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Overcoming Obstacles

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Three days a week, unless there’s something seriously preventing it, I scarf down my lunch and head down to the bouldering gym for an hour of climbing. This isn’t a post about rock climbing, but in the short time I’ve been climbing (about 8 months) I’ve found the whole practice to change the way I think about some problems. Rock climbing is a physical sport, but it’s also a very mental sport. Climbing difficult routes is a combination of strength, technique and determination. The process of learning is interesting as well, because you don’t hear a lot of people giving advice in the climbing gym. Folks lead by example.

So, I wanted to draw some parallels to my observations about climbing and working through obstacles in tech. We deal with new challenges every day and some can be pretty intimidating. We also learn and teach a lot, and I think there are some lessons about that as well.

Don’t allow obstacles to defeat you before you start.

When you approach a new route it can be intimidating, you aren’t really sure what to expect, what part of a route is going to be most difficult. This is true of approaching many problems, but just because a problem looks intimidating does not mean it cannot be overcome. There is a lot we don’t understand until we are working our way through a problem and telling yourself you can’t do this isn’t going to help. Make one move at a time & do your best – rarely is the situation so critical that you cannot afford to adjust as you learn.

When you miss, inspect and adapt.

The bouldering gym is full of big pads. Those aren’t there because nobody ever falls. Everybody falls. This is part of the process of challenging yourself, part of the process of trying new things. You go to the gym to fall because it’s safe to challenge yourself there & learn how to improve.

Too often I hear folks who are afraid to fall, afraid they might choose the wrong path when working through a problem in their life, their career, or some technical issue. It just isn’t possible to know the right path 100% of the time so don’t bother, do your best. When the inevitable fall happens, take another look at your moves, try to understand what went wrong, and try again a different way.

Inspecting and adapting to what you learn is one of the greatest skills you can learn. Freeing yourself to make mistakes removes a lot of barriers that you thought were there when they actually weren’t.

Watch others

In the Gym this means literally watching other climbers. Some climb with such grace that it makes things look so easy. This is true of a lot of things – so look at what others are doing. We all experience problems in different ways and we all solve them in different ways, learning from each other is key to progress. But keep in mind too that what works for one may not work for another. A tall person will climb a route much differently than a short person, they have longer reach, they also have a different center of gravity. Use ideas you see, but don’t get too upset if those same ideas don’t work for you.

Be patient

When you first start to climb, as when you first get into most things, there is a period of fast improvement. You feel great, you are learning fast, you must be awesome. As you learn more and as you start to approach more difficult challenges, your ascent will seem to slow. You are getting better, you are learning stuff, but it’s not as easy as it used to be. Once you’ve been doing this for 15 years, the problems that are hard to overcome aren’t about learning how to use some new programming language or learning to deal with some new technology, they are the finer points that actually make you better day to day. Those things take time to overcome, they are hard problems that require discipline and persistence like you have never needed before.

Climbers who have been climbing for many years will tell you that it becomes very hard to progress to the next level. Each progressive level requires significant improvement & a lot of work. You have to be patient & keep at it, you have to love climbing to climb, and you will improve.

Be Helpful

The only reason I am where I am at is because there were people who were willing to help me along the way. When I first stepped foot in the climbing gym there were people who showed me the basics. When I was clearly struggling with a route, there were people who climbed it & offered advice. When I have had problems finding that missing semicolon in a sea of code, there have been others willing to lend a 2nd set of eyes to find it.

We need each other to overcome obstacles and we each bring a different set of skills to the table. Your being helpful contributes to that, just as you have leveraged others helpfulness to get where you are at. Give back and help out.

Be Nice

It’s easy to be arrogant. It’s easy to tell someone that your challenges are more difficult than theirs. It also serves no one but yourself. Be kind as you work your way through your challenges because relationships matter more than any ability you could ever learn.