Rock climbing is often about goal setting. Eavesdrop on a conversation between a couple of rock climbers and you’ll likely hear about their latest “project.” Rock climbing projects are objectives that climbers set for themselves as a new challenge. These are often individual climbing “routes” that a climber must ascend without falling. Success on these “projects” often takes months or years of training, preparation, rehearsal, and lots of failure.
Success, when it comes, is short lived. Once you’re on the mountaintop there’s nowhere to go but down do so to speak. Time to move on to the next project. This process of “projecting” is all part of the normal lifestyle of the “serious” rock climber. It’s a lifestyle that I’ve spent a large portion of my life following and still do to a certain degree. I love the lifestyle despite it’s flaws.
One of those flaws is that climbing often focuses (or climbers indulge in) an emphasis on success over process. Ego over spirit. The summit over the journey. In the beginning my climbing was focused almost solely on success. I had a strong desire to succeed. I had always been an athlete in middle school and high school. Not surprisingly I had always been unsuccessful. Perhaps it’s our culture’s focus on winning, or perhaps it was just my desire to win and always losing that fueled my desire to be a good at climbing.
For most of my twenties I pursued rock climbing with little interest in anything else. My first several years were rife with failure and desire to improve. By the time I was 26 I started to achieve some long sought after climbing goals. When I turned 27 I started to get good. I had finally become the climber I had hoped to be. I was pushing myself hard. By the time I was 28 I developed injuries that put me out of hard climbing for 2 years. My emphasis on success ultimately led me to failure. When I returned to hard climbing 2 years later I had developed a new found respect for process and a resolve to not injure myself if possible.
I guess it’s not surprising that my musical path mirrored my path in climbing in much the same way. When I started practicing and performing I was always pushing to play at levels of musicianship that I wasn’t quite ready for. Just like my climbing. The only difference is that this approach to practice does not make good music or a good musician. It might have been good for me to push myself but I was going about things the wrong way. As evidenced by my early hand injuries. My ego was in the way.
My early practice goals were always lofty. I was always jumping in way over my head. I’ve kept few of the musical ideas I thought were important at the time. I realized that goal setting for the practicing musician is much different than for that of the rock climber. That realization of process over success improved my playing by leaps and bounds.
Rock climbing did have a few positive influences on my music. Rock climbing taught me to see goals through to completion. It taught me to deal with failure and keep working until I could find a solution that would solve a critical piece of the puzzle and plant the seed that success could be possible. Ultimately it helped teach me about process.
When I injured myself and was forced to take a 2 year break from climbing I returned with a new found respect and love of process. The building up of skills and steady improvement that could lead to harder and harder objectives. As a result the climbing successes I achieved in my thirties were more difficult than what I did in my twenties despite being past my athletic prime. I had learned to maximize my skills.
I think that learning to improve at anything is about learning to love the process of improving. It’s about looking carefully at where you are compared with where you want to be. The distance between those two points is often a long way apart. You can’t cross that distance without taking many small steps. Each step gets you closer to your goal. The difficult part is deciding what steps to take. To improve you need to decide what to improve. And when.
Goal setting for the musician is crucial if they hope to make constant improvement in their playing. As we’ll see, it’s not the big goals that matter. It’s all the little ones.