On the clear and cool afternoon of January 14, 2015, Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell summited the Dawn Wall, after 19 days and 3,000 feet of vertical climbing on the face of El Captain. In doing so, they made history by completing the most challenging big wall climb ever attempted in human history.
What does climbing a massive wall in Yosemite have to do with running a startup? More than you might think.
In many ways, climbing the Dawn Wall is similar to building a company. Both are audacious tasks and risky ventures that require: 1) belief and confidence, 2) laboring in obscurity, 3) strong partnerships and 4) pushing the limits of your capability.
Entrepreneurs will find that the same mindset that allowed Jorgeson to rise to the challenge of climbing the Dawn Wall will help them navigate the challenges that are common to all founders. Here are four lessons on entrepreneurship from this world-class climber.
Belief v. Confidence
What is the difference between belief and confidence?
As Jorgeson defines it, belief is the hope that a goal might be accomplished prior to taking action toward that goal. Belief is based on faith in your ability, and it’s optimistic in nature.
Conversely, confidence is an increasing realization that a goal might be accomplished based on measurable progress toward that goal. Confidence is based on experience and improving one’s skills after taking some action. It’s proving a hypothesis worked. Confidence is hard won, and only comes after a great deal of trial and error. Progress yields confidence, which then provides motivation to take more action.
There is a life cycle to belief and confidence. In any project, belief is more important at the start. Then confidence becomes more important as the project progresses.
On the Dawn Wall, Jorgeson notes that his climbing partner Caldwell taught him the power of belief: “Tommy’s the most optimistic person you’ve ever met. We’d be looking at a blank piece of rock and he’d say, ‘I think we can do it!’ I’m like ‘Based on what?”
Then the pair would work on a specific pitch, trying to understand how they might be able to find a route along that blank section of rock. The process is incredibly slow with a lot of dead ends. Then some small breakthroughs create progress.
“There’s this alchemy that happens, Jorgeson says. “Progress starts to happen. You start to break things down, and put them back together again. This belief starts to alchemize into confidence because it’s rooted in progress. A move that you weren’t able to do last year feels easy this year. So, you grow in confidence and begin to understand that this can be done.”
Lesson No. 1: By the very nature of entrepreneurship, ambition will exceed the ability of the founders. Founders start with a sense of belief, but it takes the confidence derived from incremental progress to build a successful company.
Laboring in Obscurity
There is a moment of despair in the life of most startups. It comes after the TechCrunch articles are old news, the excitement of launch and funding have worn off, but the company hasn’t found product-market fit. Paul Graham, the legendary founder of Y Combinator calls this the “Trough of Sorrow.” In that Trough of Sorrow, entrepreneurs are laboring in obscurity with no sense of whether they will ever figure out the right ingredients to make the company work.
Jorgeson and Caldwell were in that place for years. Jorgeson believes that these moments bring you back to the purpose of the project. He says, “When things get hard, that’s where you realize why you’re doing what you’re doing. That’s the most important thing. From there, it’s all about just how you how you stay focused, how you weather it, and how you react to the highs and the lows.”
In many ways, the Trough of Sorrow is sorrowful due to perspective. If an entrepreneur is looking at the company’s progress through a macro lens, yes, it looks like the company is at a standstill. But in the Trough of Sorrow, it’s better to look at the micro progress that is being made on a daily basis.
During their years of route-finding on the Dawn Wall, there were weeks where they were toiling away on a really challenging pitch without making noticeable progress. They would spend all day trying and failing to link up the necessary moves to complete the pitch. Their fingers were bloodied, and their bodies were spent. Maybe they made a little bit of progress that day compared to last week, or maybe not. Then they’d clip their belay devices on the rope and zip down back down to the ground. When their feet hit the ground and they unclipped that blazing hot belay device, stepped out of their harnesses, removed their helmets and switched on their headlamps to hike down to the valley floor. Once they hit the ground, they had a ritual.
Jorgeson notes, “In a lot of ways, the most important part was the time we spent together from when our feet hit the ground to when we got back to the meadow. On that hike down, we would really talk through everything that actually went well that day. Despite all of the struggle, we were trying our best to deliberately call out whatever little bit of progress was made—even if it was incredibly small that day. Taking time to recognize success in the micro is so important. From the macro, every year, the climbing community is watching us go back to the climb. And the question is always, ‘Have they done it yet?’ When you’re the one in the trenches, the macro doesn’t really matter. Success in the micro is all that matters. Focusing on success in the micro allowed us to enjoy that Trough of Sorrow.”
Lesson No. 2: The Trough of Sorrow does not need to be sorrowful. Zoom your perspective from the macro to the micro. Build in a ritual of recognizing the micro successes of the day.
In climbing, choosing your climbing partner is almost sacred. Your partner quite literally has your life in their hands. “If you’re going to be able to realize what you’re capable of on the rock, your mind can’t be doubting if the rope is going to pull taught when you fall, you have to be free to just do your climbing,” Jorgeson says. “That only comes with absolute trust in your partner.”
So, how do you know when you’ve found the right partner? Jorgeson looks for two key factors.
First, he says, “The key to a good partnership is putting the objective over your individual success.” Good partners place the objective above their own ego. A commitment to the objective includes a clearly aligned sense of purpose, as well as a commitment to the often long and challenging process to achieve the objective.
Second, good partners are complimentary. Jorgeson recalls that he and Caldwell were complementary. “We got really lucky in that we discovered not by design, but by accident, that our personalities and our climbing, complement each other really, really well. I brought this laser focus from bouldering, and photographic memory for sequences and holds. Caldwell has been climbing on a El Cap for so long that he brings intuition and confidence that comes from experience. He’s more of an optimist, and I’m more of a pragmatist. In these ways, we balanced each other out.”
1climb has an audacious mission: to get 100,000 kids climbing and to make climbing more inclusive. Jorgeson says, “Often the only way that people get introduced to climbing is if there’s a climbing gym in their community and if they can afford to go there. If those two things aren’t true, you are never going to experience this sport. So, I decided to break down the cost barrier and the proximity barrier.”
In an attempt to breakdown the cost barrier and the proximity barrier, they needed to think strategically. Rather than building a big gym in the suburbs and trying to get kids from the inner city to visit, they decided to bring the wall to their neighborhoods.
It became obvious that they needed a partner to make that happen at scale. Jorgeson says, “How do you go about introducing 100,000 kids to climbing? I settled on the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. They are the perfect partner because they have the built-in infrastructure of 4,500 clubs, and they serve more than 4 million kids a year for low or no cost.” They then built introductory climbing walls in Boys & Girls Clubs across the country. This partnership eliminated both the cost and proximity barrier.
Through this partnership, many kids will try climbing and hopefully enjoy it. Maybe some kids will love it and want to pursue climbing further. For those kids, each 1climb project has added a third partner, the local climbing gym that must be within a 15-minute drive from the Boys & Girls Club. This connection allows the climbing gym to contribute their expertise and to the Boys & Girls Club. Additionally, “it connects the kids and it gives them a pathway so that if climbing stirs something in them, they have the community support and the gym to help take that to the next level,” Jorgeson says.
This unique three-party partnership has the potential to shape the next generation of climbing.
Lesson No. 3: Strong partnerships are complimentary, built on trust and prioritize objective over ego.
The Limits of Capability
Most people don’t have their most challenging moment in their career with millions of people watching along. Jorgeson did. Due to the surprising virality of the New York Times article about the Dawn Wall, the whole world was tuning in to see Jorgeson trying and failing to complete the brutal pitch 15, one of the hardest sections of the climb.
His partner Caldwell completed 20 out of the 31 pitches on the climb. The distance between each of the climbers’ high point kept growing every additional day that Jorgeson was stuck on pitch 15. Jorgeson’s fingers were shredded from the tiny razor-sharp holds. Jorgeson would climb, rest and allow his wounded fingertips to heal. Attempt after attempt were unsuccessful.
As one day stretched to three and then five, the pressure was building. They couldn’t stay on the wall forever. Would Caldwell climb on to the summit without Jorgeson? Would Jorgeson give up on the pitch and decide to just support Caldwell to the top? How could anybody succeed under this pressure?
For Jorgeson, it started with setting the proper expectation. Jorgeson says, “You have to expect that it’s going to be hard. So that when it does come, it’s not a surprise. It’s like going into a boxing match thinking you’re not going to get punched in the face. You know you’re going to get punched in the face. If you know that going in, it’s probably a lot less shocking when it actually happens. But then you’ve got to deal with it. Right? That first night when I didn’t do pitch 15, I clearly remember feeling like this was what we signed up for. It’s supposed to be hard.”
Pitch 15 was such an epic traverse. It requires all of Jorgeson’s skills. But by fully embracing the struggle and reveling in the moment that he was at the very edge of his limit, it allowed him to actually enjoy the moment. Jorgeson says, “Yes, it’s stressful. Yes, you want it. Yes, it’s hard. But I’ve learned to enjoy those hardest moments as opposed to fearing them.”
These moments are a crucible. They show you what you’re capable of. Jorgeson says, “In a lot of ways, the presence of the hardship is actually an indicator that you’re on the right path to discovering what you’re capable of. Right? It’s like you’re coming up against the edges and the boundaries of your limits. That’s a good thing.”
Lesson No. 4: When you’re in especially challenging moments, remember this is supposed to be difficult. Embrace the struggle, and see it as an opportunity to learn what you’re really capable of.
Ambition Exceeds Ability
For Jorgeson, who is not only one of the best climbers of our generation but has also founded two companies, climbing and entrepreneurship are, at their core, driven by the same pursuit. He says, “The discovery of what you’re capable of is the bedrock of entrepreneurship and climbing. Let that question lead your ambition, as opposed to the objective itself. The objective, in a lot of ways, is irrelevant. It’s just the expression for how you’re trying to answer this question around capability. It just comes down to living a life where your ambition exceeds your ability.”