Should anyone ask, about rock climbing

I’m petrified of heights. I love rock climbing.

Being on the climbing wall wakes up primal fears. All I can focus on is staying on the wall. No work thoughts. No relationship thoughts. Just facing one fear. Slowly working up the wall to the top.

Climbing routes are marked out with a difficulty. For example one of the routes I climbed yesterday, marked as a 5+ difficulty, meant that I was only using the purple grips. The routes are cleverly designed: there’s always a way to the top. The routes gets increasingly more difficult as the numbers rise.

The grips on the wall are placed so that you’re solving a puzzle with a combination of two hands, two feet and your body weight. Half way up I’ll hit a patch that looks like there is no way forward. The grips above me are too high and the grip that I’m standing on is awkwardly placed. I’ll try and reach for the grip in front but it’s too far and I risk falling. Then I discover the grip I’d overlooked by my right foot because it’s out to the side. By shifting my weight to a new foothold I can better reach the grips above my head and suddenly a new route opens up and I can progress higher on the wall. 

Climbing shows us how different perspectives on a problem impact how we feel about it and solve it. For example, when watching a partner climb, we have a very different perspective and feeling. 

Perspective-wise, we can see a different route up the wall from our firmly-on-the-ground viewpoint. Feeling-wise, it’s easy to suggest “just reach for it” from below. And yet this is so different to being on the wall yourself. 

From below you see a different route up: different because you can see different footholds or grips that they can’t see. Different because your vision isn’t clouded by fear or the pain in your arms when getting around an overhang.

Hearing “there’s a grip to your left that might help” is useful. Being able to jump over our fear of falling in case we can’t reach the grip is hard. And needing to trust our climbing partner to be securing well in case of a fall, even harder.

Another thing I like about rock climbing: it teaches me the value of taking a break. Apart from good upper body strength, I imagine good climbers are intimately acquainted with their their own limits: how far they can reach, how long they can hang on in overhang or how long they can remain stretched out before the next push. Good climbers know when to take a break, when to hang on the wall with all your weight on the rope, resting the arms, recharging (and re-chalking). I’m not good at taking breaks. On the wall or in life. This year I have taken one week off (and stayed in the city). It’s a lousy way to progress and I’m not proud of it. I have a lovely break planned for the end of the year. If I can get there without falling from the wall. I’d like to change this approach in 2016. Know that I will need breaks and pre-plan them into the work year.

As a child I loved climbing trees. But I also had a healthy respect for the heights. Rock climbing reminds me of this flirting with fear and I love the “fear focus” that blocks out all the “brain noise” as you reach for the next grip.

If you are in Berlin and fancy learning, I think I’m a pretty good teacher.


Should anyone ask, now with 1% more gratitude.

I was 19 years old and walking from my London apartment on Gunterstone Road to Hyde Park. It was a sunny Saturday, there were many people on Kensington High Street. I had finished high school, was working at a publishing company during my gap year, and that day, walking along and thinking about how I wanted my future life to be (yes, even back then I was a personal-development geek). Living in a big city like London was something new to me. After growing up in a small suburb in South Africa, London was different. Very different.

In trying to make sense of these differences, I remember being concerned that the lowest common denominator seemed to win out in many city planning decisions. Looking around me I’d notice that the city didn’t work perfectly. Lights weren’t perfectly synchronised. Sometimes trains ran late. It seemed to me like things could be better, but good enough sufficed.

I’d grown up with the idea that “the UK was first-world and therefore got everything right, South Africa was third world and was imperfect”. This magical far off country wasn’t struggling with the violence, poverty and racial divide of South Africa. This tinted view was serenely delivered to darkest Africa on Sunday evenings via a radio in my father’s woodworking shop. Anthony Lejourn’s London Letter would paint a wistful picture of the perfect life in the “motherland” as my father showed me how to build things from wood. 

I was trying to make sense of my relationship with London: why was it that things didn’t work perfectly, especially if this was the perfect city? This was also the stage in my life where I’d put a new girlfriend on a pedestal and admire her perfection until friction exposed imperfection.

Today I can look back at that time and realise that labelling anything perfect, be it the admired girlfriend on the pedestal or the first world city, dooms me to disappointment. There is always a chink in the armour, always the moment when, perfect vanishes never to return. That moment when perfect is closer to really nice. I live in Berlin now. It’s really nice. Certainly not perfect. But right for the moment.

And so to the idea of gratitude: I’m asking myself why I’ve never been a fan of the gratitude. My gut immediately feels like it’s fake. I can see the value, but in the back of my mind there’s been a “yes, but”. The subtext being “Yes you can be grateful for that, but don’t you see this problem” or expanded even more “…but don’t you see the imperfection in that corner”. It’s a heavy load to carry.

And yet this is the same “she’s perfect”, “London’s perfect” thinking that never worked out in the past. The power to be grateful for the really nice or even the imperfect is a very powerful skill and echoes the vibrant positive personalities I see in many of my happiest friends.

Gratitude exercises can feel like checking off a list. Yeah, health, no war, warm clothes, roof above the head. Grateful, grateful, grateful, check check. And now? It sometimes feels like lowering my standards. Like not striving anymore. No more perfection. Here’s your mediocre served under a dry roof. And so we’re back to the perfect becoming the enemy of the really nice. And that didn’t work out so well in the past.

I have much to be grateful for. There are chinks of imperfection. And some chunks of major imperfection.

But my life is good. And should anyone ask, this is me dipping my toe in the gratitude waters: 

I’m grateful for the people and memories that have come into my life. And for the moments when I can smile. (Like this photo from back then. Boy I was young! And happy.)

Should anyone ask, if I did this again

This is a post for future-Simon.

Background: Admin kills me. It absolutely hammers me into the ground. I hate it, I don’t value it and it torments me until I find a way to get it done. So much hate. Server admin - love. ActualReality™ - not so much love.

Running your own company ramps up the admin immensely. Accounts, paying people (love that I can, hate the process), taxes, random paperwork. It’s horrible. 

This morning while cycling to work conversation went something like this: “Do you think $hero has to do this?” 

Answer: “No he has someone do it for him”.

Wow. I like that.

This is a note to future-Simon:

  • You don’t have to be good at this.
  • You can outsource it easily.
  • Outsourcing looks like “Make a checklist. Pay someone to work through the checklist once a month with you”
  • When $item arrives, put it on the stack and forget about it.
  • Hold the stack until the 3rd or 4th of the month (sometime not too early to miss end-of-month invoices, but early enough to make sure you get everyone paid nicely on time)
  • Have them work through the list with you.
  • Put this as a monthly, repeating calendar appointment so it just happens. 


  • Worry less about the things you don’t enjoy
  • Become better at asking for help
  • “Some people actually enjoy this stuff”
  • Live longer with less stress

That sounds pretty good to me.


Should anyone ask, reading about ABCs

Imagine some blind people describing an elephant. One might suggest that it feels like a tree. Another holding the tail would suggest it’s like rope. Each has a different perspective. And although they are all touching the elephant they end up arguing over whose perspective of the situation is correct.

This week I’m thinking about other ways of viewing thoughts. Too often I am not taking the time to be curious about the other person’s perspective or putting myself in other peoples’ shoes and getting their picture is a valuable exercise.

In cognitive therapy there’s the idea of ABCs: an Activating event, a Belief, and negative emotional Consequences. 

This ends up distorting our thinking and I know that I’m guilty of slotting events into categories based on beliefs that don’t serve me well. Some that I could think of as

  1. Black-and-White - Thinking or either / or thinking.
  2. Making Unfair Comparisons – usually in the negative
  3. Filtering – honing in on the negative, forgetting the positive.
  4. Personalizing - The Self-Blame Game
  5. Mind-Reading – thinking we know what others think (negatively)
  6. Catastrophising – imagining the worst case scenario
  7. Overgeneralising – “I always mess up…”
  8. Confusing Fact with Feeling – “If I think or feel this way then my thoughts/feelings must be correct’.
  9. Labelling – I’m  a loser vs. I made a mistake.
  10. “Can’t Standitis” – being unnecessarily intolerant

My theory on solving this is to change my inner voice. I heard someone describe it as “If we talked to our friends the way we talk to ourselves we wouldn’t have any good friends.”

Some of the through grooves in our brains are deeply worn. Noticing that some thoughts that aren’t so helpful for me, I’d like to work on developing more cognitive flexibility, more diversity in how I think and being more aware of when I’m falling into old thought patterns.

I think this should be possible by reducing the rushing, being more consequent and dare I say it, mindful (seems like it’s the phrase of the year).


Should anyone ask, interuptions

I recently received a replacement phone and have been systematically going through and disabling every single notification that vibrates or makes a sound.

It makes me feel like I’m clawing back some control over the interruptions that divert my attention. And sure it might only last for a second, but I come back to my mental bandwidth thinking: we only have so much time per day to think and communicate. An interruption that pulls me away from what I’m focusing on is the same as someone calling me. It takes a while to get back into the thought I was having. And I’d like my thoughts to be higher quality than interrupt driven “A friend of your’s in San Francisco checked into a place you don’t even know”.

And still they keep coming… just when I think I’ve found all apps that interrupt me there’s a new one.

I’ve also been taming Facebook: friend’s from pre-primary school are now unfollowed. “Friends” are unfollowed. Friends are followed. And that feels good.


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