When I Stopped Trying to Self-Optimize, I Got Better

A few years ago, I stood underneath a red overhanging cliff near my hometown, Carbondale, Colo. The day was a stunner. Elk chewed on the brown grasses by the river below. A hawk rode the wind. Townsfolk and itinerants, some clothed and some not, loitered in a nearby hot spring. I was tied in, ready to climb. I was attempting to do a route first try, “onsight,” as we call it, which means I didn’t know what I was climbing into. It would have been a hard onsight for me — to onsight hard climbs, you need clarity. No interference.

Just as I was about to climb, nerves in my body, which I hadn’t felt yet, said hello. That’s not good for any athlete.

Desperate, I painted a coat of confidence on my inner walls of doubt.

I visualized myself at the top, celebrating.

“You can do this,” I adamantly told myself. “If you believe, success is certain.”

It didn’t work. I fell near the top. Defeated, I lowered to the ground and realized — powerfully, and with the clarity I was seeking minutes earlier — that the desire to climb the route had kept me from doing it. My self worth was bound at that moment to my success or failure, and that set off a chain reaction: unnatural desire, pressure, performance anxiety, anticipation, a mind enamored with the top but a body struggling below, bad decision-making, irregular movement, distraction, frustration. All in that order, too.

On a whim, I told myself that on my next attempt, success or failure was irrelevant. “Make one move at a time. That’s all.” I gave myself a pass from whatever would transpire. Case closed.

It worked. I floated to the top with poise, clarity and bewilderment.

That moment got me thinking, and then researching. At some point, I framed this experience for myself in terms of simple arithmetic: When I added (determination, grit, self-confidence, desire), I failed. When I took away (the desire for success), my body moved with greater fluidity and naturalness. I improved. I enjoyed it more as well, which, as an athlete of 30 years, I didn’t think was possible.

I discovered the power of subtraction.

The tactic of subtraction goes against the grain of the so-called mind-set revolution, in which it seems everyone is adding this or that quality to their mental approach. The growth mind-set. The abundance mind-set. The gratitude mind-set. But in this genre of self-optimization, if it can be called that, we are adding more and more duct tape to something that isn’t broken — our mind — until it is so covered we lose sight of the beautifully designed machine underneath it all and it thus becomes, in fact, broken.

This idea — that performing acts with as little interference as possible — is not only applicable in sports. Yes, it can help us hit a bull’s-eye, but it can also help us elegantly play a piano sonata or be more present with our children. As the sports psychologist Ken Ravizza has said, “Perform one moment at a time.” My experience in the years since that climb has taught me, unequivocally, that the body has no sense of concepts like success or failure. Concepts originate in the mind, and it is so with life as it is with sport.

Reading about what top athletes considered the ideal state of mind led me to a few surprising conclusions. First, the power of subtraction had been there all along. Though you can find it in interviews and writings from Olympians, top coaches, sports psychologists and even samurai warriors, it was rarely explicitly articulated. Second, it’s much harder to practice than I realized. Third, you win more when you embody it. And, for the record, there’s nothing wrong with winning.

But to untangle ourselves from those bonds of self-worth, we need to cultivate more subtle qualities — emotional intelligence, restraint and the ability to recognize and acknowledge our own feelings. The key is removing barriers to clarity, not addingthem in hopes of reaching our goals.

In the early- to mid-1920s, the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew planes, commercially for a stint, and also for the French Air Force. He was an adventurer, a poet of life. He also wrote one of my favorite books: “Wind, Sand and Stars.” In it, I found one of the smartest lines ever written on the human condition, even though at the time he was riffing about airplanes: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”

That day, at the bottom of the climb, I finally understood what Saint-Exupéry was talking about. Adding comes naturally in life, from the simple act of living; habits form, mental patterns become fixed. Jealousies, insecurities and phobias take root with disturbing ease. We may try to fix ourselves, but often by slapping on more strips of duct tape.

But, against what feels like common sense, daily labor is required to return to nakedness.

A great performance is nothing more than a lovely moment, and lovely moments are everywhere. To arrive there, you need to prune away what is causing anticipation and frustration — impatience with those you love, jealousy toward a friend or anger at your children. As Saint-Exupery advises, we must take away until there is nothing left to remove. What is left when you do that? Only an action. You are in it, then, in sport or in love, with clarity, intensity and solidity. You adjust quickly and deftly. You are no longer bound by addition. You are free to act.

That’s winning. That’s perfection.

Francis Sanzaro is a climber, a philosopher and the author of “The Zen of Climbing.”

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