How free solo climber Alex Honnold faces fear (Transcript)

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Re:Thinking with Adam Grant
How free solo climber Alex Honnold faces fear
Sept 20, 2022

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore how they think and what we should all rethink. Today's guest is Alex Honnold. You probably recognize him from the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo.

He's that climber who did the unthinkable in 2018, when he climbed El Capitan, a 3000-foot rock wall in Yosemite National Park, without any ropes. However insane it looks and sounds-- extremely insane-- someone who does something that dangerous with such excellence has a lot to teach us about rethinking our own fears and goals.

I wanna go back to the very beginning and just start with asking you about the, the story of when you first discovered a love of climbing.

[00:01:01] Alex Honnold:
Oh, it's, it's so far back at this point that it's hard to really remember because I've always loved climbing, even before it was technically rock climbing. You know, I climbed on, on buildings and trees and play structures and walked on handrails and, and basically played. And then I discovered rock climbing at a climbing gym when I was maybe 10 and then have been climbing full time since then basically. It's like, I just love the movement of climbing. I love swinging around and like playing on the holds.

[00:01:27] Adam Grant:
So I wanna, I wanna spend most of this conversation talking about your psychology, and I, I know it's really tricky because you can't step outside of your own mind to witness it objectively, but there are also things that you have access to that nobody else in human history has experienced. Let me, let me start though, with, with one thing that's I think familiar to most free soloers, which is what, what does it feel like to be up on a rock, with no ropes, thousands of feet off the ground?

[00:01:55] Alex Honnold:
It totally depends because it can feel invigorating, exhilarating. It can feel amazing, but if you're not prepared for it and you actually think you're gonna fall off, then it can be truly horrifying. And, and everything that, you know, people have nightmares about. I mean, it really just depends on, on the level of difficulty of what you're climbing and the level of preparation that you're bringing to it.

[00:02:14] Adam Grant:
What goes through your mind on a typical free solo expedition, one that, that you don't think is, is especially difficult?

[00:02:21] Alex Honnold:
Uh, if something isn't cutting edge for me, then, then it's actually quite relaxing and almost sort of meditative, you're sort of swimming your way up a wall. I mean, it's probably similar to the feelings that people experience when they're out for a jog. Like general euphoria, like just sort of a, you know, contentment or piece or whatever.

[00:02:37] Adam Grant:
And then what is it like when you're doing something that's more cutting edge?

[00:02:41] Alex Honnold:
That gets a lot more complicated because, uh, I, I don't know. Maybe the simplest way is to say that on truly cutting-edge soloing, I often am not experiencing a lot during the climb itself because, um, I'm sort of in autopilot. I'm just performing and there's, there's not a whole lot else going on. You know, I'm not appreciating the view. I'm not thinking about anything. I'm just doing the activity itself, which in some ways is the point. I mean, that's kind of the, the joy of it that you're totally lost in what you're doing and you're just doing it.

[00:03:08] Adam Grant:
That sounds exactly like how psychologists would describe a flow state.

[00:03:12] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I've read I've-- yeah, yeah, exactly.

[00:03:15] Adam Grant:
You're familiar with Csikszentmihalyi.

[00:03:16] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, yeah, though. I actually don't know how to say his name, but yeah. Yeah. I have read the book.

[00:03:21] Adam Grant:
Is that what you're experiencing? Do you just have more intense flow while you're climbing than any other activities you do?

[00:03:27] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, I think so. And to be fair, I'm not really skilled enough at anything else to, to reach the same levels of flow I don't think, you know. Because I think part getting into a flow state is, is doing something challenging, but also, you know, having a high enough level of skill at it that you, that you can do that challenging thing, you know. Cuz there are other activities like say mountain biking or skiing or things that, that I'm okay at. And I can sort of maybe experience flow from time to time, but not really, you know, not the way I can when I'm climbing.

[00:03:55] Adam Grant:
Have you never encountered another activity where you had the same drive to master it that you've had with climbing?

[00:04:01] Alex Honnold:
No, not even remotely close. I mean, there are other things that I like to do, but, but I love climbing.

[00:04:08] Adam Grant:
Why not? Like what, what's different about everything else?

[00:04:11] Alex Honnold:
It's just so much less fun. I mean, who, who knows? I mean, you know, I like. I don't know. I like lots of things. I'm trying to think of like the most addictive things, the things that, that sort of seize me and, and even the, the most, are just nothing compared to climbing. I mean 25 years of doing something full-time you, you get, you get pretty into it.

[00:04:32] Adam Grant:
You could, although a lot of people would say they get pretty tired of it too. That it's monotonous repetitive, boring. You, you have not lost the passion for it.

[00:04:41] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. But that actually might be an interesting thing about climbing in that it's quite a broad sport. And so you know, when I say I've spent 25 years climbing full time. What, what that means is actually quite varied because occasionally I go on, on Alpine expeditions to climb big snowy mountains. Like this summer, I was in the Alps for a little bit and climbed some, some big snowy peaks. But then now I'm back home sport-climbing, which means climbing, you know, a hundred foot rock walls, which is very difficult physically, but way less adventurous than climbing mountains, let's say.

[00:05:09] Adam Grant:
Got it. So the variety is built into the activity.

[00:05:12] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. And, and not only does the variety keep the little spice. But it also can sort of improve your skills and your fitness in different ways. So like if you plateau in one aspect of climbing, you can work on a different aspect for a little while and then find that that's oftentimes beneficial for the area that you were plateaued in. It's just this nice thing where, where, you know, when you feel like you hit roadblocks in, in your progress, you can always just move sideways a little bit and work on something a little bit different and still find that overall your level is slowly rising.

[00:05:38] Adam Grant:
It almost sounds like you can cross-train within your sport.

[00:05:40] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, no, that's exactly it.

[00:05:42] Adam Grant:
And I, I'm sure you've heard it talked about as a sampling period where you're supposed to try out lots of different sports and sort of figure out what you're good at and passionate about, but also develop different kinds of skills in different areas. It seems like you violated that trend a little bit.

[00:05:56] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Maybe, or, or maybe I'm just not a world-class athlete. You know, it's, it's hard to say because in some ways I'm, I'm a very well-known rock climber, but that's also because there aren't very many other climbers doing what I'm doing. But you know, I'm not competing or anything. So it's hard to judge how strong of a climber, I am compared to others. But any anyway, that's, that's a whole different thing, but..

[00:06:15] Adam Grant:
I mean, the only reason you're not competing is because as far as I can tell, no one else on earth is insane enough to try some of the walls that you're scaling.

[00:06:22] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Well, yeah. Yeah.

[00:06:24] Adam Grant:
I mean that N=1 is still competition, right? If no one's even willing to enter the competition.

[00:06:29] Alex Honnold:
Yeah well that's yeah. I often joke. It's like, it's easy to be the best if no one else is doing it. You're like...

[00:06:36] Adam Grant:
Yeah, but there's also a reason that no one else wanted to opt into that contest, right?

[00:06:40] Alex Honnold:
Oh, well, it's just cuz nobody else has the, this inspiration for it. You know? No one else is excited in the same way.

[00:06:46] Adam Grant:
So excitement. I wanna talk about emotion. I often have heard people call you Spock. And I think it's, it's an unfair characterization because you're very clearly not immune to emotion, but I think, I think what, what people seem to be talking about is, is fear and how you seem to keep your cool in situations where other people would be, you know, at, at minimum concerned or alarmed, uh, or just downright terrified. And I wanna, I guess maybe one place to start on that is, do you remember feeling fear as a kid?

[00:07:16] Alex Honnold:
Um, well, I don't know. I don't, I mean, I'm sure I have childhood memories of being afraid of spiders and things like that. Um, but I don't remember that well, but I'm trying to think of some of my early climbing experiences that were very scary and-- and they mostly are what you would expect from a beginner climber. Like the first times that I learned how to climb on gear, which is when, uh, you're climbing with a rope, but you're still placing hardware into the, the, the mountain to, uh, attach your rope to, um, that's a little bit different than what you learned, how to do when you're climbing in a gym.

And so when I first learned how to climb on gear, I was very afraid that all my gear was just gonna fall out. And so like, if I fell, you know, everything would rip outta the wall and I'd land on the ground and I would die. And, and that's a pretty common fear for people learning how to climb on gea , um, and, and relatively well-founded fear as well. You know, like that's an appropriate thing to be afraid of because if you're learning, you often are placing bad gear. And so it takes a while to, to get through the learning curve and, and to actually feel confident with it and know that your gear is safe and that everything is okay.

[00:08:11] Adam Grant:
And how did you deal with that fear?

[00:08:13] Alex Honnold:
I mean the same way everybody else does, you know, take some deep breaths, compose yourself, just try your best. I'm sure I've tried everything that, that everybody else tries, you know, when, when you're on the ground and you give yourself a little pep talk, you're like, this is gonna be okay. Like, I, I know what I'm doing. I'm gonna be okay. And then you go up there and you feel really, really scared. And you're like, oh God, just take some deep breaths, pull it back together. But I think the difference though, is that if you, if you routinely experience that level of fear, eventually you get better at managing it and you get better at ignoring it when it's appropriate.

And, and just to be clear, even as an adult, I still feel fear and I still, you know, feel all the same emotions as anybody else. It's just that I think as I've gotten older, you know, and as I've climbed full time for so long, I've just gotten a little bit better at managing those feelings and, and compartmentalizing them and, you know, mitigating them in different ways. Basically, you could say I have a much more rich and varied relationship with fear than, than most people.

[00:09:10] Adam Grant:
I think one of the things that, that I found endlessly fascinating, I guess when, when we first met was I, I think I had just read that neuroscientists had, had found that you had limited amygdala activation in, in your brain, at least in response to sort of ordinary stimuli. And I remember, um, really being riveted by this because whenever people hear about the amygdala, they think about it as fear circuitry. You know, that's wrong that it's actually the threat detection system, and that the amygdala is, is basically, you know, the fast visceral response to detect and prevent whatever might be a threat. And I guess it, it, through that lens, it sounds to me like what you have done is you've trained your brain to not detect a threat in a life and death situation, or at least not to respond as, as quickly and intensely as most people would in, in that kind of situation.

[00:10:05] Alex Honnold:
No, that's, that's an interesting framing because I think actually what I've done is train my brain to detect threats, more acutely, you know, actual threats. So that test, you know, I took a FMRI scan with, you know, a battery of images being flashed at me. And to me, it seemed perfectly natural that my amygdala wouldn't trigger while looking at pictures while laying in a safe metal tube, because I'm totally safe. I'm just laying in a tube. But apparently, you know, the average human responds to, to images that they see the same way they would an actual threat. So if they see a picture of a spider, you know, it triggers the same thing as if there was a spider there. But I mean, to me, it seemed totally appropriate that after, at that point, I think 10 or yeah, 10 years or so of free soloing at a high level routinely, I should be able to differentiate between seeing a picture and an actual visceral threat to my life.

[00:10:54] Adam Grant:
So I guess, for, for the average person, uh, I guess when I think about this through the lens of exposure therapy, they're going through flooding and like they're, they're arachnophobes and they've just had a spider dropped in their lap. Whereas what you've done is much more systematic desensitization.

[00:11:08] Alex Honnold:

[00:11:09] Adam Grant:
But you looked at pictures of the spider, you had it across the room in a cage, you drew it and then eventually you approached it.

[00:11:15] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. And now I feel very comfortable with the spider crawling all over me, as long as I know that it's not venomous. And I know it's not actually lethal.

[00:11:22] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Okay. So that, I guess, you know, it seems like there are situations where you detect, you know, a real threat when you're on a wall. I know you talked about a climb at Half Dome where you panicked and I, I wondered what activated your sense of threat there and how you calmed down.

[00:11:38] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, actually, uh, it's not even so much that I panicked on Half Dome, I, think looking back on it now, I see it more as a gradual erosion of my, of my, my mental state, because basically there were a series of missteps as I climbed Half Dome where I got slightly off route at a certain point. And at the time it was the biggest and hardest thing that I'd free soloed. So, uh, you know, as it is, it's already psychologically quite demanding cuz it's, you know, it's already a big step outside of my comfort zone. And then the last difficult part is up at the very top. So, you know, as I was already getting both physically and mentally quite tired, I got to the hardest part. So it's not so much that I panicked, but it's more that it all started to crumble. You know, like everything was already starting to fray a little bit. And then you're like, oh no, now it's really falling apart.

[00:12:19] Adam Grant:
That's almost worse.

[00:12:20] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, no, it kind of was.

[00:12:22] Adam Grant:
So when I think about emotion regulation, I think about cognitive reappraisal theory. Yeah. Which is all about saying you can either let emotions immediately guide your behavior, or you can pause and reframe them and say, okay, why am I feeling this? What does it mean? And then try to deal with it with a little bit more distance and a little bit more rationality or reasoning. It seems like you do that almost instantly. Like the moment you, you know, you start to feel afraid you start to reappraise. Is it that quick for you? Or do you have to do this consciously?

[00:12:52] Alex Honnold:
It's not always that quick. Sometimes I have to do that consciously, where I have to sort of look inward and be like, what is going on? Like take a deep breath, compose yourself, pull it together. This is totally irrational. You know, because I still experience irrational fear. I mean, I still have days when I go climbing and like, is the rope gonna cut? And you know, it's totally unfounded. It's irrational, but you still can't help but be like, "I hope my rope doesn't cut". But it, it's funny to hear you say that with, with reappraising because I actually, you know, I don't know the terms for it, cause I'm not a psychologist, but I often talk about that with, with fear because I feel like fear has this, like an overstated impact on people. And I'm like, why don't people treat fear the same way they treat hunger? Where it's your body showing you, like basically giving you some information. But like when people experience hunger is their body telling 'em that it needs nourishment at some point, but most people just set that aside and then they eat lunch whenever it's convenient. But with fear, most people experience fear, which is basically their body telling 'em that they're, they could be in danger, but then they immediately freak out and act on it. Or, you know, basically it like takes over their, what takes over their cognitive process. You know, they're like, "Holy shit, I'm afraid." You know? And I'm like, why can't people set fear aside the same way they set aside hunger and then deal with it when it's appropriate?

[00:14:04] Adam Grant:
I-- I'm, I'm kind of stunned here because you just articulated what psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has spent most of her career building a body of evidence behind, which is the idea that like there, there are only a few, kind of, basic emotional experiences. And we have a choice about how we interpret them. And so you might experience like a high-intensity negative emotion, but it's up to you to label that fear or anxiety or, you know, reasonable concern or whatever else you might interpret it as--

[00:14:33] Alex Honnold:
--or then, or to reframe it as something positive where you're like "I'm nervous and excited for what's to come", you know, as opposed to "I'm terrified of what's to come", even though the physical sensation is almost the same.

[00:14:43] Adam Grant:
Which is also amazing because a former doctoral student of ours, Alison Wood Brooks, did her dissertation on the idea that calming down is much less effective when you're afraid or anxious than telling yourself you're excited because excitement, and and fear anxiety are both highly activated emotions that arise under uncertainty. And so you can choose to say like, "Wow, I'm really freaking out. Or like, things are definitely gonna go badly and so I should feel dread." Versus, um, "I'm feeling, you know, intense arousal. With uncertainty, like maybe something good could happen." And I'm excited about that. Yeah. Is that, is that what you're getting at?

[00:15:18] Alex Honnold:
Totally. Totally. You can reframe the like, "Oh my God, I'm scared" into, "Wow. I am on right now. And I'm about to send." As, as a climber would say, you're like, "I'm about to perform."

[00:15:27] Adam Grant:
Wow. And so you, you actually have these thoughts as you're climbing?

[00:15:32] Alex Honnold:
I mean, I definitely, I have experienced moments when I'm free soloing where I can kind of look at myself and, and be like, you are afraid, like you are over gripping, you're breathing too quickly. Your vision is narrowed. You're, you know, basically like all the things that, that you expect to happen physiologically when, when you start to experience fear while climbing. And you know, then you can just take that breath and be like, okay, time to--time to reset, you know, like, relax your grip a little bit, take in what you're doing and start again.

[00:16:05] Adam Grant:
I noticed something else. Okay. So this whole conversation is just gonna be you describing your psychology and me giving you a bunch of terms for it that you don't need, but it sounds like you, you talk to yourself a lot in the second person, and I'm thinking about Ethan Cross's research about how, when you say like, "You can do this", or, you know, you're like, "You're not afraid, you're excited" as opposed to "I can do this" or "I'm not afraid, I'm excited" that you create some self distance, and it's actually more motivating and believable. Uh, is that, is that something you're aware of?

[00:16:34] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, maybe I've, I've never thought about that, but it is true that a lot of my visualization and like a lot of the ways I think about climbing are sort of more "you." And, and I think that's kind of in line with what I was saying that with hard soloing I'm often on autopilot where, you know, there's a certain feeling of being outside of my own body or outside of yourself, you know, where it's like, my body is doing what it's supposed to do. And, and there's like almost an observer.

[00:17:00] Adam Grant:
Yeah. It's almost like when psychologists talk about self-distancing, uh, they, they often go the extra step of saying, you know, if you're afraid, think about somebody else who's afraid and give them advice. Because the advice you gave is usually the advice you need to take, but also you're gonna build your own confidence by, you know, by talking to that other person and then it seems like you already know what you're doing. You've also had a lot of experience overcoming fear to, you know, to even go for a climb in the first place. And I was really struck when watching Free Solo that like with the early days of El Cap you just said, "It's too scary." Uh, and I wonder what led you to cross the border to say, "Yeah, it's scary, but I wanna go for it"?

[00:17:40] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, that's a, that's a big, it's a long journey. So we were just talking about free soloing Half Dome. I did that in 2008. And so starting in 2009, I thought that it was, you know, time to free solo El Cap. Cause it was like the next obvious thing. I didn't really realize--

[00:17:53] Adam Grant:
-- as one does.

[00:17:54] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Well, you know, what I didn't realize how much further down my personal journey it would actually be. So I started thinking about it, but then each year I would just drive in Yosemite, look at the wall and be like, that is completely out of the question. Like, it's just like, I mean, calling it scary almost doesn't even do justice to how impossible it felt. You know, it's not just, they're like, "Oh, it looks scary." It was like, "No, that is completely outta the question." That is, that is totally off limits, you know? But then I guess over the years I just started to, you know, I just worked on other projects. It's basically six years of doing progressively bigger and harder climbs of other kinds. And then coming back to it and, and having it feel a little bit more comfortable because I'd done so many other things.

Basically there just came a day in, in, uh, 2015, actually. I, I remember the specific climb because, uh, I'd actually taken a couple of months off climbing. I'd been like trail running a bunch and just scrambling a little. But I went up to support a friend of mine on El Cap. Uh, so I climbed El Cap with him and it was the first time that when I went up to the wall, I was like, "You know, like I could imagine maybe soloing in this. Under the right conditions with the right training", you know, all those kind of caveats. But it was the first time I looked at it and it didn't seem totally outta the question. And, and then sort of by chance, right after that is when the directors of Free Solo approached me about doing a film. And so I sort of harnessed that motivation to, to then actually work on ultimately free soloing it.

[00:19:14] Adam Grant:
Wow. It almost sounds logical. Not quite.

[00:19:18] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. You know.

[00:19:18] Adam Grant:
But almost it, it reminds me a little bit of the proverb that says, you know, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." And my reaction is "No, don't eat an elephant." I have a similar reaction to, to your desire to free solo a 3000 foot rock wall.

[00:19:33] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, I know it does seem kind of, kind of outrageous. You know, you have to remember that I was spending three months a year, at least in Yosemite climbing full time. And so it's something that I was looking at all the time, thinking about all the time. And as a climber, you just know that it's such a historic, you know, that it could be such a historic moment for climbing. Like it's just, it's an important thing that should be done eventually. And I felt like, you know, I could be the one to do it.

[00:19:58] Adam Grant:
Do you think so?

[00:20:00] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Yeah, for sure.

[00:20:02] Adam Grant:
Maybe this is because the closest I've ever gotten to being a climber was, uh, you know, like heavy, heavy, uh, belaying in the Swiss Alps, uh, or, you know, belaying in a gym. But I, I hear you say that and I think if you succeed, there's a decent chance that people who never would've tried El Cap before are gonna die climbing it.

[00:20:24] Alex Honnold:
No, no. I actually sort of disagree in some ways. You know, there's always a little bit of a-- a prize of the first, or at least with climbing, like doing the first ascent of something is very exciting. But in some ways, I think it takes some of the pressure off for people doing the second or third ascent. So you're really only doing it if you're highly intrinsically motivated. And so it's kind of better in some ways.

[00:20:46] Adam Grant:
Are you saying then both that it'll attract people who are motivated for the right reasons and it'll also help them focus and do it for the right reasons?

[00:20:54] Alex Honnold:
Well, well, I'm just saying it'll keep away people who are motivated for the wrong reasons anyway.

[00:20:59] Adam Grant:
Got it. Wow.

[00:21:00] Alex Honnold:
But also that's all a bit of a stretch because realistically, there's so few people interested and so few people capable, and so it is just like, it's just not that big of a, it's just not a problem. You know? It's not like there's a line at the base.

[00:21:12] Adam Grant:
Yeah. There, there aren't that many people who watched the movie and woke up the next morning, they're like, I'm gonna go free solo El Cap. Tomorrow.

[00:21:17] Alex Honnold:
No, I mean-- during, during the Free Solo film tour, I, I routinely got questions about, you know, like, "is this gonna inspire kids to risk their lives?" and things like that. And. And it was interesting because I was doing all these film events. So I was, I was chatting with movie audiences all the time and doing Q and As, and my takeaway was that most folks would watch the film and they'd come away inspired to sign up for their first marathon or something like that. But nobody came outta the film inspired to go free soloing, you know, like nobody saw it and was like, "I wanna do that." But they all were, they all felt like, you know, it's time to start working on that book that I've been procrastinating on for so long. And I was like, that's perfect. You know, because people use it to, to draw motivation for whatever it is that they're inspired by. But almost nobody is actually inspired to go free soloing.

[00:21:57] Adam Grant:
Yeah. That's um, I, I, I was really, that was one of the things that surprised me the most actually is, you know, when I've watched inspiring movies before I often wanna follow in the, like in the hero's footsteps and you know, this did not have that reaction at all. I was like, "Nope, that is not for me, but I could probably be challenging myself a little more and stretching myself beyond my comfort zone a little more." And it sounds like that's been a, the dominant reaction that you've seen.

[00:22:21] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, that's certainly what I've seen.

[00:22:23] Adam Grant:
So I know you get this question all the time and you've been answering it for a quarter century, but I, I have to ask it and I'm, I'm hopefully gonna make it more interesting than the usual version of it after you answer: which is, um, why? Like what, what is the ultimate purpose of being the first to climb a wall?

[00:22:40] Alex Honnold:
What's the ultimate purpose of any of it? You know, like why have you written so many books? Like what, why do you teach? You know, it's like at a certain point, you know, you just do the things that you enjoy doing that you feel like you're good at doing, that you feel like you can contribute in some way. And, and you just like it.

[00:22:55] Adam Grant:
That's the part that puzzles me the contribution part. So when I've studied meaningful work, I've found that the single strongest driver is a sense of having a positive impact on other people. And one of the things that's intriguing to me about climbing is you clearly find a lot of meaning in it. But it's not as obvious to me who benefits from it or who it helps. And so how do you, how do you connect those dots?

[00:23:16] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, that's, that's a very fair question because it is true that climbing isn't really helping anybody, but I think you could ask the same question to, you know, the, the first skateboarder to try to land a 1080 or something like that. You know, it's like, you know, it's basically just pushing. And this sounds really douchy to say, but you know, like pushing human progress in a certain way, and like human potential in a certain way. And if you feel like you can do something that humans haven't done before, I feel like there's almost an obligation to do that just because, you know, it's showing a certain capability and, and you're right, that it's not making anybody's life better and it's not improving global conditions in any way, but it still feels useful. You know, it's like, it's, it's like a classic exploration, you know? I mean, you're yeah. You are just pushing into the unknown a little bit.

[00:23:58] Adam Grant:
That, that was exactly what, what resonated with me about like, okay, what drives you is you're an explorer, you're an adventurer. Uh, you are, you're pushing the boundaries of what humans think is possible and what we're capable of, which I think is just inherently cool. And I think you already gave us also an indirect way that it helps people, right? Which is it inspires people to pursue their own challenges and raise their own ambitions. Um, the way that you do this, I think is, um, is maybe reflective of a distinction that psychologists make when they study values between benevolence and universalism. Benevolence being kind of "I care about helping specific people", universalism being "I care more about humanity and the planet"; and from watching you and reading your work, it seems like you're low in benevolence and high in universalism when it comes to your value system.

[00:24:43] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, that's really interesting because, uh, I don't know if you know, but I have a foundation, The Honnold foundation, which supports solar projects around the world. And, uh, and that's exactly the case. I am very universal. I care about projects that help populations and that help the global environment and things like that. But I really have never cared that much about individual. Like, and it's funny because most nonprofits try to fundraise by being like you can help Timmy, and Timmy needs your help. And I'm like, "I do not care about Timmy. I care about, you know, the, the community or like the, the freaking continent, you know, like I care about the bigger picture sort of things."

[00:25:18] Adam Grant:
Well, I, I think that's also consistent. I don't know if you would identify it this way or not, but what I know about your finances suggests that you're, you're more or less an effective altruist.

And when I think about the effective altruism community, it's, it's a very similar ethos of, I'm not gonna donate my money to baby Jessica who fell down a well. That's irrational. In fact, it's even irrational for me to keep more money than I need for myself. Like, why should I give more of it to me than somebody else?

[00:25:41] Alex Honnold:
That's yeah, that's exactly. I'm like my needs are met, so I may as well be doing something that's useful.

[00:25:46] Adam Grant:
And it's such an interesting characterization of useful, cuz it's not, it's not how most people would define their purpose.

[00:25:51] Alex Honnold:
Well, the thing is, if, if I find all my purpose, and I don't wanna say all my purpose, but I find, you know, much of my personal satisfaction from going climbing every day, you know, I don't need to buy myself a tiger or like buy a Porsche or something to feel more satisfaction. I'm like, I'm already doing exactly what I wanna do. So I may as well, you know, do something useful.

[00:26:09] Adam Grant:
Yeah. So when I think about failure and success, I think, you know, most people who would walk in your shoes, uh, even with a perfectly healthy ankle they would, they would be afraid of failing as a climber. I think you live in a, a pretty interesting version of a world where the fear of success is real. And I can imagine, you know, as much as I can understand what it's like to be Alex Honnold saying like, "Oh no, if I succeed in, in climbing El Cap, what's next, am I gonna have a purpose? Will I lose my identity?" Um, I think about psychologists who study goal displacement, and the idea that when you achieve a major goal, uh, it's kind of a radical reorientation of your life, and you're giving something up and, and losing it. Did you go through any of that?

[00:26:52] Alex Honnold:
I think that for me, maybe it was a little bit different than, than some other like major goals that people achieve because I freestyled El Cap and, you know, it was like a, it was a moment for the climbing community, but the film wasn't out yet. And so then I spent the next year climbing as I normally would as a professional climber, like going on expeditions and, you know, challenging myself in, in sort of normal ways. And then, and then the film came out, and then that was just complete insanity for a year, you know, nonstop, travel, promoting the film, going to the Oscars, you know, all these wild events. And so, you know, that's kind of when it felt like something fundamentally changed, but at that point, I was already two years past having actually done the thing that I was proud of doing. And so, I don't know, you know, it's felt like this long drawn-out process. And, and by this point, I mean, uh, I guess it's four and a half years since I soloed El Cap and I've done tons of other climbs that I'm proud of. You know, I've done a couple other film projects. Like basically I've worked on all kinds of other things. and I'm like, "You know what? I'm pretty content just chugging along and continuing along the, the climbing path."

[00:27:55] Adam Grant:
Love it. Because of all the publicity and of course the, uh, the, one-of-a-kind achievement, uh, you have, you have ended up on a couple of other paths as well. One of which was giving a TED talk.

[00:28:05] Alex Honnold:

[00:28:06] Adam Grant:
I found your experience at TED from what I know of it, to be the most unusual one I've ever seen. I remember, I think the, the, the first, the, the first awareness I had of it, I think I'd given my talk the previous year. Uh, and I went like, "Yay, excited to enjoy TED don't have to be on the stage, like might actually have fun." I do remember though, seeing you shaking backstage before you got on stage and it's just, it's the most incongruous image. Like you look totally chill on El Cap, and now you're just giving a talk, I guess it, it validates the, the theory that people are more afraid of public speaking than death.

[00:28:38] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, no, I, I have always been afraid of public speaking and also, I mean, especially, I mean, you know, the, the TED main stage is pretty intimidating and at that point I hadn't done any mainstream things like that really. You know, I hadn't done the whole Free Solo film tour yet. Because that, that film tour, uh, really desensitized me to standing on stages. But at that point, you know, I had none of that practice and it's funny because I can go train for climbing, you know, five hours a day, six days a week, and love it and feel energized from it. But trying to memorize my TED talk, I could maybe practice for an hour and it felt like pulling teeth and I hated it. And it made me feel, I was just like, "I'm so bad at this." And I'm just, this is so heinous. You know, I was like, "This is just not my calling."

[00:29:22] Adam Grant:
It is, it is really hard to find flow, memorizing words on a page or screen.

[00:29:27] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Well, I was like, I'm just not cut out to be an actor. You know, like this is not my passion.

[00:29:32] Adam Grant:
Well, even if you've written your own lines.

[00:29:33] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Yeah.

[00:29:35] Adam Grant:
You still feel like you're performing somebody else's material.

[00:29:37] Alex Honnold:
It, it's funny though, because since then I've gotten much more comfortable speaking and, you know, obviously do it quite a bit more, but it, I mean, the TED mainstage is pretty intimidating.

[00:29:47] Adam Grant:
It's, it's still though, I mean, it's just, you, you realize how weird that sounds right? 'Cause it's like, well, you, like, you're not gonna die. And you know, the worst case scenario is like, not that bad, because they probably just won't publish the talk like. Do, do you realize how odd that seems to a normal person?

[00:30:04] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. But I mean, it's not that surprising that when you have to do something at a very high level, that you're not good at that it's truly horrifying. You know? I mean, I think most people's nightmare would be having to perform opera or something on a stage without, without any training, you know, and that's, and that's essentially how I felt going into TED. I was like, "Here's a collection of several thousand of like the most important people in the world, all sitting here watching me do something that I'm not good at." I was like, "Oh man", like that is, that is high pressure.

[00:30:32] Adam Grant:
Well, maybe, maybe there's an expectations component too, because I, I wouldn't be worried about singing opera. I mean, I, I wouldn't wanna do it, right. It would probably be embarrassing, but I don't think anyone expects me to be good at it. Whereas you give a talk, you're just talking. Of course, you're gonna be good at that. And if you're not, that, that seems like a much more devastating blow to your ego.

[00:30:50] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, maybe. And, and I think part of it is that when you're speaking at TED, everybody else is so good at it. And so many of the other people there have spoken many times and you know, and many of 'em are professional lecturers that do it, you know, basically full time for a job. And then, and then there's me who dropped outta college, you know.

[00:31:06] Adam Grant:
I, I feel like that worked out okay for you, but--

[00:31:08] Alex Honnold:
--yeah you know--

[00:31:08] Adam Grant:
-- I, I think the, the only way I could understand this was the distinction you make. I think you call it risk and consequence. Mm-hmm , I've, I've always thought about it as just the, the severity versus probability question of like your, your odds of bombing on the TED stage were probably higher than they are of you falling when you climb. And so you're like, you're not worried about how severe the consequences are. You're just worried about the, the odds.

[00:31:30] Alex Honnold:
That's, that's that's totally fair. And there's the, the sort of misguided feeling that bombing in front of so many people will be almost as bad as dying. I mean, you, you know how embarrassing yourself in public can feel as bad as anything else in life.

[00:31:46] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I, I mean, I guess, yeah. Your point is if you fall,l then at least you don't have the embarrassment.

[00:31:52] Alex Honnold:
Yeah, exactly. I mean, honestly, that is one of the things with free soloing and the film Free Solo being a little bit of a special case because you know, it was being filmed as a documentary, but most of the free soloing I've done, I'm totally alone. And so if I feel at all uncomfortable, I can just back down, and there's no pressure. There's no expectation. It's just totally internal. Like, am I excited to do this? And if I'm not excited, then I don't need to. And so there's very little pressure, and there there's none of that pressure to perform. I mean, it's funny because people think of free soloing as very do-or-die. And you know, that is true to some extent that, you know, if I fall off, I'd, I'd probably die. But the thing is I get to choose my day and only perform when I want to.

[00:32:30] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I guess, you know, at, at some level it, it seems like, you are more afraid of embarrassment than death.

[00:32:39] Alex Honnold:
Uh, yeah. I mean, uh, death before dishonor, you know.

[00:32:43] Adam Grant:
Wow. Is, is that related to something that I remember in the film you, you referenced very obliquely and I didn't know what was behind it? Uh, I think it was the bottomless pit of self-loathing? What is that?

[00:32:55] Alex Honnold:
I've been more angstful at various times in life. And, and not necessarily in a bad way, not in a, like a dark, like depressed, you know, having to whatever, but I've often tried to sort of harness that angst or that general feeling of like, I should be doing more or achieving or whatever, and basically like harness that to do the things that I wanna do. And same with, um, there's, there's sort of a rich history in, in climbing stories of like old school, uh, stories of, of folks having devastating breakups and then going and soloing big, scary walls. And, you know, as, as a classic, like, "Oh, I don't care if I live or die, I'm just gonna do this thing." And so I've sort of channeled some of that angst over the years, too. Like never, never quite feeling that like, don't care if I live or die, but just being like, this is the perfect time to, to harness this kind of thing. It's like, you know, you have all the feelings anyway. I may as well use 'em for something that you want to do anyway.

[00:33:43] Adam Grant:
Yeah, well, I guess, you know, in the, what three years or so since Free Solo came out, I'm sure a lot of people have been wondering, has your attitude or stance changed at all? Are you now worried more worried about the consequences of falling than you were before?

[00:33:56] Alex Honnold:
No, not really. So far, no changes in how I feel about risk and managing risk and all my climbing you know, I mean, I still wanna be a, you know, responsible father and everything, but, but no, I mean, the thing about it is. I've always wanted to survive. You know, it's not as if I'm just rolling the dice and like, hoping that it works out okay. I mean, I'm always putting as much effort as possible into doing the things that I love to do as well and as safely as possible. And so I'm open to the, the idea that, that having a family might change the way I look at it all, but I mean, so far it hasn't yet, but we'll see.

[00:34:29] Adam Grant:
No, I, I, I understand where you're coming from in that. I think it sounds like you wanna achieve and survive.

[00:34:34] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. I mean, ideally, ideally.

[00:34:51] Adam Grant: Those are, those are both worthy goals.

[00:34:53] Alex Honnold: I, I think that's actually a line in, in Free Solo. Maybe it's something that my wife, son has always sort of pushed is like, why not have both? You know, like why not have a stable relationship and climb at a high level and, you know, do the things that you wanna do. And, you know, the, I guess we've been together almost six years, and that's kind of been, you know, a theme throughout it's like, why not do both?

[00:34:58] Adam Grant:
The thing that trips me up a little bit is why not do it with the ropes? I know it changes the experience and I know you've talked about that at length, but like you still, you still get the, the satisfaction of, you know, of doing the climb and knowing you were capable physically of doing it. And you still experience the rush of, of getting to the top and having, you know, really stretched your body to its limits. And like, you don't have to worry that you might die.

[00:35:24] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. Yeah. And, and to be fair, that's how I spend most of my year. And most of my time, like actually when we're done chatting today, I'm gonna drive to a local cliff and, and go work on this project with a rope. And, you know, basically just push myself physically as hard as I can for the afternoon. And that's how I spend, you know, most of my time. But then occasionally you just want that extra, that extra little test, let's say.

[00:35:46] Adam Grant:
You do. I don't.

[00:35:47] Alex Honnold:
Well, yeah.

[00:35:47] Adam Grant:
I was a diver: springboard only. I wasn't, I wasn't even willing to take enough risk to compete on platform. And it, it seems like, you know, that, that was one of the things I was thinking about is I watched you climb is like, I, I would get up on a 10-meter platform knowing I've, I've spent years working on the skills to somersault and twist and land head first, and it is probably gonna go fine, but I'm just terrified of getting lost in midair and like crashing on the water. It hurts.

[00:36:15] Alex Honnold:

[00:36:16] Adam Grant:
And I think that really held me back as a diver. And I wonder given that you've, you've, uh, you've scaled much bigger mountains than that. What, what would you say to somebody like me who, you know, even, even after developing this skill is still afraid of you know some pretty basic challenges in a sport?

[00:36:32] Alex Honnold:
Well, so, so, I mean, I talked to beginner climbers about this quite a bit, you know, at events and things, and people are like, "How do I get less afraid of lead climbing?" You know, basically climbing with a rope. And, you know, I mean, I think my first question is always, are, "Are the fears founded?" You know? So in your case with diving, like, are you likely to get lost in that air and then just belly flop onto the, onto the pool? You know, like, does that actually happen frequently? Because if so then, then it seems justifiable that you're sort of afraid of it, because like that would suck. But, you know, if it's something that you're vaguely afraid of, but actually never happens or is incredibly unlikely, then you sort of have to work on ways to, to set that aside.

[00:37:11] Adam Grant:
You're, you're like a, like a self-trained cognitive behavior therapist. Like, let's, let's figure out if your thoughts are rational and your fears make sense. And if they do like, let's figure out how to mitigate them and if they don't let's change them.

[00:37:23] Alex Honnold:
Well, that, yeah, that, that's exactly it. I mean, and you kind of have to be for, to be a climber because the thing with climbing is that literally every day, you have feelings of fear around certain things, because it is a very high consequence activity. Like you can die doing routine climbs with a rope if, you know, certain things go sideways. Like it's totally appropriate to have fear around that because there is a chance of death, you know, but separating out when that fear is useful or not is, is the challenge.

[00:37:51] Adam Grant:
Right. That makes sense. And so when you think about talking to ordinary non-climbers about, you know, trying things they're afraid of whether it's, you know, writing the book that they wanted to write or getting on a stage, is there other advice you give that, that people can translate from your world to theirs?

[00:38:07] Alex Honnold:
I guess general life advice is like, just do the thing, you know, just try. I mean, especially because most aspects of life are relatively low consequence for failure? You know, like writing your book, like, is there any downside to you writing a whole bunch? Like yeah. Maybe your book doesn't sell, but you're probably a better writer as a result. You know, it's like, I think most things in life don't have a huge downside to 'em. So it's like, why not try?

[00:38:29] Adam Grant:
I love that. I, um, I think when psychologists study regret, one of the things they find is that yeah, many people are afraid of failing, but in the long run they look back and they're more likely to have regretted, failing to try at all.

[00:38:41] Alex Honnold:
Yeah. I, I think an interesting thing with that is that like, is it even failure if you've learned from it and you've taken those lessons onto your next project or the next thing that you're working on? And it's like, that's not necessarily a failure. It's all just part of a long-term learning process. But that's an important thing in climbing, because so much of climbing is failure. Like basically most days that you climb, you go and you fail on things. You try things that are very hard for you, and you fall off over and over. And then every once in a while you succeed in, in actually climbing it. And, you know, that's less true for free soloing obviously, because with, when you climb without a rope, you, you make sure that you're not gonna fail, but for most of climbing, you fail all the time. And so you kind of have to take this broader look at, at how you define success and failure, where it's like, oh, as long as you're, you know, building fitness, building skills, learning from it, like that's all success.

[00:39:27] Adam Grant:
So I have to ask you, Alex, what is your greatest fear?

[00:39:31] Alex Honnold:
I think when I was younger, I had a lot of the fears that, that you expect from people. Like I was kind of afraid of spiders and things like that. And I think with, you know, years of dealing with fear nonstop, they've all sort of fallen away. I, I mean, I guess my greatest fear is like public embarrassment or public performance, or like what I said earlier about opera singing I'm like, that is still for sure that would be a nightmare. And like, yeah, I could do it. But I would be so bummed.

[00:39:56] Adam Grant:

[00:39:56] Alex Honnold:
I just don't wanna be dishonored.

[00:39:58] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I love that. And you have, you have such a, a specific, um, and unusual definition of honor. How would you define honor?

[00:40:09] Alex Honnold:
I don't know. That's, that's an interesting question that I've never been asked. I don't know. I, I think living the correct path, you know, doing the right thing. Whatever that, whatever that means for your specific circumstance. It's funny because I often think of myself as either what, what I call on the program or off the program, you know, being on the program means eating well, exercising well, training, you know, doing my work, like climbing hard, all those kinds of things. And then off the program is, you know, occasionally when you're just eating way too much dessert or like watching shows every night or doing whatever, you know. Basically just your whole life is a little bit looser. And, you know, I don't know. I think I, I think living with honor is, is very close to just being on the program.

[00:40:47] Adam Grant:
Wow. Wow. That was, uh, that's a, I think that's a really great way to define it. Well, Alex, this was, uh, this is a blast, even more fun than I expected. And I now have a few new research projects to launch based on a few of your answers. So wa--watch out there may be some data coming in a couple years. Yeah.

[00:41:02] Alex Honnold:
Awesome. Well, if, if you need, uh, if you need any help climbing you just say the word, you know.

[00:41:06] Adam Grant:
I'll try not to make you regret that. And I definitely don't wanna regret that.

[00:41:11] Alex Honnold:

[00:41:11] Adam Grant:
Okay. Thanks Alex.

[00:41:12] Alex Honnold:
Cool. Yeah. Cheers. I'll be going.

[00:41:13] Adam Grant:
You too.

I've been thinking a lot about Alex's idea of being "on program" or "off program". When you have a specific seemingly impossible goal like he does. You definitely wanna make your decisions according to a clear map. But in life, most of our decisions don't come with a map. And I think all we need is a compass. There are lots of wrong options, but there isn't one right choice. The ideal next move that's often the one that's directionally, correct. It brings you a step closer to your core values. In an unpredictable world, you can't make a master plan. You can only gauge whether you're on a meaningful path. For more from Alex Honnold, check out his own podcast: Climbing Gold.

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced in mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin, original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

[00:42:21] Adam Grant:
When I interviewed Margaret Atwood, she told me that she had an alter ego, Peggy, who, you know, would make the to-do list and do the laundry. And then Margaret did all the creative work. That's, that's not going on in your head.

[00:42:32] Alex Honnold:
That's interesting. I'm like, I wonder if that would help me get all my real-life tasks done. 'Cause I, I hate doing things like that. I'm like maybe I should assign them to Earl, my friend Earl, who like, who does, uh, like grunt work around the house for me.

[00:42:45] Adam Grant:
I would wanna delegate a task to an Earl.

[00:42:47] Alex Honnold:
I'm gonna do my laundry or no, or Earl is gonna do my laundry later.