Business lessons learned from the sharp end of the rope.

by Jessica BillingsleyJune 17, 2018

Three of us were crouched on a ledge, 5 feet wide, the first ledge in over 1000 feet of physically and mentally demanding rock climbing.  We were climbing Spitzkoppe, an 1800 meter (5900 feet) tall, granite spire that majestically towers over the Namib desert in Namibia in Africa. It is often called the Matterhorn of Africa. We finally reached the crux pitch, which is the hardest part of the climb.  The hot African sun was boiling us, and we were all running low on water.  There was one scraggly bush that threw a bit a shade, and we took turns crouching under it to find some relief.  Spitzkoppe is a rigorous climb.  Once you start it, there is no way to safely retreat or call for help.  The only option is to finish the climb and reach the top.

There are a handful of routes which summit Spitzkoppe, but the one we were attempting had only been achieved by three or four parties before us.  All previous parties had climbed it in “big wall” style, spending multiple nights on the route.  We intended to climb fast and light and to summit within a day. We started at midnight and hoped to finish within 24 hours.

In order to get some information on the route, we first visited the University in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. We wandered its halls until we found the professor who had originally climbed and established the route some 15 years prior.  He was delighted to meet with us and share what he could remember.  When asked what gear we should bring, to fit into places in the rock and provide safety measures,he only nodded and said, “not much.”  We weren’t sure what to make of that, but we quickly learned early in  the climb what he meant.  There simply were very few places to place any gear for protection on the entire climb.

We found ourselves simul-climbing, which is when both the seconder and the leader climb at the same time. The leader would sometimes go for more than a pitch (a whole rope length – 200 feet) without finding anywhere safe enough to place gear and setup an anchor to belay the seconders safely. In short there was no gear placed for protection between us and a fall to the desert floor.

It was after over 1000 feet of this mentally and physically exhausting climbing that we found ourselves on the first rest of the entire climb. We were hot, exhausted, running out of water way too soon, and mentally fried from the extreme focus needed to climb hard without adequate protection for so long.  And we knew the crux waited for us just above.  My two climbing partners were famous for establishing new and difficult climbing routes all over the Southeastern U.S., One of those partners,  Woody had two brand new baby twins, 15 months old, waiting back at the campsite somewhere on the desert floor.  I knew Woody was famous for his ascents, but he had put on a bit of “dad weight", and in  our warm up climbs on the smaller rock surrounding Spitzkoppe, I hadn’t  seen anything exceptional from him.  He was good, solid, not great. And as the three of us cowered on that ledge, in trouble, worried we would run out of daylight before finishing, we were all looking at each other silently asking who had the grit to lead the next pitch.

Woody starting quietly setting up to lead the pitch. He then looked at us and said, “I got this y’all.  We’re gonna finish this climb today because there ain’t no other option I’ll accept.” 

I’ve never been so grateful before or since for someone else to take the “sharp end” of the rope.  The “sharp end” refers to leading the climb, where most of the risk lies, often climbing many feet above your gear and risking big falls.  I learned that day why Woody was so famous in our home climbing areas. Rock climbing is so much more a mental than a physical pursuit.  Woody pulled off that crux pitch, and we gritted out the rest of the climb, barely summiting with the last rays of sunshine for the day.  We descended well through the night by downclimbing a route first successfully climbed in 1981, and  the only way safely down. 

Woody didn’t climb for six months after that route, and I don’t believe he’s climbed a big wall since, choosing to take safer risks as a father.  As a mother today, I understand, but I was too young at the time to acknowledge how big and scary that climb was.  I was still early in my exploration of whether I would pursue a life of professional rock climbing rather than using my computer science degree.  That exploration ended with me huddled in a tent writing computer code by pencil in a notebook for one of my business ideas, which really told me everything I needed to know about myself and what I should pursue in life.  But that’s another story for another day.

What does any of this have to do with business? 

Business, like climbing, is more than anything, a mental game. 
You can always focus on the problems.  And the bigger you get, the more challenges there will always be.  When you’re small, there may be an issue with one client or one employee.  When you’re bigger, it can feel like a litany of issues—this employee quit, this employee is unhappy, this sale was lost, this client is threatening to leave, this partner relationship is rocky, etc.  This can be true even when there are overwhelmingly far more happy employees, clients, and partners because it’s human nature to focus on the negative. 

What rock climbing has taught me is if you focus on what is wrong, you’ll fall. 
Period.  You must focus on the climb, on progressing by solving the problem.  You must read the route correctly and make the right moves.  You can only do that if you are always thinking in solutions.  And sometimes, in business, as in climbing, as in life, you’re on the sharp end, run out 40 feet above your last piece of gear, eyeing your next moves, and knowing you must succeed or the consequences will be dire. 

But you CANNOT make those moves if you’re thinking about the consequences.  You can only make forward progress  if you’re focused on the positive result and outcome.  You may climb a few feet, realize you’re going the wrong way and climb back down to a stance where you can evaluate and try another set of moves.  Whether you are in a position where you must make the right choice of moves the first time or whether you can try and retreat, the only difference is the stakes.  Either way, there’s no space to hold any anxiety or to consider what happens if you fail.  As we say in climbing, “Don’t think about falling, think about climbing”. 

One of MJ Freeway’s core values is, “Be Part of the Solution”.  This has been a core value of ours since inception, and we talk about it often.  We must be part of the solution for our clients,   and part of the solution internally within our company and between departments.  We’re a small company still, and we ask each team member  who identifies a problem to also consider and present possible solutions. 

I’m a big Jim Collins fan, despite the ribbing he takes in one of my new favorite books, “Antifragile”, by Nicolas Taleb.  One of the core points Collins makes in his classic, “Good to Great,” is you should put your best people on your biggest opportunities rather than your biggest problems.  Occasionally, I find our biggest problems are our biggest opportunities, but this is rare.  Usually, the opportunities are separate, and the problems, although they must be addressed, will never yield the return on investment identifying, focusing, and clearly pursuing your largest opportunities will. 

As we scale, we have more and more opportunities available to us, and like a climb where there are too many holds from which to choose, with too many options, one of the most important things you can do is to go with your gut. Don’t overthink it. Identify a set of moves, and commit to your path forward.  There may be a reason so many motivational posters feature climbing quotes.

For years, I wondered why I invested so much of my time and life in rock climbing.  Even when I abandoned it as a full-time pursuit, it occupied much of my leisure time.  I felt I had spent all this time on this thing that was rather selfish at its heart.  I could be spending this time in giving to my daughter or work or back to society in some way.   It was my yoga teacher who helped me understand spending time feeding oneself and one’s soul is what enables you to have the capacity to give to others.  I would be a different person entirely without rock climbing. I don’t know if I would have had the mental fortitude to weather some of the challenges I’ve faced in life and business. 

Rock climbing has fed my soul in innumerable ways and has taught me so many lessons.  It has been the catalyst for my love of the outdoors and the desire to protect our environment.  It has taught me how to solve problems and how to narrow my focus.  It has taught me to take judicious risks or face the consequences.  It has taught me the grit and fortitude I’ve needed to weather storms in life and business.  It has taught me to value experiences over things and has given me the desire to give those to my family and others in my life.  I will forever be grateful for a rich and full life lived.

There are times in business, at MJ Freeway, when I feel I’m on Spitzkoppe’s metaphorical rest ledge, having climbed so many thousands of feet of committing climbing already and with the hardest part yet to come.  And this time, I’m the one racking up for the lead, to be on the sharp end of the rope. The next bit will take every reserve of grit, fortitude, and years of technical experience to accomplish, but most of all, it will take the attitude, of “I’m going to do this because there is no other option I will accept.”  And I couldn’t be more excited.  There are so few opportunities in life to do something truly exceptional.  You can’t fall if you don’t climb, but there’s no joy in living your whole life on the ground.

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