The Dawn Wall

By Greg Nathan posted May 21, 2021

I have been thoroughly enjoying a new book by Jim Collins called Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0. Collins is also the author of the famous books, Built to Last and Good to Great, and originated the term BHAG or Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

In this new book, Collins tells a story of sitting on a ledge, on the side of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, with his climbing coach Tommy Caldwell, who was gazing across the valley. Caldwell asked Collins, "Does a BHAG have to be achievable?" The reason for the question is Caldwell had an idea for a climb which he wasn’t sure was possible. Collins responded, “If you know for certain that you’ll achieve it, it is not a BHAG.”

What Caldwell was thinking about doing was to 'free climb' the Dawn Wall, which would be the hardest free climb in history. Free climbing is where you scale a cliff under your own power by literally clinging by your fingertips. The Dawn Wall is a stunning 3,000 foot vertical cliff face, so named because it catches the first rays of the morning light.

Over the next seven years Caldwell rigorously planned and struggled to work out how he would master a sequence of micro-holds, some of them thinner than the edge of a coin, to scale the Dawn Wall inch by inch, with his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson. Year after year they went back to the Wall, trying and failing to work out a path up the Wall.

Finally in January 2015, they captivated the world by living for 19 days on the sheer vertical cliff, ultimately succeeding in achieving this superhuman effort. After reading about this in Collins’ book, I did some research and discovered there is a documentary on the climb, called The Dawn Wall, which I then sat and watched in awe. I highly recommend this to you, your staff and your families.

The reason I am sharing this story, is it is one of the most amazing feats of persistence I have ever seen, and it contains some inspiring lessons in how to channel life’s disappointments, the importance of loyalty in relationships, and the power of persistence in achieving what would seem to be an impossible feat.

Interestingly, Collins writes about the Dawn Wall climb when talking about the role of luck in business, because he makes the point that Caldwell and Jorgeson did have some good luck to help them on their climb. And Collins reminds us that luck always plays a role in business success. But ultimately, it was power of persistence that kept them going.

In earlier tips I have said that the essence of a Growth Mindset is believing that persisting at something is inherently useful, as it helps you to become a stronger, better person.

When Caldwell was going through the grueling preparations to climb the wall, Collins asked him, “Tommy why do you keep throwing yourself at this climb, as all it seems to be doing is giving you failure upon failure. Why do you keep going back?” Caldwell replied, “I go back because the climb is making me better, it’s making me stronger. I’m not failing, I’m growing.”

Whatever you are working on at the moment I wish you luck. But more importantly, I wish you persistence.

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