Lessons on achieving impossible goals from The Dawn Wall

Living in Switzerland means it is hard to avoid the mountains. The more I explore them, the more I am amazed by climbers. Some adventure sports are simply about who has the most courage. Climbing is about who is the most focused on their goals. I have never climbed a mountain or even gone bouldering, but as a spectator of the sport I am captivated by just how focused the best climbers are. While more often than not they fail, every time they succeed my jaw drops a little more.

Last year was a big year for rock climbing in the mainstream. Two powerful documentaries came out about different ground-breaking climbs on El Capitan, the 1000-meter tall granite monolith in Yosemite that has become the mecca of climbing. Free Solo chronicles Alex Honnold’s first ever ascent without ropes or protective equipment. The Dawn Wall looks at the first attempt up the most difficult face of the rock by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. I recently watched The Dawn Wall and took away four lessons on goal-setting from some of the best in the business.

1. Goals as a guiding light

For nearly 7 years Tommy Caldwell worked towards the seemingly impossible goal of free climbing the Dawn Wall. There are more than 100 different climbing routes up El Cap, but no free climbing succeeded up the most blank section: the Dawn Wall. For Caldwell, this challenge became more than a goal, it became an obsession. For those 7 years he inspected every inch of wall. He practiced routes, trained specific body positions, and scoured the surface for grips that the human eye could barely see, let alone comprehend how someone could hold on to it. On December 27, 2014, he set out on what turned out to be a 19-day journey broken into 32 pitches which accumulate into the most difficult 1000 meters of rock climbing in the world.

When you set out to do the impossible, it is hard to make a very detailed goal, let alone one that meets the SMART criteria; but how could it? No one knows the process to complete a task that’s never been done before. No one knows how long it will take. Even after 7 years of planning it still took a week to complete pitch 15, a 70-foot section of horizontal sidestepping known as the traverse. And Caldwell ended up throwing out his plan for pitch 16, improvising a new route on the spot.

Beginners might need more details in their goals, but for the best the task is futile. They just need to know where they are going and have a broad goal that can reach into every aspect of their life. The best goals from the best athletes are simply a guiding light that shines onto every decision they make.

When I look back at many other top athletes I know, the same was true with their goals. Harold Connolly was my first mentor. In recording an upcoming podcast episode with his former athlete Kevin McMahon, he described how the world record consumed him: “The world record becomes a part of you. Losing the record was like losing a limb, and he was wholly driven toward that goal.” Connolly ended up setting 6 world records and holding the title of world record holder for nearly a decade.

Athletes like Caldwell and Connolly are experienced enough to fill in the blanks, find the process along the way, and adapt the process as needed. The light at the end of the tunnel is enough to keep them moving.

2. Keep moving up

Newton’s first law of motion doesn’t just apply to physics, it applies to life: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

When Caldwell started out on this goal he didn’t know the route, the timeline, or even all of the challenges he would face. In speaking with the New York Times he explained his process to tackle this task: “I have a very distinct goal all the time that I’m working toward . . . Most of the days of the year I wake up with this on my mind, thinking, ‘What am I going to do today to get one step closer?'”

Inertia has carried Caldwell forward throughout his whole life. This is a guy who was kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan and had to throw his captor off a cliff, someone who consciously chose to amputate part of his index finger after an accident with a hand saw and then somehow became a better climber, and someone who went through a rough divorce and lost his only climbing partner. Throughout it all, he always found a way to keep moving up.

Caldwell keeps his momentum due to his ability to simultaneously focus on both the big goal, and making that one next step. It was the same way for Kevin Jorgeson, Caldwell’s partner on the climb. There were some sequences in the film that really illustrated the extreme focus required to gain the next hold. On pitch 15, Jorgeson is shown executing a sequence of moves with his body that resembles a miniature hokey pokey. One cheek is plastered to the wall while his fingers reach in the other direction for a dime-sized hold. After grabbing it, he adjusts his foot and hand grips sequentially and repeatedly in a rehearsed routine, all to gain enough purchase to move one more inch on the wall. The focus required for each small gain is immense, and he didn’t let anything distract him. And even after failing repeatedly on this pitch for a week he got back up and tried again so he kept moving up. Later in the film Jorgeson made a much bigger maneuver: an 8-foot horizontal leap onto a small grip, taking the planned route that even Caldwell had abandoned. Whether the next step is big or small, that was their focus. It took Caldwell and Jorgeson nearly three weeks to complete the climb, but all throughout they kept moving up.

3. Keep it intrinsic

The most famous three words in climbing are “Because it’s there.” They were first uttered by English mountaineer George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest in the 1920s. This encapsulates the intrinsic motivation that fuels the world of climbing. Rarely are climbers out there for the money or glory; they are out there for the challenge.

Caldwell and Jorgeson were never directly asked in the film why they set their goal of climbing the Dawn Wall, but the answer was clear: because it’s there. You don’t spend 7 years on a seemingly impossible task if you don’t have intrinsic motivation for it. Caldwell had spent most of his life pioneering different routes up El Cap. He targeted the Dawn Wall for the sheer challenge. After you’ve conquered every other inch of the mountain, what bigger challenge could there be? It was the only thing left there.

4. Use people wisely

Goals are not accomplished in isolation, and the role of others can be critical in achieving our goals. Jorgeson explained how important this was to their climb in speaking with National Geographic: “You can’t be on top of your game all the time. So when I’m down or he’s down, we can lean on each other. That part is huge.”

If you look at that quote, it all seems so simple: work together and you’ll reach your goal. Unfortunately it is not so simple. Other people can often hurt your goals as much as help them. Even simply sharing your goals publicly has been shown to reduce your chances of achieving that goal. That seems like a straightforward activity which should help hold you more accountable to your goals, but it can subtly turn your intrinsic motivation into extrinsic motivation. Rather than doing a task for yourself, you slowly start doing it for others, which is less effective as motivation. Getting external praise before you do anything can also give you a premature payoff and reduce motivation.

So should you keep your goals secret and strive away in anonymity? Not exactly. More research shows that what matters is who you tell. Telling a friend that actually holds you accountable can double your chances of reaching your goal. Telling your Facebook friends who are unlikely to hold you accountable, on the other hand, might have the negative effects listed above.

Therefore it is crucial you find the best person to share your goals with and work together with. That’s what Caldwell did with Jorgeson; he found someone who made him accountable, motivated him, and helped him. Together they were stronger than each climber was on their own. As Jorgeson also said: “I seriously doubt this project could be completed alone . . . It’s so easy to get crushed under the weight. But when you have a partner it changes everything.” Or, one should say, when you have the right partner. Find a partner who helps you focus on the guiding light, maintain momentum, and harness the power of intrinsic motivation and you’ll be well on your way to success.