Burt Rutan was an aerospace engineer who had a revolutionary idea in 1994: build a reusable space ship with private funds. This was before SpaceX and all that’s happened in the private arena in the past decade, an era when NASA headed the United States’ space exploration. His idea seemed crazy at the time, but Burt knew something about ideas. He said that “Revolutionary ideas come from nonsense. If an idea is truly a breakthrough, then the day before it was discovered, it must have been considered crazy or nonsense or both—otherwise it wouldn’t be a breakthrough.” Finally, ten years later, in 2004, Burt’s crazy idea created a breakthrough. He built SpaceShipOne with private funds. It flew into space, returned to Earth, and flew back into space within a two-week period, using 80% of its original vehicle hardware.
The book Abundance outlines crazy thinkers to make a case for an abundant future for the world. The authors say that some ideas are crazy and don’t work. But, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t occur. Rather, they are necessary for coming up with ideas that actually do work. Some crazy ideas will be failures; some will be successes. We never know beforehand which they’ll be.
Type 1 & 2 Thinkers
The authors say that most people aren’t such thinkers. Rather, they are two other types of thinkers. Type 1 thinkers are afraid of mistakes. They see failure as shameful, so they’re risk averse. Type 2 thinkers are afraid of losing out on opportunities. What’s shameful for them is letting others gain the glory of a new idea while they lose out. They fear loss of reputation. The authors suggest that it’s better to be type 2 thinkers because seizing opportunities creates more abundance in the world.
However, both types of thinkers are fear-based, with outcomes tied to their identity and worth. They feel worthwhile when they succeed because they have evidence to prove it. Likewise, when they fail, they have evidence to prove they’re failures.
A New Type
Neither of these types value the struggle. I’d suggest that we can add type 3 thinkers, those who don’t fear failure or don’t fear losing out on opportunities. Type 3 thinkers don’t need evidence to prove their worth. They separate how they feel about themselves from the outcomes they create. They are love-based in their approach to new ideas. Without being concerned about making mistakes or protecting their reputations, they’re able to relax into the stressful moment, and remain curious about what they’ll find there.
Type 1 thinkers rarely push themselves in climbing. They think making mistakes devalues their worth so they protect themselves ruthlessly. Fear keeps them in their comfort zones and they don’t progress. Type 2 thinkers push themselves so they can seize opportunities before others do. Fear drives them to compete with others. The whole process of climbing becomes a means to an end for getting evidence of their worth and protecting their reputations.
Type 3 thinkers aren’t concerned about making mistakes, losing out on opportunities, or protecting their reputations. They think about crazy ideas and then take action, sometimes failing and sometimes creating breakthroughs that push our sport forward.
Climbers like Lynn Hill who free climbed the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California are examples of type 3 thinkers. It took her several days to achieve her goal. Other routes on El Cap had been free climbed in multi-day efforts, so what Lynn did wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that she was a woman. Men didn’t expect a woman to be the first to free climb the Nose. Then, Lynn had a crazy idea of climbing the Nose in one day, which she succeeded on a year later. Now, many climbers have climbed routes on El Cap in a day, following Lynn’s lead.
Tony Yaniro is another example of a type 3 thinker. He established Grand Illusion (5.13c), a difficult trad route in California, which was almost a full number grade higher than other routes established at the time. Tony had a crazy idea about training. He built crack machines so he could practice at home and was criticized for “training too much.” Now, climbers see the importance of training and follow his lead.
Another example of a type 3 thinker is Ray Jardine. He invented Camming devices and the hang-dog tactic in the 1970s. Ray was an engineer who had crazy ideas about protecting cracks in new ways. He designed spring-loaded devices (Friends) that would expand in cracks, making them easier to protect. He also had a crazy idea about working on free climbing routes. Climbers would lower to the ground after each fall in the 1970s. Ray developed a tactic, now known as hang-dogging, hanging on the rope after a fall so he could continue to work on the route. Then he took his Friends and hang-dog tactic to the difficult crack climb called Phoenix, free-climbing it in 1977; one of the first 5.13s in Yosemite.
What type of thinker do we want to be? I’d encourage all of us to think of as many crazy ideas as we can and act on them. Some will be failures and some will be breakthroughs. We can’t have breakthroughs without failures. If we can eliminate our fear of failure and fear of diminished reputations, we’re free to love the struggle of turning crazy ideas into breakthroughs. That sounds like a lot more fun.
Practice Tip: Think Divergently; Think Convergently
Think divergently to determine the breadth of the problem, then think convergently to bring those ideas into a breakthrough plan.
- Divergent thinking: Define the problem. Look at all the interrelated issues, obstacles, and opportunities associated with it. It’s okay to think of crazy ideas. Example: confidence in competitions.
- Define it: I lack confidence when I climb at competitions.
- Issues: I don’t like climbing in front of others; I feel like others expect me to perform well and I’m afraid I won’t; pressure of competition makes me fear failing; I’m not sure if I’ll be mentally prepared.
- Obstacles: Lack of mental strength to stay calm
- Opportunities: Learn how expectations, failure, and pressure can make me a better competitor.
- Convergent thinking: Find ways to integrate and synthesize the information you’ve discovered above into a clear plan that can create a breakthrough.
- Plan: Learn exactly what the tasks are in climbing; learn exactly what I need to focus on to perform those tasks well; practice focusing my attention on those tasks.