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.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. mordy

    Thanks Arno – fyi – as Don Juan said:

    “You have little time left, and none of it for crap. A fine state. I would say that the best of us always comes out when we are against the wall, when we feel the sword dangling overhead. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

    ― Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power

    1. Arno

      Oh Mordy… I had to smile at that one. a

  2. PHil

    There is not future and there is no past. There is only the present. It is that simple. Memory creates the illusion of these two entities future and past but memory itself is the past. We have to use it but as this says we cannot control the future and when the mind thinks about the future it goes in emotionally conditioned directions. The present task whether it is climbing a mountain as what you are teaching people to do or going to work tomorrow and performing something difficult you have not done before. What a world this would be if people approached their jobs with the interest and newness of climbing a new climb!

    I have just read this to my tennis player who has to play a tennis match here in Tunisia tomorrow which he wants to win for all the reasons he has for what happens if he wins (future thinking). He is in danger when he thinks like this as your warriors are when they think of the future. We are all in the same boat, and I hope he gets the message of your article as he must play each point as a survival situation. This is competive sports. The challenge for the competitive athlete is to live in the moment too and there is no winner except in the mind. Instead the performance in the moment should be the concern.

    Thank you again for a great post.


    1. Arno

      Wow Phil. Awesome reflection. Thanks for sharing. It’s amazing how much of our lives are lived in the past or future. Heightening the stakes heightens the importance of paying attention now. Let’s decide to live that way. a

  3. mordy

    A – here is a mantra that I find helpful (from my teacher) – “The past is history. The future is mystery. The present moment is a gift.” – hope to see you in SD sometime soon.

    1. Arno

      “…and that’s why they call it the present.” 🙂

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