Kevin Jorgeson was interviewed in 2015 by Training Beta. He talked about the challenges he faced on pitch 15 of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley California, during the free ascent with Tommy Caldwell. Kevin talked about how the stakes were heightened and how that drew out the best in him. He had to give his best effort because he couldn’t come back later and still be part of the first free ascent. It was now or never.
What is it about heightened stakes that can draw out the best in us?
When warriors are engaged in a deadly duel, meaning one of them will die, they’re facing a life and death situation. The consequences are severe. If they don’t use their minds and bodies effectively, they’re likely to die. This is an extreme case of heightened stakes.
Heightened stakes, or severe consequences, narrow our focus, informing us that we’re facing a now or never situation. We either do what we need to do now, or we suffer the consequences. There are no second chances. Such situations require us to focus on the here and now. We need to focus our attention here, in the particular situation we’re facing, and now, this unique moment.
Warriors must be focused here, on the battle itself, and now, this moment.
If they focus on their desire to survive, then their attention leaves the present moment and they don’t fight effectively. Instead of their attention being focused here and now, it’s distracted to the future: surviving the battle. Doing this shifts their attention into the future and focuses it on what they can’t control. The only thing they can control is the process of fighting, now.
Kevin’s attention needed to be focused here and now, in the present moment, in order to be effective on pitch 15. He wasn’t facing death consequences like two warriors in a battle. The consequence he faced was not being part of the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall. In other words, it was now or never. His attention needed to be focused in the present moment, on the here and now. “Here” was pitch 15. That was the only place this event would occur. “Now” was the present moment. This was the only time the event would occur. If he focused his attention on his desire to be part of the first free ascent, then he would be focusing on the end goal, which he couldn’t control. The only thing he could control was the process of giving effort, now.
Most of us suffer in life and performance because the stakes aren’t high enough. Death seems too far away. We think that there’s always tomorrow to do what’s important in our lives. Essentially, we live for tomorrow instead of living today. Life happens today, in the present moment, not the future. We need to decide how we choose to live our lives. We can choose to live today, as if we’ll die tomorrow. That heightens the stakes, narrows our attention, and helps us focus on what’s most important. It also demands and draws out the best in us.
Practice Tip: Heighten the Stakes
On-sight climbing provides a unique opportunity: we either on-sight or not. We can’t come back to the route and do another on-sight ascent. In other words, it’s now or never.
Pick three routes to on-sight, one below your limit, one at your limit, and one above your limit. For example, if your limit is 5.11c then pick: 5.11b, 5.11c, 5.11d.
Heighten the stakes. Remind yourself that it’s now or never. This is your one chance to on-sight these routes. Then, forget about the goal of on-sighting the route. Focus your attention on giving your best effort.