The creative fight is less Monday Night Football and more climbing up the sheer face of a rock. Playing in the NFL requires bulk, might, and strength. It’s hyped up, and it’s loud. Rock climbing is discreet. Climbers use ingenuity, agility, and guts to accomplish their goals. Last year’s Super Bowl was watched by 111.5 million fans. Most great rock climbs are witnessed by only a few, just like creative pursuits, which often take place in isolation rather than in front of adoring fans. And football is a fight against another team, but rock climbing is a fight within. The climber must dig deep into his reservoirs of tenacity, technical skill, and creativity to overcome the odds. Football is played to win. Mountain climbers ascend tall peaks “for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man,” as George Mallory said.
An Uphill Climb
At its most basic level, I think we create with a similar drive in mind. At least for me, I create for the sheer joy of making something myself. As with the climber who looks down the face of the cliff he just climbed, there is great gratification to be had when you enjoy a mountaintop view that you have earned.
After nineteen days and 3000 feet of climbing, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson stood on top of El Capitan peak in Yosemite with joy and tears in their eyes. These two guys had earned their victory. They had just finished a free-ascent climb that took seven years to plan and complete. After years of training and attempts, the impossible had been done—a new route was established as one of the most difficult climbs in the world. Midway up the climb, Kevin posted on Twitter, “This is not an effort to conquer. It’s about realizing a dream.”
Tommy and Kevin are the champions of their game. Yet if you were to walk by them on the street you wouldn’t know you had just passed two of the greatest climbers of all time. It’s not uncommon for climbers to be slight in build yet immensely strong. Their strength is often hidden under a layer of fleece and a waterproof shell. The only way you might have recognized Tommy Caldwell is if you noticed that the top half of his index finger is gone.
Tommy lost his finger to a table saw accident more than ten years ago. The doctors were able to reattach the severed finger but told him he’d never climb again. After some trial and error, Tommy had it removed because it held him back. A few months after it was removed, Tommy free-climbed Salathe Wall, another route on El Capitan, in less than 24 hours. He has since climbed some of the most difficult mountains with only four fingers on one hand. Tommy is as tough as they get—not that he’d ever say that about himself. You’d never catch him flexing his muscles for someone to admire. He is humble, mindful, and aware. And so is the creative fight. It doesn’t gloat and it doesn’t crush. Yet creativity isn’t some pushover that’s afraid of a difficult task.
Like rock climbing, creativity is a subtle sport that’s easy to miss. Just like the first image in this chapter—look closer and you’ll see two climbers you might have overlooked.