As I gazed 60 feet up at the jagged rock-climbing wall, I cautioned my belay partner, “I’m not going to be able to finish this route, but I want to see how far I can get. I’ll probably fall off, too, so put a lot of tension in the rope.” Within 15 minutes, I had ascended to the top — without slipping off the wall!
The resulting euphoria underscores why I love climbing: it’s a quick opportunity to prove to myself that I can conquer new obstacles that require more skill or experience than I possess. Then I carry the mental focus, determined spirit, creative thinking, and newfound confidence out of the rock-climbing gym and into other areas of my life.
So when PwC announced that it was surprising each staff member with a $1,000 bonus to spend on enhancing our well-being, I decided to invest mine in a climbing-gym membership. Climbing offers this trifecta for fueling well-being: it reinvigorates my physical energy, renews my mental energy, and replenishes my emotional energy as I examine problems from multiple perspectives, experiment with various techniques, take calculated risks, and celebrate both creative efforts and hard-fought successes.
All of that is important today and will be even more important tomorrow in the big scheme of things — in our lives that are growing more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous and in our workplaces that are eliminating routine responsibilities and creating new roles due to automation and artificial intelligence.
According to PwC’s 2017 CEO Survey, 77% percent of CEOs identified the limited availability of key skills as the biggest threat to their business, ahead of technological advances and changing customer behavior. Which crucial skills are executives finding in short supply? Problem solving, adaptability, creativity, and leadership.
Here’s how my hobby of indoor rock climbing has strengthen four pivotal skills that give me a foot up in the workplace:
1) Problem solving: Before I lift a toe off the ground, I swiftly sketch a mental picture of how I’ll climb the route to strategically use my strengths while conserving energy — increasing my chances of reaching the top of a long, technically tough path. I love seeing how everyone solves problems differently when ascending the same route, even friends who are the same height as me: one of us is more limber so can leverage footholds spread further apart, while another person pushes with more powerful leg muscles, and yet another flexes fancier footwork techniques that make the smallest bumps something stable to balance upon.
There’s no wrong way to climb a route, but there’s a way that’s better suited to who you are — the way that leaves you with the most energy after you’ve reached the top. Similarly, there are many ways to get your job done at work, but the best way leverages your unique combination of strengths and energizes you for the next challenging assignment, rather than burning you out.
2) Adaptability: Midway up the wall on any difficult route, I realize a handhold that I had thought I could grasp remains half an inch out of reach. So I shift perspectives, examining the problem from multiple angles and generating several options on the spot. From this new vantage point, what am I observing that wasn’t in clear view before that can help me now? Easily letting go of my sketched plan and creatively embracing my unexpected situation help me maintain momentum — both physically and psychologically — to successfully complete the climb.
As a white-knuckled, beginner climber in 2012, I learned two important lessons from temporarily getting stuck 20 feet up on a route that I wanted to finish:
- You must plan and plan to pivot.
You must creatively make do with whatever you’ve got, wherever you are. There’s no use wasting time and energy wishing for more resources (more chalk to powder my perspiring hands for the daring leap I’m about to make!) or for different circumstances (if only I had grown an inch taller!). Figure it out — and fast.
3) Creative risk-taking: My 2- to 3-hour climbing sessions consist of repeated decisions to push past my comfort zone. I intentionally tackle routes rated harder than my level, feature the types of obstacles that pose the most difficulty for me, or hinge upon a technique I haven’t learned how to do, like the pinch grip or the heel hook.
The nature of rock climbing helps me swiftly learn from my failures while having so much fun that I can’t wait to get up and go again. Just as often, the outside-of-the-box thinking I apply as I inch upward results in the sheer delight of surprising myself with unanticipated accomplishments. Pulsing between learning from missteps and savoring unexpected success fuels my drive to experiment and execute. This bias-for-action mindset proves just as valuable with extreme sports as with innovation opportunities.
4) Collaborative spirit: Top-rope rock climbing is a team sport, although a casual observer may mistake the climber for a solo athlete and the belayer (who stands on the ground pulling in the rope’s slack) for a safety check. My most rewarding climbs are the ones where my belay partner fully engages in monitoring my ascent and communicates fluidly with me. I’ll ask my belayer for help, whether it’s for ideas on how to reach the next rock or for a different amount of rope tension so I can test out a bold move. I appreciate it when he offers encouragement, coaching, and praise. Even his reassuring bellow to “take your time!” eases my self-imposed pressure and reminds me to breathe deeply then calmly focus on figuring out how to advance.
As soon as my feet hit the ground, we switch roles. As I belay, I actively listen with all of my senses for how I can support him. My ears tune into his utterances. My eyes watch his body language for indications that he might appreciate a shout of moral support or a suggestion of where to step. My hands monitor the tugs on the rope, signaling that my partner is wrestling with this section and prompting me to anticipate how I can assist. These 15- to 30-minute collaborative sprints viscerally reminder me that good leaders usher their team members into the spotlight and support them by being fully present, actively listening, and empathetically anticipating their needs — whether that leadership role is in the gym or in the office.
Which hobby have you picked up that sharpens your future-proofing job skills? Share your story in the comments below.