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5 Lessons About Startups You Learn While Rock Climbing RiffRaff

When you live and breathe your startup, the world becomes a textbook of sorts. Suddenly, you watch how well the barista at your coffee shop handles a bungled order. Did the customer come away happy? A last-minute flight cancellation disrupts your travel plans. Annoyed? Sure, but you also puzzle out five ways the airline could have better managed expectations in advance. Lessons and analogies are everywhere. Surprising scenarios become relatable to your venture.

A company outing to a local rock climbing gym (shout out Planet Granite) recently became one such scenario for our team. RiffRaff encourages people to get off the couch, try something new and get better at activities they love. And we want to practice what we preach. Some of us had been climbing for years, and were looking to get back into it. Some of us had wondered about climbing, but never donned a harness. One of us came to the wall terrified of heights, and curious if she could overcome that fear.

We learned a lot about belaying, weight distribution, points of contact, crimps, and footholds of course. But the team also saw a lot of parallels to what we do in the office every day. Here are just 5 lessons about startups you learn while rock climbing.

1. The next handhold is important, but your overall path to the top is key. When you’re in the thick of it – either hammering out a new CRM or halfway up a 60-foot wall – it’s easy to fixate on the problems immediately in front of you. Where does my hand go right now? If we don’t get past this obstacle, we’ll fall, but positioning ourselves to be in a good position three moves from now is just as important. It’s a matter of big-picture-little-picture balance that’s tough to master, but critical to sending.

2. Put the right people at your back. In startups as in rock climbing, there’s a lot on the line (apologies for the pun). When you’re ascending, the person belaying you had better be skilled and fully engaged or someone could get hurt. Safety aside, your teammate on the ground has a different perspective. You might feel like you’re out of options, but they see the foothold that keeps you on the path to the top. Climbing was a great reminder how much farther we progress when we work together.

3. Focus dissolves fear. Our height-fearing teammate made it all the way up – twice. When was she most afraid? Right before she started climbing and right as she paused at the top. In between, she barely realized how high up she really was. When we’re fully invested mentally – and, in this case, physically – in our goals, there’s less room for the insecurities and second-guessing that can creep in when you’re launching a new venture.

4. Reach higher than you think you can grasp. At best, when you only try for what you already know is attainable, you progress slowly. At worst, you may get stuck and not progress at all. We marveled at people doing the seemingly impossible all around us – whether it was the four-foot-nothing 8-year-old scurrying up intermediate routes or the advanced climber clipping himself into the rock face without the security of the pulley system. Neither accomplished those things without testing their limits. There are ways past nearly every hold, even if it’s not obvious. It may require thinking outside the box and believing it can be done.

5. It’s always toughest when you’re almost there. By two-thirds of the way up the wall, we were hot. Our arms ached. Our fingernails were shredded. (Well, some of us, at least.) Yet somehow it still seemed like there was so much farther to go. But in reality, all that those achy limbs meant was that we’d put in most of the hard work it would take to reach the top of the wall. If you look at fatigue as a sign of progress, it makes it a little easier to cover that last third of the way. And you probably don’t need any clever similes to see how that relates to launching a startup.

By Steve Vargas, this piece originally ran on the We Work Magazine. Republished with permission.