On Free Solo: Would You Trade Greatness for Serenity?

Image for post
Image for post
Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan.

Did you watch Free Solo?

I watched it yesterday and today I feel like sharing few thoughts about it. For those who don’t know, it’s a movie about Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan in 3h56m with nothing more than his mind and his body.

One of the greatest athletic feats of all time.

The movie is great, the images almost unreal. There are several moments at the end of the movie when you sit on the edge of the chair and stop breathing.

Alex’s achievement is simply incredible. A victory of the human potential. An inspiring display of true mastery.

Image for post
Image for post

It’s is also a solid endorsement of the power of visualization, the practice of using imagination to shape future life experiences.

You know, one thing is hearing a hippie walking around without shoes in Bali talking about the wonders of visualization to manifest the life of your dreams.

Another thing is watching a man climbing a 900 mt high mountain without ropes talking about the power of visualization to mentally rehearse the climb until “it’s just not scary anymore.”

However, despite the accomplishment is indeed incredible and worth celebrating, I feel it’s also as important to pay attention to the motivations behind it.

Oftentimes the actual inner experience of the people who accomplish great things is not as great as their achievements.

The movie tries to capture, without being too invadent, the psychological reasons behind deciding to undertake such risky challenge.

I couldn’t help but notice Alex saying that he had to teach himself how to hug at 23 years old because “No one, in any part of my family, has ever hugged during my formative years.” Or the fact that never, in his entire life, someone in his family has used the world “love”.

At some point in the movie the filmmakers interview Alex’s mother, trying to learn more about his family and childhood. She herself admits that when he was little, they would sometimes call him stupid names, demeaning things. “If you learn that about your self worth when you are this big, I don’t think that goes away” — she says.

Alex states he has no recollection of that. But he does remember that his mother favourite sayings were “Almost doesn’t count” or “Good enough, isn’t” and more in general that no matter how well he did anything, is was not that good.

“The bottomless pit of self-loathing. I mean, that’s definitely the motivation for some soloing” — he admits.

Image for post
Image for post
Alex in his van.

His upbringing led him to be obsessed with performance, excellence and the pursuit of perfection. That feeling of being perfect, even if transient, is worth enduring all the risk, the pain and the struggle along the way. Afterall, he says, nothing great has ever been achieved by being happy and cozy.

I don’t know about you, but personally I have mixed feelings about this statement.

On one hand I recognize it as true and noble: challenging ourselves, taking risks and pushing the edges of what is possible.. is what has always fueled the growth and progress of our species. Great things won’t come by simply laying on the sofa.

On the other hand, I feel that letting go of the need to achieve, especially when (possibly) driven by self-loathing or lack of love, is a great “accomplishment” in itself. Inner peace is not an easy mountain to climb either, after all. It requires, in fact, a lot of discipline and work too.

Despite my unresolved doubt, Alex remains a true source of inspiration to me and I would recommend anyone watching the movie.

Also, I am curious.. What do you guys think?

Would you trade greatness for serenity? And do we even have a choice in the first place?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store