I recently came across the National Geographic film “Free Solo.” It’s a documentary described as “a stunning, intimate and unflinching portrait of the free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream: climbing the face of the world’s most famous rock … the 3,000ft El Capitan in Yosemite National Park … without a rope.” Less than 1% of people who try rock climbing ever try climbing free solo.
The description alone kind of gave me a lump in my throat, and the film did not disappoint when it came to delivering edge-of-your-seat thrills. It also provided some very relatable lessons when it comes to our industries. Watching Honnold’s process was, in many ways, as interesting as watching his climb.
I wondered how we could take something that may feel dangerous or foreign and make it feel safe. Five themes popped up that I believe we can employ today to improve our sales techniques and grow our potential pipelines.
1) Preparation: Most of the movie was about Honnold’s preparation to climb El Cap. The climb is broken up into a series of ascents, known as pitches, which he took multiple attempts to climb, both with and without ropes. For some of the most challenging pitches, he practiced more than 60 times over the course of a decade. This gave him a sense of what would be required to climb without assistance.
“Confidence comes from feeling super-fit but also thorough preparation and rehearsal.”
When it comes to the work we do, preparation is also everything. And like rock climbing, we do it with the protection of ropes over and over until you are genuinely ready to free solo. In our world, that means repeatedly practicing cold calls and role-playing meetings. Sure, in comparison, our lives are not at risk, but our success has a transferable similarity if we choose to take our preparation just as seriously as Alex did.
However, would you take the prep seriously if I told you that you had 30 days to prepare to climb El Cap? If you have the mentality to make THIS work, determine how you can shift that to your everyday life – things that aren’t life or death. Can you practice as you work and take your prep more seriously? As the saying goes “preparation equals luck.”
2) Detail Work: At one point, Honnold was preparing a particularly difficult part of the climb known as “the Boulder Problem.” Sounds ominous! It was the part of the ascent that caused him the most concern. There is a scene where Honnold is shown using a toothbrush to see if he can identify or uncover a fingerhold – a toothbrush on a 3,000-foot mountain!
In another scene, he is shown with a notebook of detailed notes about the climb. The scene leaves the impression that nearly every single move of a climb that takes almost 4 hours has been painstakingly mapped out. It appears that every movement has been considered for the best outcome. Honnold is repeating the steps as if he is committing them to memory. It’s an incredible amount of detail and one that you really can’t necessarily depend on your muscle memory for.
3) Mind Over Matter: Nearly every piece of the movie has a quotable comment about the need to ensure that free climbers’ minds are ALWAYS in the right place – in the moment, focused on the climb.
There is an interesting discussion early in the documentary about whether or not having film crews, drones, etc., will affect Honnold’s concentration and mental state. Will he be propelled to take more considerable risks than necessary because he’s being filmed? It’s interesting because the chief director and cinematographer is a climber who probably understands the challenge better than most. This line of thought resolves itself in a particularly satisfying nature that I won’t spoil for you.
“You develop a mental armor when you free solo.”
“It’s about being a warrior; it doesn’t matter about the cause necessarily. This is your path, and you will pursue it with excellence.”
The volume and intensity of setbacks he faced would likely send most of us running for the hills, but Honnold used setbacks as motivation.
In sales, we have room for error. Alex has zero room. We can return from a mistake; it’s much more complicated and possibly, even deadly for him. However, would it benefit your business if you could figure out how to take more calculated and valuable risks? Alex cannot get to a position of comfort and letting his guard down, but it is all too easy for us to do that, and how does that benefit us? There will come a day when you can seek comfort – however, today is not that day.
4) Growing Through Discomfort: A fellow climber Honnold is preparing with makes an interesting observation about Honnold’s goal of climbing El Cap. He says that when you discuss free climbing with a non-climber, you can persuade them that it is normal and free climbers take significant safety precautions. Non-climbers can feel comfortable with the risks. However, when you discuss this with a climber, they immediately understand the incredible inherent risks of free climbing. They know that this is insane.
We regularly discuss how being great at your job requires stepping out of your comfort zone, and Honnold confirms the same about free climbing.
“You train your mind to suppress your fear; this helps you to expand your comfort zone, so what you once feared isn’t scary anymore.”
“No one achieves anything great because they are happy and cozy.”
“You face your fear because your goal demands it. That is the warrior spirit.”
Is moving backwards in your comfort zone? Probably not. Most people do not like to head in what feels like a backward or even lateral direction. But at one point, Alex had to backtrack to keep shooting up the mountain. Just like him, there are times when you need to step back to leap forward. This can be hard to do when you are established, but if we can take some steps back, reassess, and keep moving forward, it can be advantageous.
5) Expect the Unexpected: It’s not necessarily unusual for a climber to spend the night on a mountain in a sort of suspended hammock. However, it is uncommon for the climber to be dressed in an adult unicorn onesie. Honnold encountered just that about an hour into his attempt. Unusual? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Did it throw Honnold for a loop or stop his progress? Absolutely not, for all of the reasons detailed above. His mind was so solidly focused on his task at hand. He had done all the preparation he could, and in that extensive preparation, he had a path and mission that was entirely unflappable. Even a unicorn couldn’t derail Honnold.
Many people will watch something like Free Solo and think, “I wish I could do something audacious like that.” Yet it’s all too common for us to watch a golf tournament, theater performance, or maybe an occasional Ted Talk related to sales. The reality is we often focus too much on the outcome and not what it takes, day in and day out, to even try for that big, audacious goal. Free Solo gives us something of a road map to get out of our heads and give something new and big a try.