To be a pro
January 19, 2015
I can remember once sitting in a pub in Hull with my old mate ‘Wayne the fireman’, talking about people I’d met recently, passing on stories they’d passed on to me, people who’s lives were the type of lives that other people wrote books about (and some of them had done). Half way through a story about Jon Turk kayaking to Alaska from Japan (I’d met Jon at the Banff film festival) Wayne just said “Fuck - how do you meet so many interesting people?!”
I guess it’s true that in my line of work you do get to rub shoulders with people who don’t live ordinary lives, people who from the outside could be called ‘inspiring’ or simple ‘bloody crackers!’. I don’t really know what separates someone ‘interesting’ from someone ‘normal’ - as in my experience most normal lives have far more texture, colour and drama than an ‘interesting’ life (as well as far more peace and fun), as most such ‘interesting’ people have a project based life, and in-between the highs, life is pretty dull (training, working, hustling, traveling, sitting on laptops in Starbucks). When you’re seen as someone who’s done cool stuff people always want to talk about it, or more importantly “what next?” - the bane of all those with an interesting history. I always prefer the ask other people questions about their own plans, what their dreams or fears are - what their defining moments have been (maybe it’s the writer in me). You see what people don’t get about such people - like me - is that deep down we’re pretty horrible examples of what being a good person is, we have big egos (if you’re good you can hide it behind false modesty), we are utterly selfish, and we find it hard to compromise what we want with what is best for us or the people around us. We don’t mean to be like this, and can appear highly functioning (well most can), but cut away our flesh and you’ll find something unpleasent under many such people (and the best know it!) To see such people as being amazing is a little like thinking a junkie is amazing, how they give everything they have to get their fix, their behaviour uncompromising in pursuit of their goal (I’ve actually met a few junkies and ex-junkies and they also tend to be very interesting as a result). Many such people have some flaw in their character, and this can manifest itself in either negative or positive ways (I often joked that sporting bodies are good at exploiting vulnerable people, turning negatives in someones character into a positive, using them as the tip of the spear until they blunt, then discarding them). Perhaps the art of being an interesting person, and motivated one, and a good person, is to somehow balance these uncompromising success driven negatives with some humanity and self understanding - to get some kind of balance and perspective of the meaninglessness of these goals. Even in writing this I’m thinking ‘who am I to judge who’s interesting and who isn’t?” - well perhaps there in lies the problem, that I judge someone like Ueli Steck more interesting than a primary school teacher, just because one is able to get his body to a level he can sprint up a lump of ice and snow.
In the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with a couple of amazing people, sometimes just shooting the shit other times sat drinking coffee, people I’d call both interesting and having great humanity and depth, people who buck this idea of what it is to be good. Last week I met up with Pete Whittakar, as he wanted to talk about public speaking and sponsorship, and as all such coffee fuelled meetings went (Pete drank tea actually - like a good Yorkshireman) we ended up talking about tree surgery, a fear of heights (Tom Randall doesn’t like heights!) and ambition. I’ve only met Pete once before, in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria and he seemed quiet and thoughtful, but then with Tom doing the talking so would Russell Brand. It’s easy when you meet young guys like Pete (that sounds patronising, but I am 20 years older than him) you can’t help but be amazed how much they’ve already done. I had the same impression hanging out with Calum Muskett before Xmas, another super talented twenty something Brit. Calum had a story about how after climbing the Eiger with Dave Macload, someone said “oh wow - cool you’re getting into Alpinism” - the sort of head patting most young alpinists experience. That was until Calum pointed out he’d ticked Devine Providence when he was 17!
At only 23 Pete is already a legend, but also a very British one, modest, unassuming, the last to brag - but a man who would still be out cragging on the Grit come the Zombie apocalypse. Pete on the surface at least - if I was to put on my PR head - who suffers the trait of all legends who are still working at jobs when they should be doing what they were born to do - modesty. Having seen Pete climb on grit and both wide and thin cracks I find it hard to grasp his self belief in ‘the move’ - that he can actually think himself through something 99% impossible (just watch this in action on Pete’s ascent of an E9 here), and yet here sits a man who does not quite grasp his worth in a monitory sense (Pete wanted advice on speaking and sponsorship in order to climb more and work less).
Although I struggle a lot with my own self worth, I have never had such problems in seeing it in others (I should be an agent), as I tend to see other people’s potential much more clearly (I guess others have no doubts in me, so trust my judgement of what they can do). In the last ten years I’ve found myself doing more and more coaching of people, some times consciously (like Steve Bate soloing El Cap), other times unconsciously, and feel I’ve begun to get a good handle on the ‘possible’. One of the biggest shifts a person can have it to become professional in what they do, be it work, sport or even life itself. To be good you need to be a pro.
To be a pro you need to act, dress, think, train, rest, interact with others (and yourself) like a pro, because if you dress, act and think like amateur that’s what you’ll become (some pros look like amateurs, and act like amateurs, but think like pros, most often an act designed to throw off the competition - like a stealth chess grand master asking their opponent where the ‘horses’ go when setting up the pieces).
To go from an amateur to a pro takes a huge amount if time and work, plus there must be that bobbin of talent around which the thread of belief can be rapped (you can create a pro from simple self delusion).
To be a pro you first need to set that as your goal, have a plan on how to get there, action it (get a coach/trainer), then begin to act like you imagine a pro would. In everything you do, diet, training’ sleep, rest, events and comps or projects do as a pro would do. Get yourself a virtual role model, and imagine what they would do in any given situation (mine is generally Mark Twight, as I imagine him to be harder working, more focused, ‘together’ and down right cooler than I’ll ever be).
Don’t do the classic Brit thing of holding onto your crapness as a badge of courage, a safety blanket you can suck on when you let your dream down or fail to reach the goals you set by being crap. Look at a lot of the really good climbers down at the wall, what is it that sets them apart from from you (and don’t fall back on the old chestnut of ‘natural talent’), it’s that they are ALWAYS bloody down the wall training! They train like pros, and so they become like pros (going three times a week after work and messing around with your mates on grade 5s is not going to see you best Adam Ondra!).
And so slowly you will begin that thing, and you may find success, your competition going from fellow amateurs to the best in your sport. For me I went from failing on grade 1 gullies on the Aiguille Rouge to the Laffaille on the Dru in ten years primarily by somehow (unconsciously) viewing myself as being a pro like Lafaille (one of the greatest Alpinists of the day). For me this was on a practical level, in that although Lafaille was perhaps the best all rounder in the world, I had dedicated a great deal of my time to become a big wall pro, and learn to be able to survive in the worst conditions possible (by climbing in Patagonia in Winter), and knew I had climbed harder technical aid pitches than him on El Cap, and so I knew I could at least match him on that. In every other aspect of who I was I was unworthy to try, but deep within me I knew I was a pro in regards to climbing big walls in terrible weather!
Talking to Pete I had this impression from him, maybe incorrect, that although one of the most talented climbers we have, he did not see himself as pro - not like Dave Macload or Leo Houlding, climbers who could just climb full time, climbers who being ‘them’ was their job. No Pete was somehow balancing being one of the best climbers in the world while being a tree surgeon! I asked him about his future projects, and he said he wanted to free more walls on El Cap, and would go back next year. “Why not this year?” I asked, “Why not Trango or Fitzroy” I probed, wanting to know if Pete was a pro, if the reasons he wasn’t making the most of his talent was a lack of self belief that he was ‘that kind of climber’. I wondered if Pete could get fully supported if he could make that transition to being a real pro, just training, resting and questing.
But then it hit me, why should he? What’s wrong with being a tree surgeon, to have a job, something that kept you grounded. How would Pete change if he turned into a real pro, no compromises, nothing coming before the prize, love and life come second to a piece of rock, a mountain of ice and stone. Would Pete loose his humility and humanity if he was to be allowed to become utterly selfish and self obsessed, training, self devotion as normal as breathing, self worship the final phase of all great pros - the moment you believe your myth - when you become that legend. Would you burn up the heart of a man to make a god?
“I’m not that fussed” said Pete, pouring himself another cup of tea, “I just want to go climbing more”.
And this is the dilemma we all face, that we know within us lies the dormant myth of who we could be, that super man we could be, to become someone ‘interesting’. But is this something worth the effort, to have that interesting life, rather than that happy and content one, the life of a pro one in which you constantly devour yourself?
The bottom line is that we need to try and balance doing cool stuff with being a good person, as in my travels I’ve met many people who although up there with astronauts on the cool list, were still assholes once they touched down on solid ground. Each of us need to stride towards some kind of personal greatness, to try and breath life into the that sleeping myth, while holding onto to our humility and humanity, to take what it takes, but also give. In my own view of myself as a man who has done interesting things, and who worries a great deal about his soul, I often think about one of the worlds greatest drummers, Ginger Baker (the Ginger Backer doc “Beware of Mr Backer” is an amazing portrait of obsession, talent and self destruction). I am constantly reminded of a quote about him: “Ginger was an inspiration to me as a drummer, but not as a man”.
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