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Reach and Contain

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: alexindigo
How well do you tolerate “not knowing”? Perhaps you’ll find courage in Erik Weihenmayer’s story.

The next time I’m flapping my face and wringing my hands (at least in my imagination) over a whole lot of uncontrollable unknowns, I’ll remember Erik Weihenmayer’s recounting of his conquest of Mount Everest’s summit:

…the fear of climbing blind comes when I’m reaching out to the darkness when I don’t know what I’m going to find…

As the first blind man to reach Everests summit, Erik pushed the limits of his fears and found the courage to embrace a new life.  Surely there are many lessons we can garner from his book, [amazon-product text=”The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles into Everyday Greatness” type=”text”]0743290224[/amazon-product].

Just imagine all that his “reach out to the darkness” might have encountered: spiders or snakes, sharp stones or sand, thin air (!) or a firm handhold… Here’s what he actually found:

I reached out that day and I found what I was looking for.

Certainly puts my “uncontrollable unknowns” into perspective. For a moment, let’s forget Mt. Everest – let’s keep it a little simpler.  I’ve not done any rock climbing but I have participated in several ropes courses and I invite you to imagine:

You’re climbing a relatively predictable telephone pole – the ones with little foot pegs every so often. You are harnessed with a belay rope controlled by a spotter whose job it is to keep you safe so that if you slip you don’t fall far, only a couple of feet at most.

Now if heights aren’t your thing, even that might be enough to scare you silly – but even if you’re not afraid of heights, or you’re learning to go beyond that fear – how would your reaction change if you were to suddenly find yourself blinded and unable to see??? Eeek!

Would darkness, the lack of sight, escalate your fears?  What if the darkness were forever?  I, for one, would succumb (at least in the short run) to catastrophizing – imagining everything awful that could happen. And those awful-izing thoughts would severely hamper my courage to move any which way – up, down or sideways.  How about you?

Your answer is quite possibly a mirror image of how you deal with many of the unexpected adversities that seem to periodically pop into our lives… and then again, you may actually be more resourceful (and resilient) than you think.

Containment – a Strategy for Embracing Uncertainty

If you’ve accepted that climbing blind is a good analogy for facing unknowns, then you’ll appreciate another lesson from Erik’s experiences.  In order to conquer the Everest summit, Erik had to remain disciplined, committed and undaunted regardless of unexpected adversities. That’s a lot to ask of anyone much less someone climbing Mt. Everest after going blind!

One climbing practice that Erik found useful as he faced his permanent state of not-knowing, is the concept of containment. In The Adversity Advantage, Erik’s co-author, Paul Stoltz explains:

The flip side of reach is containment.  The better you become at containing difficulties, the lighter you feel.  The goal is to shrink the contamination, limit the downside, and grow the upside, which unleashes newfound energy and possibilities…

Erik has to focus on reach and containment every time he climbs. On Everest, as in life, one of the greatest challenges is not letting fear, doubt and uncertainty gnaw at your resolve. [after hearing of two men who fell to their deaths that day] if Erik had let these events take root and spread in his psyche, they could easily have compromised or even ended his climb.  But he contained the influence of these events and used them as powerful reminders to stay absolutely focused all the way to the top… the idea is to be an “engaged optimist, the kind of person who has the capacity to hope for the best that is possible, as well as the ability to be brutally realistic about the worst that could happen.”

[How to focus on containment:] Limit the scope and fallout of your adversity by asking yourself:

  • How can I contain this adversity?
  • How can I minimize the downside?
  • What can I do to optimize the potential upside?

It continues to amaze me that, despite not knowing what he’ll find with each reach of his hand, Weihenmayer likes to climb rocks!  For him, rock climbing blind is simply a metaphor for living:

Courage comes in many forms… not the least of which is the willingness to reach out and discover your next moves…

Traps We Spring on Ourselves

People get trapped into thinking about just one way of doing things.

— Erik Weihenmayer
[amazon-product text=”Touch the Top of the World” type=”text”]0452282942[/amazon-product]

Another lesson we can take-away from Erik’s successes: there are many ways to reach our goals – finding the best route is often a case of accepting circumstances as they are and then moving forward, sideways, backwards and then forwards again – moving any which way we can, doing whatever helps us reach our objectives.

There are legions of folks besides Erik who have proven that it’s possible to be successful despite the lack of some essential ability – that it’s possible to do things more than one way. People like:

  • Thomas Edison whose teachers deemed him “too stupid to learn anything.”
  • Helen Keller who was blind and deaf.
  • Walt Disney who was fired from his first job because he “lacked imagination.”
  • J.K. Rowling who went from welfare to millionaire in five [hardworking] years.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven who composed five “best symphonies of all time” when he was completely deaf.
  • — Evelyn

Windows of Opportunity We Open for Ourselves

Regardless of the impediments that seem to block your way, take heart.  You may be stalled but, by the mere act of reading this post, you’ve opened windows of possibilities for your next move.

Change happens in bursts and starts. There are times when you are open to big change and times when you are not. Seize opportunities. Windows of opportunity open and close back up again. We go through periods when we are highly receptive to major change and periods when even incremental deviations from “the plan” are hard to tolerate… Take advantage of any natural windows… Watch out for the insidious effect of old routines… don’t let unanswered questions bog you down; move on, even if to an interim commitment.

Herminia Ibarra

Open those windows and see what the breeze blows in… and let Erik’s story give you wings:

When I was 15 I went blind completely. I hated blindness. And I wasn’t afraid to go blind and see darkness, see, I think that’s myth. I was afraid to be swept to the sidelines and forgotten. To be obsolete. And it was a few months after that I got this newsletter in braille of a group taking blind kids rock climbing. And I thought, I mean I took my hand and ran it up the wall in my room, and I thought that sounds insane, I mean who would be stupid enough to take blind kids rock climbing. So I signed up. (Audience laughter.)

How well you tolerate “not knowing” may determine your future – be willing to “go blind” if you have to.

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