What can a professional rock climber teach us about preparation and triumph? : Alex Honnold
A note before we begin:
Be thoughtful about this lesson and your students. Alex Honnold is a very impressive athlete, but his sport is risky with a high chance of death. Think through all the ways that his story can be both inspiring and troubling and consider if it is best for your classroom.
If you have not seen the 2018 documentary Free Solo, drop what you are doing immediately and check it out. It tells the story of Alex Honnold - a professional free soloist. Free solo is the term used to describe climbing without the assistance of ropes, harnesses, or any other safety equipment.
Throughout the documentary, they debunk the seemingly obvious line of thinking that Alex must be a wild man with a death wish. While he does cheat death, his methods are carefully planned and executed. The documentary captures just a small fraction of his harnessed practice sessions. He explains how climbing without preparation feels risky and dangerous - it doesn't feel the way he wants it to feel. Triumph doesn't feel big and special if it was achieved by luck.
In 2017, I started Third Grade Speech Night at my school. After researching and writing persuasive speeches as a part of our writing curriculum, I took it to the next level asking students to memorize and perform their speeches on stage in front of family, friends, and neighbors in the auditorium. It is no surprise that this project was met with big reservations from 3rd graders and parents - public speaking is notoriously rated the #1 fear in the United States. For weeks and weeks we train, practice, edit, revise, and rehearse everything down to the last step and hand motion. All along the way, I tell the students that this hard work will lead to an amazing feeling of pride and accomplishment that night. The first year we held our speech night, the electricity was beyond expectation. Pride exploded from each 9-year-old as they left the stage followed by thunderous applause... pure triumph.
Giving a speech is not the true test of Speech Night. It is preparing students with all the invisible skills that make it possible. We teach about courage and calming strategies, we make positive self talk posters, we discuss contingency plans B, C, D and E for any possible situation that may arise that night. Chasing triumph is risky and dangerous - not quite like a free solo climb, but it can feel that way to a 3rd grader.
This feeling doesn't only come from big speeches. It comes from anything that was born from consistent long-term effort. It comes from really failing before succeeding. It comes from beating that little voice of doubt inside that sometimes shouts, "I don't know if I can do this" over and over.
We very rarely can put in the time that it takes for kids to work this hard toward a specific goal. That's why we have to sometimes settle for smaller accomplishments along the way. It's nice to feel recognition for a small accomplishment, but it's not the same rush as triumph.
This lesson is designed to help kids in the midst of working toward a long-term goal. Pop yourself and your students out of the drudgery of continued practice. Reinvigorate their work ethic and help them set their next goals. Fight the good fight for delayed gratification to teach students how miraculous it can be.