Why I Climb

Driving back from a recent climb of Mount Carrigan I was dirty, covered in mosquito bites, and tired. I had spent four hours driving and seven hours slogging up a mountain. It was late and the drive home was long. It made me wonder – why do I climb mountains?

Climbing mountains is sometimes boring, sometimes annoying, often tiring, and always a challenge. It usually involves getting up early to do something hard. The weather rarely cooperates. It is either raining, too windy, too icy, too wet, too cold or too hot. The first hundred steps on a steep incline you usually think, “This sucks.”

But that’s the reason I like climbing mountains. Climbing tests mental strength. When something is awful, which it often is, I force myself to smile and instead of saying “I hate this” I will myself to say “I love this.” Often I will say that through gritted teeth. But I will lie so convincingly to myself that I come to believe it. Some situations are so beyond horrible that I laugh aloud at them.

This aligns nicely with my belief that convenience makes us soft. Give someone a nice couch, a favorite TV show, a good drink and everything else and they will still manage to find something to complain about. My favorite is when people take to Facebook to rail about a long line, being stuck in traffic, a slow download or whatever.

Guess what? No one cares. The world does not revolve around meeting your needs. I love the mountains and the mountains have no obligation whatsoever in loving me back. And I love them all the more because of it.

The Rules of Stud

Twenty years ago a friend of mine, Bob Laramee, came up with a game called “Stud.” It was pretty simple – when someone said something arrogant or boastful, Bob or someone else would say “Stud!” It got a lot of use that year on the UNH campus. Stud was an effective way of calling someone out for being overly proud, almost like a foul call in basketball.

From these modest roots, the game of Stud eventually morphed into an eleven page document which included a schematic and a historical application in the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone. This makes sense because pride is considered the most dangerous of the seven deadly sins. The proper application of stud can prevent someone from following that well trod path.

In ancient Rome, victorious generals on parade had a slave beside them, whispering in their ear, “Remember you are a man, you will die.” It was called a  memento mori and it was designed to keep the general grounded. The Romans knew how easy it was to get swept up in applause and then overreach. The modern use of stud served the same purpose.

A photo of the 9th floor of Christensen Hall at UNH taken around the time the Rules of Stud were created. I’m in the center in purple.

The best part of Stud was not just its elegance but the social observations it made possible. My favorite was seeing people’s reaction to being called a stud. After awhile it became evident that people who were not arrogant would laugh it off while the truly arrogant would be offended. Used in a historic context, Gandhi would be amused by being called a stud while Julius Caesar would have you beheaded. Armed with this general rule, Stud became a measuring stick for me on how prideful someone was.

A couple years ago I came across an interesting footnote in Dante’s Inferno about the medieval Wheel of Fortune. Previously I thought the medieval Wheel of Fortune was completely random, it functioned like the TV game show. According to the footnote, another conception of the Wheel of Fortune ran like this:

Humility > Patience > Peace > Prosperity > Pride > Impatience > War > Poverty

You don’t hear much about the medieval Wheel of Fortune any more but this idea for it may be worth memorizing. In this wheel, Stud reminds us of step number one – stay humble.

The Lawyer Who Wore Sweatpants

When I worked at Yahoo we had a legal department with a casual dress policy. One day I was talking with one of them who was wearing sweat pants and a shirt with a stain on it. He very well may have been the smartest legal mind in the history of law but it was impossible to take him seriously.

This incident made me think about the uniforms we wear. Very few companies have a strict dress code but you can usually pick up on it in a few days. When I worked in Silicon Valley it was jeans, t-shirt and running sneakers. Running sneakers that usually never traveled more than 300 feet in a day. When I got back to Boston, everything got a lot more formal.

Every walk of life has an informal uniform. Suburban dads wear lumpy clothes for mowing lawns, lawyers wear suits, doctors wear white jackets, military people wear fatigues, performers wear clothing that gets them attention on stage.

Like it or not, your clothes say a lot about you. If I’m given no other information about you, the only thing I’m left with is how you look. I’m not saying this is right or wrong but only that it happens. Forming judgements about people based on their appearance is as old as the human race. You can either be aware of the fact your clothes have an effect on people or you can be unaware of it. Either way, you will be judged by it.

Recently a man who named his son Adolph Hitler showed up in court wearing a full Nazi uniform. He was there to contest the state taking away his kids for neglect. One would have to be pretty stupid to be a neo-Nazi but it takes a special kind of stupid to parade those beliefs around when pleading a case in court.

When asked about it, he said, “Well, if they’re good judges and they’re good people, they’ll look within and not what’s on the outside.”

Isn’t that terrific? Not only does the second coming of Joseph Goebbels want the freedom to loudly state his offensive beliefs, he also wants people to accept him, see the good in him without giving them any reason to do so.

The best advice I got last year was to live in the world as it is, not the world as you want it. Freedom of speech does not give one freedom from consequences. A major component of your speech is made up by how you look.

Limitations

My father-in-law is in his early sixties. During a recent visit, he looked about 20 years younger. He could pass for a guy in his forties. After I complimented him and asked him what was up, he told he had lost 15 pounds. I asked him how he did it – new exercise routine? A new diet?

He said, “I used to believe a person my age packed on more weight. Then I stopped believing that and did something about it.” As a result of this mindset change, he ate less, exercised more, and quickly lost a lot of weight.

Isn’t that a radial idea? So often we are held hostage by other people’s beliefs about what can and cannot be done. Why live by other people’s beliefs if the ideas are not useful to you? First and foremost your ideas and beliefs should be useful to you.

Having a coherent idea is also the first step to successful action. My father-in-law lost weight by first rejecting the notion that older people are heavier and nothing could be done about it. Given this rejection, he now had a plan and because of the motivating power of the idea he followed through. With the guiding idea always in mind, the process was easy.

The above image is a memorable scene from the television series Lost. In the scene, a wheelchair-bound John Locke is denied admission to a walking tour due to his paralysis. Enraged, he shouts, “This is my destiny — I’m supposed to do this, dammit! Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”

It’s a line that made me want to stand and cheer. Don’t be a slave to what others say is possible. Their beliefs are mirrors of their own limitations. Don’t make their limitations your own.

How To Listen

Back when I was a writer for Bob Vila, I interviewed a man who invented a device to install doors. Installing doors usually requires two people, this device made it possible with only one. The man used it to install 500 doors in a new hotel in Florida. Doing so as a contractor, he had effectively reduced his labor costs by 50%.

We talked for awhile with me taking notes along the way. As the call drew to a close the man said, “It’s been nice talking to you. I can tell you are a person who has also installed a lot of doors.”

You could tell he felt a certain camaraderie among us. I didn’t have the heart to tell him not only had I never installed a door, I had never even seen it done. When I got the job at Bob Vila, I had never even mowed a lawn.

I credit my degree. Studying journalism never got me a job with a newspaper but it did teach me the valuable skill of asking questions and listening to the answer. This is much more effective than trying to impress people with your brains. If you give someone else a chance to show their expertise, they’ll assume you are an expert too.