“I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
In the last few years I’ve fostered a strange obsession with looking for four-leaf clovers. It’s said that finding such a clover is a good omen. But this is a bizarre conclusion to reach, since most people don’t even make an attempt to look for them. Are those people unlucky?
My interest in these mutations isn’t borne of superstitious desire. I find it calming – it requires focus, but it’s also innately relaxing since there’s no competition or stakes. Sometimes it takes 5 minutes, sometimes 20.
But I find that if I look for long enough, I always find one. I also find that if I’m especially distracted or stressed, I have a harder time getting into the act of searching.
This strange hobby has made me think a lot about luck, our perception of it, and the role it plays in our achievements. It seems finding a four-leaf clover is not a question of luck. It’s a question of how much time and focus I’m willing to commit to the process. But a little luck can accelerate that process. Sound familiar?
How much of a role does luck play in climbing performance?
If you’ve been watching climbing competitions for a long time, like me, you’ve seen things change quite a lot. I remember the look on Nalle’s face when he stuck one of the first paddle dynos set in a competition. (NB: it was the IMS Cup 2010, featured in the movie “The Scene”. Cheers Duncan for the reference!) Now, it’s rare to see a round of any competition, even a local one, without some kind of paddle. Yesterday’s spectacle is today’s tedium.
In competition, the phrase “low percentage move” is quickly losing its weight. Moves that would have been called low percentage yesterday, athletes now need to do multiple times in a round in order to have a chance of scoring. Stacking many such moves in a row is normal for a problem in high level comps. But it would be ridiculous to say that Janja Garnbret and Natalia Grossman are simply luckier than the other athletes on the circuit.
Let’s say the forecast has a 70% chance of rain, and I go climbing anyway. If the rain holds off long enough for me to send my project, that’s luck, right? But what about if you temper that with all the times I went out and got rained on? There are different words for that – stubbornness, determination, foolishness perhaps. It’s a fine line.
Other than folks with major time constraints, I tell almost everyone I coach to “always go.” Not going is skipping an opportunity to get lucky. If you want to climb, you have to give yourself the chance. If you want to flash a certain grade, that process starts with always trying to flash that grade. If you want to find four-leaf clovers, yeah, you have to sit down and look for them.
It requires a degree of privilege to take the time to do these things, and that’s worth acknowledging. I’m not disregarding my family or work obligations while I prowl around the local cemetery looking for mutant plants. But I am lucky – there it is again – to be in a place in life where those obligations let me go climbing, and to a lesser extent, clover-hunting.
This “always go” mentality isn’t about denying reality. If there’s two feet of snow on the ground, it might not be the time. The goal is to steel your determination, and maximize your opportunities.
Luck and the counterfactual
“Now, surely, someone award Colin Duffy the top of this boulder…”Matt Groom, commentating live
Meiringen World Cup, Switzerland, April 2022. Colin Duffy’s top of Men’s 3 is appealed due to an invalid start, and he’s brought back out to try the problem after the other men have tried it. 2 minutes are put on the clock. Colin tops the problem again, and again the judges call his start invalid – after he finishes the whole problem.
With just 40 seconds left, Colin rushes to make an established start. Two, three, four tries go by without being able to get on the wall. With 26 seconds left, he establishes formally, and tops the boulder for a third time. An insane moment in the history of climbing competition – see for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/clip/UgkxplcL2y6Uq5DWbioJ-qVUsLc7eD07V2ka
Setting aside the judges, the crowd, the emotions – doing a hard boulder twice in 2 minutes is a feat of consistency and athleticism. And isn’t that what all the practice is for? To give us consistency – to reduce our reliance on “luck,” and increase our resistance to “bad luck.”
Was Colin unlucky? We’ll never know what would have happened at this comp if he’d been given the initial top. In semantics, this is called a counterfactual.
We rarely get counterfactuals in climbing. We send, and we move on to the next thing; or we don’t send, and we obsess over what might have been. Improvement relies on our ability to determine the factors that lead to success, whether we succeed or not. This is tricky.
In Fontainebleau this spring, on our last climbing day, I tried to flash a 7C/+ called Maricuja. It was getting hot, so I rushed myself slightly while examining the roof to put together a sequence. I started from the ground with gusto, climbed through the roof with a foot-cut and a yell, and got to the lip encounter. I tried a few things, ran out of juice, and collapsed on the pads with a frustrated expletive.
I’d climbed most of the problem! Surely the flash had been in my hands. I felt that I had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. If it hadn’t been our last climbing day, I would have walked away from the boulder feeling confident about the next session and planning to come back when it was cooler.
But it was our last climbing day, so I spent the next hour in the heat trying to figure that section out. Turns out it’s quite hard, perhaps the crux – and my flash wasn’t close at all.
This isn’t a story of how I didn’t flash Maricuja. It’s a story of how our notions of what didn’t happen impact our perception of what did happen. All the four-leaf clovers that we didn’t find, before the one we did find. We rarely, if ever, get the counterfactual, so it’s important to keep things in perspective.
I recently got married. Clover was abundant at the villa we rented, and I spent a good amount of time trying to find a four-leaf to mark the occasion. After all, I’d probably found a good 20 or 30 in the last year… surely I could find one in a few days where I had lots of leisure time. By the last day, I was sure that I was only struggling to find one because I felt that I deserved to! I finally found one after hours of looking.
When I got home from the trip, I took the dog for a walk and found a four-leaf within the first minute. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to compare this to climbing. Last weekend I got my third V10 flash; the next day, I tried another V10 for 3 hours and came up short on doing it at all.
On a recent podcast, Will Bosi discussed some of his hardest sends. He said something I found relatable, even though I don’t climb grades within a country mile of his – that he felt he had scrapped up some of the climbs “before he deserved to.”
I’ve always wrestled with the idea that grading should be based on how many tries or days a route takes to send. This is a bad heuristic for many reasons, but primarily 1) not every day is a good day, and 2) not every route is as complex as the next. Burden of Dreams is notoriously “simple” and yet considered by many to be the hardest boulder in the world. But then, perhaps our notions of simple and complex have more to do with the climbers’ attention to detail than with the rocks themselves – maybe it’s like a photograph, where higher resolution makes all the difference.
For someone like Will, hammering the hardest moves on the planet, it seems clear that being determined and consistent is important. But even at his level, it’s still possible to get lucky.
Have you ever planned for weeks to try something on a trip, then finished it on day one and been left feeling empty? Or sent your big project at the start of the season, then spent the rest of the season slowly sliding downhill?
One of the best feelings in climbing is really earning a send. It’s great to accomplish something unexpectedly – but saying that saps some of the power out of the word accomplish. If we always sent projects faster than we expected to, after a while we’d wind up feeling like we weren’t challenging ourselves. No climber would trade their rack for Spock’s rocket boots. The struggle is a necessary part of the experience – and that brings us back to luck.
To paraphrase the quote I opened with, luck is what happens when you keep at it. Some days success comes easier than others; your motivation needs to be firm, to be separate from that rollercoaster of performance. Climbers like Will, Nalle, Colin, Janja and Natalia are out there creating their luck, every day.
Keep working hard in the gym. Keep getting out with new friends and doing new things. Keep creating opportunities for yourself. Keep an eye on the big picture. Keep yourself psyched.
Just keep hunting. Luck is mainly a function of how much ground you cover.