Fifteen Lessons from Rock Climbing and Research

Ah, rock climbing – where you start at the bottom and work your way up. Just like doing a  research project, actually.

There is a lot in common between the two – more than first meets the eye. They both test how you act under pressure, require a bit of creativity, and let’s face it, are typically only done by people who are a bit weird.

Before diving into a list of why these two seemingly unrelated things are similar, let me explain how I first got started with each.

I’ve always been interested in electricity, computers, and the environment, so it just made sense to take these interests to a new level and study something like that at the PhD level – to make a real difference in the world, or so the theory goes. On the other hand, I figured out early on that climbing could get me out of a lot of bad situations. For example, during tidy up time at kindergarten it was easier to climb to the top of the tallest tree and hide, watching all the non-climbers tidy up the mess that I had so enthusiastically helped create.

But, the real story went more like this: “Hey Paul, want to take part in a project to enter in an international technology competition?” to which I replied “Sure, why not?”

I didn’t realise it at the time, but my path for at least the next six years had just changed forever.

Rock climbing was a similar story. A friend suggested that we go rock climbing. I said “Nah, sounds boring”. When I was finally convinced to give it a go, I loved it. Needless to say, I’ve never looked back.
Alright then, on to that list!

1. You will fail
Not a nice one to begin with, but it’s true. You will fall. You will experience setbacks in your research. The important thing is not to try and avoid these failures, but to have a system in place for dealing with it when it happens. Climbers build up a system of protection as they climb by placing gear into the wall to catch a fall, so that the failure of one or two parts of that system will not lead to an unwelcome encounter with the ground. During a PhD, you must also build up a system of protection as you go, usually in the form of publications. A rejection or two shouldn’t derail the whole process. Of course, building up too much protection will simply slow down your forward progress – it’s a delicate balance.

2. Do your research
On a recent climbing trip, we jumped on a climb that was supposed to be highly rated. It started off OK, but things got worse from there. Climbing was difficult; bashing through shrubs, avoiding loose rock, and struggling to find places to put gear. Eventually it turned into a nasty off-width crack about 50 metres off the ground – a style of climbing that most sane climbers avoid at all costs, and certainly something that we didn’t have suitable gear for. We had to get out, and fast.

Later on, we looked in the guidebook. It said “Overgrown and nasty. Don’t bother”. Useful information to have beforehand, wouldn’t you say? During a PhD, it is even more important not to waste time researching what others already know. Always check the literature beforehand!


3. Always look for options
On that same climb, we got into the situation where continuing up wasn’t an option, nor was going down without leaving behind expensive gear. One response would be to ask some questions. Why are we doing this? Why couldn’t we just stay on the ground? Why did we ever think this would be a good idea? I understand that most PhD students ask similar questions at some point, but I’m not so sure about the climbers.

A better approach would be to look sideways. Opportunities are everywhere, if you know where to look. Luckily for us, there was a nice tree about 10 metres away, which allowed us to abseil off the cliff. Usually, once you’re out of situations like this it’s natural to think “wow, that was fun”. Or maybe that’s just me.

4. Don’t hesitate
Whenever climbing, it’s natural to hesitate when you’re coming up to a difficult section.

Unfortunately, when you hang around too long, putting off the difficult bit, you fall. It’s usually best to just go for it. With a PhD, the hard question is not usually “how do we do this”, but “what should we be doing?” There is the fear that we’ll put in all this effort researching something, only to find out that it was the wrong thing. Hanging around doing nothing is not a good solution. Just do it.

5. Make the most of easy ground
There’s a good chance that you’ll cover easy ground during a climb, or research project. Make the most of it – you’ll appreciate the rest once things get tough again. And trust me, they will. On the other hand…

6. Don’t stop for too long
While climbing, especially long multi-pitch routes, it’s all too easy to get comfortable on a nice ledge. Ledgeitis, they call it. The longer you rest, the less motivated you become to move on.

Unsurprisingly, the same is true for research. The longer you stop on a particular project, the harder it is to get back into it and move it forwards. It’s another delicate balance of resting, but not too much.

7. It’s easy to give advice from the ground
Rock climbers are notorious for this. Why don’t you just grab that hold? Use your feet! Go up! We all hate it, yet most of us will do it anyway. Unless you’ve been there before, and know the unique strengths and weaknesses of the climber really well, it’s best to keep quiet. Your way (if you even have one) is not the only way, and sometimes half the fun is figuring it out!

In research, people like to do the same thing. It’s easy to suggest maybe doing something differently when in fact you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Please don’t.

A more productive way:

8. Watch how others do it
You’ll learn something. Rock climbing is as much a creative pursuit as it is a physical one. See what others do – whether they see the climb differently, or know about some secret hold that you missed completely, it’s better to watch than be told. In research, especially as a lowly student, see what the professors do. See how they deal with the problems that come up. But, stay out of academic politics as long as possible.

9. The public is usually curious
The general public know that us researchers exist, and will sometimes be interested if we have something flashy to show, but in general don’t really know what we are doing or why. That’s ok; I just disappear into my lab for hours at a time and occasionally come out with a paper.

The number of times a climber has to explain to a curious tour group about how their “hooks” work, or more annoyingly, what we are doing (um, climbing?), makes us seek out more remote locations. Probably the most annoying of all is a well-meaning person saying “you know there’s a walking path to the top, right?” I thought it was pretty obvious that…

10. The easy way up is boring
Yeah, that’s right. It’s just mundane labour – one step after the other and you are guaranteed to walk a path that thousands have walked before, not requiring much thought, not controlling that “healthy respect” for heights. Sure, we end up in the same place, but who had the most fun?
Researching the hard problems is a challenge. We don’t know the answers, whether we’ll be successful or not – that’s why it’s called research. Repetitive tasks that lead to a well-known conclusion are not that interesting.

11. Too much planning is bad
Typically, us climbers will stand at the bottom of a cliff and make sure we understand what the climb will involve before starting. That’s generally a pretty good idea. But I find that the longer I look at a climb and try to figure out what the potential pitfalls are, and where the best gear placements are, the more nervous I become, sometimes to the point of backing off before even making a start.

Usually, that fear all goes away once the climbing begins. It’s just you and the wall, and you have the opportunity to succeed or fail on your own accord. If you don’t start, you have already failed.

I have also suffered this in research – planning the ultimate solution to a relatively simple problem. I had anticipated all the features that we might need, tried to eliminate what could possibly go wrong, and eventually spent way too much time focussing on the “what-ifs” that the project eventually got shelved. Lesson learnt.

12. Expect the unexpected
There has been a few occasions where I have submitted academic papers that I was not very happy with, and assumed they would be rejected. When they don’t, that’s a mixed blessing. On the upside, it was accepted! On the downside, it’s a lot more work to fix up all the stuff I didn’t like.

On the climbing front: Snow. In Australia. In March. Enough said.

13. Expect the expected
The sun goes down every day. Take a head torch if there’s a chance that you’ll be climbing after dark. If you’re also teaching while doing your PhD, you’ll know (or quickly learn) three things: semesters do end, students do most of their work right before a big deadline, and they’ll want your help – all at the same time. You know it’s coming, so plan around it.

14. Look down
It’s easy to think that you’re not making progress – sometimes looking down is just what you need. It is quite a nice surprise to realise that you’re much further up than you thought. Of course, if you don’t like heights, you should have a long hard think about what you are doing.

15. It takes longer than you think
Sometimes while climbing it takes over an hour to go up 50 metres. In research, it’s easy to think “I’ll just write that paper on Friday”. Not going to happen.

Hofstadter’s Law states that “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

This is true for climbing, research, business projects, everything. So make sure you allow plenty of time, relax, and most importantly have fun.

Finally, just remember that whatever you’re doing, you are choosing to do it. So enjoy it!