Last week I overheard a climber critique his climbing performance after falling just below the top of a 5.12 route. He talked about missing a foot placement, which caused him to hesitate and fall. He said that if he would have climbed perfectly, by putting his foot precisely on the hold, then he would have succeeded. I began to wonder what it meant to “climb perfectly.” Is there such a thing as perfection in the world, and if so, what is it? 

Perfectionists demand a perfect performance and reject anything that falls short of such a performance. What does a perfect performance look like? We place our feet, push with our legs, grab with our hands, and do thousands of other things to climb. Let’s consider the 5.12 climber. If he does everything “well enough,” then he’ll succeed on the 5.12 route. What happens when 5.14 climbers climb the 5.12 route? 5.14 climbers don’t do everything “well enough.” They have more skill and can place feet, push with legs, etc more perfectly. But, what happens to our understanding of perfection when 5.15 climbers climb the route? And, we can’t stop there either. Some future 5.16 climbers could do a better job climbing the 5.12 route. This shows that an end-result perception of climbing perfectly is flawed.  

We get stuck when we dwell on end-results that can never fully be understood. Physical objects or our efforts can’t be perfect, because there’s no such thing as a final end-result state for any individual thing. Can an object like a chair ever be perfect? No matter how well it’s manufactured, it’ll have flaws. Can our efforts ever be perfect? No matter how well we perform, we can always refine how we climb.

Perfectionism is a disease of the ego, which is never satisfied. The outcomes we create typically fall short of the ego’s expectations. Compound this with the ego’s need to feel validated, based on achieving goals, and we fear taking action. Perfectionism and the ego hold us back from engaging a climb, unless we’re certain we can create a perfect performance. They make us afraid to do anything, because everything has to be perfect. 

One of the best suggestions for a perfectionist is to do everything poorly. We’re not worried about creating a perfect outcome. We accept poorer quality in exchange for quicker action. Action is key. It’s required for learning and gaining incremental experience that actually can lead to what one might consider as a perfect climbing performance.

Focusing on processes can move us beyond ego perfectionism. We don’t live in a vacuum. We’re part of a wider world and processes help us integrate with it. Processes, like resting and thinking connect us with a route. We can’t rest in a vacuum; we need to grab the holds that are part of a route. Even thinking can’t be done in a vacuum. We recall experiences we’ve had on previous routes, and think about how to apply ourselves to the route ahead of us. 

Approaching perfection as a process helps us learn. We go through a process of evaluating our current strengths and limitations, and how they compare to the challenge represented by the route. How we integrate with the route represents process perfection, because the rock mirrors back to us perfectly our current level of skill. Then we can go through a process to determine what we did well and what we still need to learn. 

Shifting from end-result perfection to process perfection allows us to be attentive to the unfolding learning process we’re going through. We notice how well we’re doing various processes, such as moving. How well are we placing our feet, staying relaxed, moving continuously, etc? Such observations give us information we can use immediately to blend with the rock more perfectly, without the ego’s need to arrive at some final perfect end state.

There is such a thing as perfection in the world. It’s the perfect way seemingly individual parts integrate and blend together as a process. Sometimes that process reveals that we lack skills and we fall off; other times the process reveals that we learned more skills and we succeed. Either way the process of blending occurred perfectly, given our current skill and the challenge of the route. We can climb perfectly now if we’re aware of how well climb and climber integrate. That integration reveals a perfect process that gives us opportunities to learn.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Greg Leach

    Integrated action -> Integrity of being. Thank you for another insightful offering. Travel well.

  2. Rob Fraser

    I like the notion of process perfection rather than outcome perfection Arno. Thanks for the useful analysis.

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