Think Hard

Fear of Falling vs Fear of Failing

Written by joelsnape

9 Out Of 10 Climbers Make The Same Mistakes is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Though it’s very much about climbing, it’s basically a template for skill acquisition in anything, and almost certain to make you better at whatever you’re most serious about. I’ve read it probably six times, but the bit that seems the least relevant to other areas, and so the bit I mostly skip over, is the section on taking practice falls to eliminate fear of falling.

This was a mistake.

MacLeod devotes an entire part of his book to fear of falling, because – as he says – it’s probably the real problem. ‘Humans,’ he points out, ‘Are not hardwired to deal with fear of falling in an objective way. In most climbing situations that occur, sport climbing indoors or out…falling off is, comparatively speaking, exceptionally safe. Yet for more than half of us it’s a terrifying thought.’ This leads to less-than-optimal results in insidious ways: to climbers staying in their comfort zone and trying to climb routes statically that really should be tackled dynamically, making for an inefficient experience and a negative feedback loop. And the only way to break this loop, says MacLeod, is to practice falling. A lot.

Like I say, I should have probably picked up on the parallels sooner.

Failing, like falling, is a hardwired fear for most of us. For most of our hunter-gathering history, rejection and public defeat were genuinely life-threatening problems. Make a mistake, get socially rejected, embarrass yourself in front of the only dozen people you knew in the world, and you might suddenly find yourself abandoned on the plains, with nobody to look out for wild animals or help you make fire. Come at the chief, you best not miss.

Of course, this isn’t the case any more, and you probably know already that this is why you shouldn’t fear failure. But there’s a difference between knowing it and knowing it – between being rationally convinced that sending that pitch, making that call, talking to that one person isn’t going to be the end of the world, and feeling it in your primitive ape-reptile brain.

This is where MacLeod comes back in.

The way to stop being afraid of falling, says MacLeod, is ‘to clock up falls – and not just one or two; hundreds.’

‘Even tough most climbers do make an effort to step out of their comfort zone, go for it a bit more and take some practice falls, their mistake is not to do it enough,’ he writes. ‘Most people will practice falls for one session and then forget about it. The effect is noticeable, but it doesn’t last…practice falls day in, day out for months and years. Using myself as an example, 5-10 leader falls per session for a year was enough to break the fear.’ For. A. Year.  

There’s a different between knowing it and knowing it.

Why You Should Aim For 100 Rejections A Year, by Kim Liao, is an excellent take on why collecting failures will help you reframe the process, improve your pitching and – probably – lead to more acceptance, and you should definitely read it. But also think about this: Eric Kandel, who won the Nobel Prize in the year 2000, showed at the molecular level that repeated confrontation that does not result in the expected consequences leads to potassium molecules at the synapses changing in such a way that stimulation is reduced with each repetition. Ivan Pavlov, who got his Nobel in 1904, used the same process, without understanding it, to cure his dogs of a fear of water after they nearly drowned in a flood. By confronting your fears and teaching your brain that rejection doesn’t mean freezing to death on a wind-blasted plain, you are rewiring your brain to be better suited to the modern world.

Like I said, it took me a while. But I’ve realised I’m not failing enough.

HOMEWORK: Fail at least three times this week. And if you’ve already read 9 Out Of 10 Climbers, read Your Brain Knows More Than You Think: it’s not quite as good, but almost nothing is.

About the author


Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.

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