10 Ways That Climbing Is Making Me a Better Creator

24 June 2019 | 17 Comments

For most of my life, my main athletic outlet was on land: mostly soccer, with some ultimate frisbee, pickup football, and track & field. Lately, however, I’ve shifted from horizontal to vertical as I’ve entered the realm of indoor rock climbing.

I’m still very much a novice, as yesterday was only the fourth-ever time I’ve climbed. Please don’t take anything I say today as climbing advice–I’m learning as I go.

A lot of what I’m observing and trying has made me think about crowdfunding, creation, and entrepreneurship. So today I’d like to draw some parallels between these activities.

  1. Safety First (Check and Double Check): As dangerous as it may seem, climbing is actually quite safe if you follow the basic safety procedures of wearing equipment correctly and clipping in twice (unless you’re bouldering). This reminds me of the sheer amount of time I spent looking over my Kickstarter project pages, scouring the text and images for mistakes, especially for elements that are difficult to fix after you go live. I’ve tried to apply the same practices to our product launches over the last few years.
  2. Look Up at Those Above Me: In climbing, there are are two reasons to literally look up quite frequently. One, out of awareness and respect for those on the wall as you walk around below them. Two, I’m learning so much from watching the technique of better climbers (which at this point is pretty much everyone). As a designer and entrepreneur, I’m always observing other creators (on Kickstarter, by playing a variety of published games, and by consuming a wide spectrum of gaming and business media) to see the types of innovative techniques others are using.
  3. Chart Your Path…but Be Open to Adjusting: While I enjoy the thrill of figuring out each ascent on the fly, I’ve found that the more difficult paths (particularly in bouldering) require some level of planning. On and off Kickstarter, I use a massive checklist for new products that starts when the product enters production and ends a few weeks after the retail release date. I check this list weekly, both for the steps I need to take that week and to see what’s upcoming. At the same time, just like on Kickstarter, I’ve found that some level of flexibility is important, as I don’t want to miss out on serendipitous surprises.
  4. Take Small Steps: The first two times I climbed, even though I had heard the advice of “use your legs,” my instinct was to take big steps and pull myself up. Everything changed the third time, because I realized that’s a lot easier if I treated the wall like a ladder, taking as many small steps as possible to continue to move upwards. I think the same can be said about creating a new type of product: I don’t need to figure out everything on the first day. Nor do I need big chunks of time every day to make progress on a game. Even if I only spend 30 minutes designing a few items or locations in my open-world game, that’s better than if I don’t do anything.
  5. Work with a Partner: I’m not belay certified, so all of my climbing so far has been on the auto-belay and boulders (which aren’t really boulders indoors–it just means there’s no rope involved, and they aren’t super tall). But it’s still really helpful to go climbing with at least one friends, as we can encourage each other and eventually rely on each other if we get certified. Stonemaier Games wouldn’t have started without my business partner, Alan, nor would it continue to exist (at least not in its current form) without our manufacturer, freight shipping company, fulfillment center, localization partners, etc.
  6. Take Breaks: Yesterday I was getting tired, but I wanted to try a challenging (for me) route. Midway up the wall, my fingers were shaking, and I considered ending the climb. Instead, though, I realized that I could just shift all my weight to my feet, lean close to the wall, and stop climbing for a moment. It’s even easier to do this when someone is belaying you. I continue to learn that it’s important for me to take breaks at work, whether it’s stepping away from the computer after an intense exchange with a customer or even spending a Sunday afternoon rock climbing instead of working. Everything’s going to be okay when I return to work.
  7. Try a New Angle: Yesterday one of my experienced rock climbing friends overcame a particularly difficult obstacle by shifting his body horizontally to the ground, hooking a foot around the corner of the wall, and then reaching up to the next hold. I’m starting to really love the puzzle presented by rock climbing for the same reason I love creative puzzles in board games, game design, and business. I’ve found that looking at things from a different angle can make a huge difference. That’s actually how the originally idea of worldwide fulfillment occurred to me in 2012 when I was trying to figure out how to ship Viticulture around the world. I was so focused on finding solutions to ship from the US that I didn’t realize–until a wise friend asked the right questions–that I could just as easily ship the games directly from China to fulfillment centers around the world.
  8. It’s Okay to Fail and Fall: When I auto-belayed for the first time a few weeks ago, I was terrified. I knew in my head that the rope would catch me, but there’s still a huge amount of trust that goes into simply letting go and pushing off the wall. Also, yesterday I fell for the first time. My grip slipped, yet everything was okay. The rope was there for me. I try to remember this whenever I try something new–I experiment a lot, and while I try to constantly check myself to make sure my intent is in the right place, sometimes the results aren’t at all as I anticipated.
  9. The Crowd Is There to Help: I was with a pretty big group yesterday, and we generally stayed in the same area, taking turns on the wall or boulder. When I was up there, it was really helpful to have my friends point out a foothold I was overlooking or an angle I wasn’t considering. It reminded me specifically of listening to backer ideas during my Kickstarter campaigns, something that now manifests in our Facebook groups and blind playtesting system. A number of our products have stemmed from fan ideas, including something Wingspan related that we’ll release in a few months. While I don’t say yes to everything, I try to listen, learn, and filter.
  10. Have Fun: I want to make active decisions to have fun every day. In indoor rock climbing, there are a number of color-coded holds, one color for each path. The “correct” way to climb is to only put weight on one color for the entire path, and I’m starting to enjoy that challenge. But sometimes I just want to keep climbing because it’s fun, and that may mean using a hold for another path. I try to do the same with my company. I want to have fun, and I want you to have fun. Sometimes that may mean that we do something silly that isn’t profitable, and I think that’s okay.

If you’re a creator who hasn’t tried indoor rock climbing, I’d highly recommend it. It’s weird to say, but I can feel myself using my body and brain in very different ways than I have in the past.

If you have any parallels between business and rock climbing, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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17 Comments on “10 Ways That Climbing Is Making Me a Better Creator

  1. Good for you for trying something new. I’m an avid climber and have spent lots of time in the mountains for the past 20yrs. Lately I was watching Free Solo, and the thing that stuck out for me was when the climber had to trust his life with a thumb hold. I immediately thought where is the life/death thumb hold in my game. Every game design has one (or multiple) and either you trust it and push yourself to new heights or don’t and be stuck with a whole bunch of what ifs. You don’t fool yourself when your life is on the line. Either you’ve prepared and honed your skills to the best of your ability, or you’ve said ‘good enough’ and take chances. Outside pressures shouldn’t dictate you, although in business that’s a hard thing, but in using the climbing analogy the results are always disastrous.

    1. I love how Honnold has absolute confidence in his abilities, the mental preparation, the mapping, he does not go up without full confidence. I read Alone On A Wall, where he does talk about some pretty much life or death situations, one on the face of Half Dome, the other when he started ice climbing, and they were doing this series of ridges which they were bloodied, wet in sub zero temps, yet endured. It is quite the story. He admits at that time that he was anxious, but he knew he could not get anxious. Such an interesting dude. The Sufferfest videos are pretty cool too.

  2. Hi Jamey,
    just wanted to say that reading/hearing about you getting into rock climbing made me smile from one ear to the other, as it was just another thing that made me relate to you. I got into rock climbing about 2.5 years ago, and could still talk about it almost as passionately as about board games.

    The learning curve, the feeling that you achieve something every time you go, the fact that routes are changed constantly so you are never bored, it is weirdly enough a solitary but yet extremely social sport (I start talking to new people almost every time I go)… and all the points you mentioned above.

    I just wanted to wish you a great journey! I basically dumped all regular exercising for it, as it is way more motivating. I can see how it inspires you to draw lessons out of that for your profession (and I suppose you could equally draw lessons from it for what motivates people to play a board game again and again) :)

    All the best from Sweden!

    1. Dirk: It’s really neat that you’ve been climbing for a while! I agree that it is an oddly solitary-yet-social sport. I also like that there’s a only the slightest touch of competitiveness to it–it’s more about pushing myself than trying to do better than someone else.

      1. I totally agree. The social element for me seems to stem from the fact that rarely have I seen a sport where other people take such an interest in your own personal struggle to get better. In our climbing gym, strangers watching your efforts would regularly root for you besting a problem you have been struggling with, and I enjoy watching other climbers and learning from them as much as I like sharing my own tips with others.

        I also love the diversity in it, absolutely gender balanced, and I have seen people who must have been over 60, as well as kids no older than 8, the latter of them often upstaging me effortlessly. :)

  3. I feel like there’s a lot of overlap between the thought process that leads people to enjoy strategy games and rock climbing – in both cases, there is a challenge that often involves figuring out a puzzle.

    I’ve been rock climbing for fifteen or so years, and one of my favorite aspects of the sport is route setting – that’s when you design the routes that go on artificial climbing walls. I got my USAC setting certification many years ago, and have set routes for a handful of local competitions and college gyms. It’s one of the most enjoyable creative outlets I’ve ever experienced. You think about the geometry of the wall and how you’d like people to move over it. You design hold difficulties and orientations to force climbers into challenging positions, or to make them think carefully about how they balance and place their feet. You ‘playtest’ your routes by observing people as they climb, watching where they did the intended move and where they found an easier or more efficient sequence than you envisioned. You think about the accessibility of the routes you set – is there a sequence for shorter climbers that’s the same difficulty as the one that feels easy for the tall climber with longer reach? Can you make the climb harder for tall climbers than for short ones, to make the overall distribution of routes in the gym feel fair and like there’s something for everyone?

    You get to play with all kinds of different aspects of the climbing experience as a route setter – you can create climbs that rely on brute strength, or you can create climbs that require delicate balance and careful foot positioning. It’s a really great experience to set a climb that requires a subtle, intricate sequence of tricky moves, and then watch climbers work to unlock that sequence. In some ways, being a decent route setter feels like it has a lot of parallels to what I imagine it must be like to be a game designer.

    1. James: Thanks for sharing! I can see the parallels between what you do and game design. There’s a route at Climb So Ill that I’ve been trying to figure out, and I’m hoping it’s still there when I return soon. :)

  4. Welcome to one of the most rewarding activities you will ever do Jamie! I don’t climb as much these days as I am in the over 50 club, but it is something I try to do whenever I get the chance.

    If I may make a book suggestion to you about climbing and human perseverance and inspiration, it would be “Thin Air” by Krakauer. Although it’s a story about mountaineering and not rock climbing, it’s a must read for anyone that has tied a figure – eight.

    Enjoy your journey sir, for it is a truly magical one you are undertaking.

    PS: cant wait for Summit Teams expansion! Did you back it?

  5. Oh man, have you heard of Alex Honnold? He is my new role model. He free soloed El Cap in under 4 hours. Free solo means no ropes or anything. He also does these things called Sufferfest. You can find a ton of him on YouTube and the movie Free Solo, is just an amazing look at his athletic feat. He is so inspiring. To me, he is helping me know you can do big things even if you have pain while doing them.

    That is a great column with great advice, and I also want to compliment you on the conversation starter post of last week. You nailed both of these hard. Well done!

    1. I have indeed! That’s a whole different level than what I’m working on, but I look forward to watching Free Solo. It’s need to hear how he’s been an inspiration for you. And thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed these recent top 10 lists. :)

      1. Alex is a whole different level than most people ;) I also read his book Alone on A Wall. He is making me realize that while pain is unpleasant, if you can get deep into something you can block it. I have posted before about how gaming also does that for me.

        Being deeply involved isn’t just distraction, the brain literally does not get the signal. I think that games can also be good for depression and other mood management due to stimulating so many powerful neurochemicals. Sometimes I can get a little manic after a really intense session, full of energy I do not normally have access to.

        He is a good guy like you. Humble, but knows his worth.

        BTW, I finally, finally got Charterstone to the table with my Fenris group, so I have confidence we will complete it. It was a very fun night for all (table of 4).

        PS I have also been enjoying your humorous posts, you can write comedy!

  6. I like that comparison! I absolutely agree–sometimes all it takes is to break the ice and try something once. It’s the same advice I give about starting a blog: It’s often the first blog entry that’s the hardest.

  7. I’ve often found with sports/being active and game design that getting started is the hard part. Even if it’s as simple as getting yourself to the climbing gym and promising that you’ll do just easy climb, it can be enough to motivate you go to further than you thought. It’s the same with game design, just starting on one simple task might give you that positive momentum to keep going!

  8. some good insights! I’d be interested to hear the reverse as well — how creating has influenced other areas of your life.

    1. That’s a good question! I’m sure there are many ways, but one that comes to mind is that I think I’ve learned to be less defensive in my personal life. It wasn’t even something I realized I was doing until I found myself being defensive about my games years ago (I’m sure I still do it sometimes, but there was a time with Euphoria where it really wasn’t good), and I think that awareness has bled over into the way I respond to criticism in general (and when I decide to actively solicit criticism).

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