straight drop to the talus. Reaching the top, my partner looked at the anchor and went ashen. He pointed to what I'd failed to see: that I'd set the anchors behind a giant block that wasn't actually attached to the wall. Had my partner fallen on the overhang, he would have pulled me tight on the anchor and the two of us, detached block and all, would have tumbled in a tangled mass of rope and bodies in a free fall to the ground. We would have been airborne just long enough to think, "We're gonna die." Then on a third climb, called Jules Verne, I'd climbed ten feet to the right of where I should have been, and when I realized my mistake, I was well above where the hard climbing should have ended, and thirty feet out from my last protection nut wedged in a crack. I tried a delicate traverse across the wall to get back on route, but my foot popped, and I found myself looking down at a huge arc of rope as I fell sixty feet. Somehow, I sailed right past where the wall jutted out just a bit, and came tight on the rope without hitting anything. I came away scared—my partner tells me that I let out a primal yell on the way down—but unscathed. Not so much as a scratch.
Being young and male, it never really occurred to me that I was lucky. I was alive—and got up the climbs—because, in my mind, I was good. If other climbers died, I reasoned, they must have lacked some skill I possessed. It couldn't possibly be luck.
But on a cliff named Cynical Pinnacle, I came to see how terribly wrong I was. I would be humbled and—luckily—before my hubris killed me.
I had grabbed an inexperienced partner to go with me, a fellow named Dick. I didn't even know his last name. I just recruited him to the adventure from the front of the local climbing store. "Come along," I cajoled, "it will be the adventure of a lifetime!" It didn't matter to me whether Dick had the experience required to get up the route. I felt so fit, and in such control, that all I needed—or so I thought—was as warm body to hold the belay rope. I gave him mechanical ascending devices to clamp on the rope, so that he could climb rope behind me at the end of each pitch.
We reached the ledge before the summit headwall of Cynical Pinnacle late in the afternoon. The air felt full, the way it always does before a big storm in the early spring. Looking out from my perch, I could see the snow-capped peaks of the Colorado Rockies becoming engulfed in a shoal of mist. The rock, which had only hours earlier been warm and friendly to the touch, now felt cold and unfriendly.
"Only fifty feet to go," I said, looking up at the final section of rock. "I think we should go for it."
"I don't know, Jim," said Dick. "I'm tired, and besides, there's a storm moving in. If we reach the top and the lightning starts, we'll be sitting ducks."
He was right. We would be sitting atop a giant lightning rod. But I felt strong, and thought I could get us up and off quickly enough. I led up the final pitch, moving fast, leaving Dick wide eyed at the belay ledge.
My euphoria upon reaching the top of The Prayer Book, the hardest route on Cynical Pinnacle, came to an abrupt end, terminated by an unusual popping sound. Something's wrong, I thought to myself. Something's terribly wrong. Then I noticed that it was the rope and climbing gear making the sound. I reached up to touch my head, and realized that my hair was standing on end. "Dick! The whole spire's about to be hit by lightning." I looped the rope through the anchor bolts on top, like a pulley system. "Lower me back to you."
Dick, less experienced than me, fumbled with his gear. "Now!," I yelled. "Quick!" He cinched the rope around his waist and hesitantly lowered me to back to the ledge just before the lightening blasted all around us. Amazingly, it didn't carry down the rock to us.
I had the metallic taste of fear and adrenaline still in my mouth when Dick asked, "So, how are we going to get down?"
It was a good question. The side we'd come up had no established descent route. (The established descent route lay on the East side, as a rope rappel from the top of the cliff. We were stuck about a hundred feet down from the top, on the West side, and we could not go back to the top because of the lightening.) Worse, the walls dropped off at an overhanging angle, which meant we would be hanging out in space and needed to swing on the ropes to get into the next anchor points. But since we didn't bring any food, water, or extra clothing, we couldn't wait out the storm. Dick only wore shorts, as it had been a warm 75 degrees when we began. But now, with the temperature in the fifties and dropping, we were facing a full early-spring front. With only a few hours of daylight left, we had to do something.
We set up a rappel (a method of descent that involves leaning back on the rope and sliding down the rope using a friction device, just like you see in the movies or the Army "be all you can be" commercials). I went first, kicking the wall with my feet, to ensure that I would be able to swing back into an anchor point. Near the end of the rope, I swung into the wall, slammed in some gear, and tied myself down into a set of anchors.
Dick rappelled down. Because he didn't kick the wall, he just dangled out in space, spinning like a wad of gum on the end of a long hair. Fortunately, I had the end of the rope with me, so I just pulled him into the wall where I as already anchored in, and tied him down.
"Ok, you pull the rope through, and I'll set the anchors for the next rappel," I instructed. We were three hundred feet from the ground and had at least two rappels to go. I set to work on the anchors.
"Jim, the rope won't pull."
"What? Maybe you're just pulling the wrong end. Give me the rope."
He did and I pulled. It didn't budge. I could tell it was really jammed. I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach.
"Did you check to make sure the knot was clear of the crack when you started down?"
"No. Was I supposed to?"
I knew then we were in serious trouble. It was likely that the knot holding the two ropes together had wedged itself in a crack. The harder we pulled on the rope, the more stuck it would get.
I spotted a crack system about twenty feet to our right. "I'm going to tie into the ropes and swing over to that other crack. Maybe that will give us enough angle on the rope to pull the knot free."
I tied in and swung out on the rope, pushing myself with my feet so I would fly over to the other crack. I reached it and clutched the edge, pulling myself onto a little ledge so that I could insert another anchor. I pulled the rope. No luck. "Dick, maybe I can climb up this crack a ways and free the rope from higher up. I'm going to give that a try."
"Before you do, could you swing your shirt over to me? I'm really starting to get cold, and my hands aren't working so well." I took off my long sleeved rugby shirt and tied it into the ends of the rope. Dick leaned out on the anchors, which he remained directly tied to.
"Okay, Dick, here it comes." I flung the rope his direction and it sailed out across the wall.
He missed it.
It swung back in my direction, and I leaned way out in an attempt to grab it. It was as if the whole thing happened in slow motion—frame by stomach-sickening frame—as the rope swung just short of my grasping fingers. Stunned, I just stared in disbelief as it came to rest mid-way between us. There we were, 300 feet above the surface of the earth. And now, we didn't even have a rope.
For the first time, a terrifying thought crossed my mind: That I'd been lucky all along, and that just when I needed it most, my luck had somehow run out.
I had three options. First, I could try to climb up to the stuck knot. This option looked highly insecure, given the steepness of the rock above. Second, we could wait for a rescue, and hope that someone would notice that we'd failed to return home when expected. That option, I concluded, meant certain death—falling temperatures, increasing rain, and exhaustion added up to hypothermia. I concluded that the best option lay in climbing down to a lower-angle crack system below me, and then to the ground. From there—presuming I didn't fall off and kill myself—I could find a phone, call one of my climbing buddies, and then climb back up to Dick and get him off the cliff.
"Are you sure that's what you should do?" asked Dick. "What if you fall?"
"I think it's our best option. We've got to do something, or we're going to die up here."
I promised Dick that, no matter what, I would come back for him that day. Then I took a deep breath and unclipped from the anchors and began the exposed down climb. The rock, slick with rain, had one big advantage: it had two inch wide cracks, just the right size to wedge my hands inside and lock them tight against the sides, using my bone structure. I made sure each hand-jam was so solid that, if my feet slipped, the hand would just torque even tighter into the crack, like a human camming device. After an hour or so of deliberate moves, one after another, inching down the crack, I finally stepped onto the ground.
I hadn't eaten for fifteen hours, my throat felt parched from lack of water, and my muscles were completely spent. The wall loomed above—tall, dark and grey. And it still had my partner in its clutches. We only had a couple hours of light left.
Then I heard a strange sound. Waka-waka-waka-waka. I saw a helicopter coming our way. Then I looked down on to the road and saw a caravan of some twenty vehicles—jeeps, cars, vans, fire engines, and trailers. It suddenly dawned on me that a woman who'd been hiking in the area and seen our plight must have called for a rescue. Now we're in real trouble, I thought.
Not that I doubted their good intentions. But sheriffs and firefighters generally do not know how to do severe rock rescues. I ran down the hill, looking for the person in charge.
"That's him," somebody said, pointing to a large, pot-bellied figure.
I ran over to him, gesticulating wildly and talking about how we had to get back up there soon, before dark—and hypothermia—set in.
"Just calm down, son. We've got everything under control."
"Look, I just need a person who can belay, a rope and some gear. I can get to him myself."
"No, this is very serious business," he said.
"I know it's serious. If we don't act now, it's going to get a lot more serious. I'll just take a rope and go up there myself, if you won't help."
"Son! If you don't calm down, I'll put you under arrest for your own protection."
I felt the anger well up inside. Not so much at the Sheriff, but at myself. It wasn't his fault we were in the mess. It was mine. And mine alone.
"Ok," I relented. "What are our options?"
"Can we get to him by horseback?" the Sheriff asked.
"Not unless the horse can climb overhanging 5.10 cracks." He looked confused, revealing his lack of comprehension of the situation. He must have thought we were two lost hikers, or something. I asked to use the radio to talk to the helicopter pilot. I directed the pilot to train a spot light on the lone figure up on the wall. Dick looked like someone who'd ventured out onto the side of a Space Shuttle and then had the scaffolding pulled away, leaving him perched precariously on the side.
"Roger. We have him in our sights," radioed the pilot.
There was a long pause, then: "Jesus H. Christ! How in the hell did he get up there?"
I think the sheriff then realized that horses would not work.
After wrangling over a range of options, including dropping me out of the helicopter on top of the cliff with a set of ropes, we concluded that the best option was the simplest. Get me a climbing partner and rope, and we'd climb straight up to Dick and get him off. A man on the rescue team had climbing experience and volunteered to belay me up the cliff in our attempt to reach Dick. Darkness had fallen and the sheriff had directed all the search lights onto the spire. The Pinnacle, shrouded in mist, lit up with an eerie green tint on a backdrop of pitch black.
We found a crack system that headed in Dick's direction, and after an hour of negotiating my way up in the jagged shadows, we finally reached him.
"Don't worry, Dick. We've got you now." He didn't respond, other than to slowly nod his head. His skin felt cold—very cold—to the touch. We rigged a descent line, and with the help of the rescue partner, we lowered Dick to the ground. At around 3 a.m. the ordeal finally came to an end, as Dick received emergency treatment. As his body core temperature rose, I knew he would live, and come back to climb another day.
And so would I, but more sobered and with a different perspective. I'd learned perhaps the most important lesson in climbing as a classroom: when you operate with the arrogance of self-attribution—"I'm successful because, well, I'm me, and I'm really good"--that's when you run the biggest risks of all. Sustained results (and in climbing, you can only attain sustained results if you stay alive) require not just courage and will, but also a rigorous form of self-honesty called humility.
Twenty years after Cynical Pinnacle, I found myself trying to understand the inner workings of the few executives who had managed to take good companies and turn them into great companies, in contrast to executives who had failed to lead their companies to a sustained leap from good to great. My research team and I noticed a fascinating pattern that we came to call "The Window and the Mirror." When confronted with the undeniable fact of their extraordinary success, the good-to-great CEOs had a great propensity to point out the window to factors other than themselves to pin the blame for that success, being very careful to give credit to other people and to good luck. One good-to-great CEO said that about eighty percent of the success of the company during his tenure could be attributed to the wind at their backs. I pointed out that the less-successful comparison company had the same wind and bigger sails, to which he responded: "Hmmm, then we must have been really lucky." But when asked about setbacks and failures along the way, the good-to-great CEOs never pointed out the window; they would stand in front of the mirror and say, "I am responsible." In contrast, we noticed that executives in the comparison companies would point out the window to account for failures and setbacks: unfair competition, the economy, the markets, and so forth. But when things would go well, they would look in the mirror and attribute much of the success to their own personal greatness. Some even went so far as to publish self-congratulatory autobiographies, modestly titled as their own name.
I look back on the late 1990s when an entire generation of business people benefited from one of the most extraordinary bull markets in history. CEOs saw the stock of their companies rise at double digit rates, and paid themselves handsomely with stock options--as if they had somehow caused the entire upward swing. Young dot com entrepreneurs thought of themselves as invincible; they came to believe they could defy the laws of gravity and ignore fundamentals like creating sustainable profitability. Thousands of investors fell into the trap of equating the rise in their 401ks with their investment savvy, and hundreds of venture capitalists came to see themselves as smarter than Warren Buffet. Then the market crashed, and CEO stature fell right along with it. Dot coms imploded. And investors watched their retirement accounts decline back to more realistic levels. En masse, we'd made the mistake of confusing luck with competence.
I had a professor in graduate school named Robert Burgelman who pounded into me the idea that the single most dangerous perspective in business and life is not outright failure, but to be successful without being absolutely clear about why you were successful in the first place. Success, he pointed out, clouds judgment. Better to operate with brutal self-honesty about the role of factors other than yourself. As I look at the best executives from my research, they used this idea not as a form of weakness, but as a form of self-discipline--"perhaps we were just lucky, so we'd better be just that much more disciplined to make ourselves just that much stronger, so that we'll still be strong if our luck ever runs out . . ."
Of course, sustained excellence isn't just about humility, it is also about will. The will to go to fallure. The will to separate probability from consequence, and to act accordingly. The will to pick the right partners, and to come through for them. The will to climb in the future, today. And at times, perhaps even the will to go for it when the odds are low and the consequences severe. But those who climb enough eventually learn that luck is a factor in life, and we cannot control all the outcomes. Those who have a long, sustained career of ascents eventually learn to acknowledge and distrust their luck, constantly honing their competence to deal with the day when their luck runs out.
Nearly a quarter of a century after Cynical Pinnacle, climbing continues to hold a prominent place in my life. Indeed, as I write these words, I am on an airplane, flying back from the East Coast. Upon landing, I plan to amble up the First Flatiron. (Start the day in Manhattan; end the day on top of the First Flatiron--a nice combination.) And if the weather turns bad or we arrive too late, then I'll work out in my home rock climbing gym. No matter how you slice it: I am a very lucky guy! Still, as I reflect on Cynical Pinnacle, I'm continually reminded of a line a great poet once wrote, "A man is a fool who counts too much on his luck, particularly when he's had more than his share."
After climbing for twenty-five years, I decided to get a climbing coach. I noticed that my climbing had reached a plateau, and I was curious to see if I could continue to grow as a climber well beyond my 40th birthday.
My friends thought it weird. What could a climbing coach teach me, after all these years and thousands of hard routes?
It turns out to be the wrong question. Not the wrong question forever, but the wrong question to start. The most important lessons from my climbing coaches--Nick and Heather Sagar--lay not in what I needed to learn, but in what I first needed to unlearn.
In the late 1970s, the challenging routes differed considerably from today's sport routes in that they tended to be sharply angled or nearly vertical. If you rappelled off, you would usually be able to touch the rock all the way down. Modern sport routes, in contrast, frequently jut ten, thirty, even fifty or more degrees past vertical, forming steep overhangs. On such a route, you might climb forty feet horizontal (upside down) for every hundred feet of vertical. When you fall off, you usually just fly through the air, with nothing to hit and a big fat bolt to catch you when the rope comes tight. It's a lot like bungee jumping--scary, but safe. Contrast that to the old-style routes, in which you usually slide and bang down the face, smashing limbs and losing chunks of skin--and that's if the gear holds in the first place. (Old-style routes often have insecure protection that could rip out of the rock much more easily than the big, solid protection bolts that became commonplace in late 1980s.) On bolted modern routes, the consequences of falling are minimal; you can fall as much as you want, whereas on many traditional old-style routes, you should do everything you can to not fall.
When Nick and Heather first began working with me, my years of experience on scary, vertical climbing taught me to fear falling and ingrained in me a careful, deliberate style that ensured survival. This conservative manner impeded my ability to ascend harder modern climbs, which require big dynamic moves constantly on the edge of fallure. To climb a modern route at your absolute limit requires dozens of falls before you succeed--otherwise, well, it's not at your limit.
So, like a raw beginner, Nick and Heather taught me how to fall. One of Heather's assignments: "Over the next year, I want you to take a thousand leader falls."
Dutifully I began jumping off routes. At first, I took little bitty baby falls. But after a hundred small falls, I began leaping off the rock, striving for much larger falls. I almost came to enjoy them.
"Now comes the hard part," counseled Nick. "We need to make you a worse climber for awhile, so you can become a better climber. All your old tricks and techniques for getting up vertical routes hinder you on steep, powerful routes. When you get into difficulty on a hard route, you resort to your strengths, and that's why you fail."
"But I've always believed that you should play to your strengths," I responded.
"Yes, so long as your strengths are helpful to the task at hand. But in your case, all the old strengths that used to serve you so well are now harmful habits--at least in the realm of harder routes. You need to build a new set of strengths from scratch and, most important, not rely on your old strengths to get up routes. This means you will have to drop down a few grades while you learn anew."
Nick and Heather put me on a steep problem to demonstrate, and I made five or six foot movements to get my body position stable (staying in control, as I had always learned to do). But in my deliberate style, I ran out of strength. "No!," Heather scolded. "Do it like Nick." Nick grabbed the same holds, cut loose with his feet, threw one leg up the wall in a big arcing motion, and catapulted his body upward in a huge dynamic heave. Ka-whap! In a second, he was up the same ten feet I'd diddled around on. He climbed more like a gymnast swinging around on a high bar, whereas I climbed like a dowdy workman clambering up a ladder.
My climbing did indeed worsen for awhile. But then the new techniques started to click, and I felt the excitement of progress, of becoming expert again--only with a whole new style and mind-set. I was in my mid-forties, feeling a passion for climbing that I haven't felt since my teenage years. Rather than being depressed by "stepping backwards in order to step forward," I feel renewed energy. Like getting a big flywheel turning in a new direction, I had to do a lot of work to even get the thing moving at all. But as the flywheel began to build more and more momentum, I felt the excitement of seeing it break through, from one turn to two, from two to four, from four to eight, from eight to 32, to 64, to 128, to a thousand rpms. The sense of progress acted like an internal engine of motivation, which then led to better training, which then led to more turns on the flywheel, which then motivated even more, which produced better climbing, and more motivation, and so on and so forth. The very process of improvement and growth became the very point of it all.
I noticed that many of my climbing buddies didn't really take to the Nick and Heather program. I kept encouraging them to try it, to become better climbers. Then it dawned on me: after years of climbing and thinking of themselves as already super-expert, they felt uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a beginner again and were reluctant to try a new technique. So, they stayed with their strengths, and continued to climb at a high level--but much lower than they could potentially climb if they became beginners again.
In his classic book, The Discoverers, Daniel Boorstin argues that the primary barrier to human progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge and the dedication to "expertise." The best discoverers, according to Boorstin, are not the smartest or most talented, but those who either are--or have the discipline to remain--expert beginners in their field. They see more clearly the way the world really works because they are less burdened with "knowledge" of what they are supposed to see. The same holds for any creative or entrepreneurial endeavor, which requires the precision of a scientist and the wonder of a child.
I see this same pattern in the greatest corporate leaders I've studied in my research, from David Packard to Sam Walton. Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, viewed himself not as a definitive expert on retailing but as a lifelong student of his craft, always asking questions and taking every opportunity to learn. A Brazilian businessman once told me that of 10 U.S. retailing CEOs he asked for an appointment after he'd purchased a discount retailing chain in South America, only Walton said yes. "We didn't know much about retailing, so we wanted to talk to executives who knew the business," he explained. "Most didn't bother to reply. Sam said, 'Sure, come on up.'" Only later did the Brazilian realize that Walton saw himself as the student, and the Brazilian contingent as the teachers. "It finally dawned on me that Sam was primarily interested in learning from us; he pummeled us with questions about Brazil for two days before I finally got a chance to ask a single question of substance. If you didn't know that this was Sam Walton, you would have thought that he was a complete novice."
The late John Gardner, founder of common cause and author of Self Renewal, believed that people stagnate in their lives and careers because they accumulate barnacles. "You'll find that your best work usually comes earlier in your career, not later," he once told me. "So the best way I know to do your best work over a lifetime is to have multiple new starts along the way."
Perhaps this is why I felt such a strong instinct to set up my research laboratory in my old first grade classroom, as a reminder that no matter how expert I become, the only way to attain higher levels of mastery is to let go of my expertise and learn as a beginner all over again.
This of course is hard for most of us, as we like our position in the expertise pecking order. But if comparison is the primary sin of modern life, and I believe it is, then we need to focus less on the pecking order and more on our own potential. When it comes to climbing as a classroom, I've learned perhaps this lesson above all: it is not how well you do your work relative to others that matters, but how well you do your work relative to yourself, and your own potential. And if that means becoming a beginner again, so be it.