The Mindset It Takes To Make It Up The Toughest Climb In The World

Author: Jon Davis 

19 days on a vertical rock wall. Sleeping in a tent hanging on the side of a mountain. Pulling yourself up on ledges that are two credit cards thin. It was a climb that many said was completely impossible.

And having failed to make it to the top of this climb five times previously, what kind of mindset would it take to accomplish something like this?

Meet Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson who were the first two climbers to “free climb” the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Their story has captured the hearts of a nation and even had President Barack Obama tweeting about it. Read more details of their incredible accomplishment here.

I started to follow their journey for several reasons but mainly because of an INC interview I read in October of 2013. It was about Caldwell teaching a course with Jim Collins (Author of Good to Great) to a group of cadets at West Point.

At that time Caldwell had already made three unsuccessful attempts at climbing the Dawn Wall. Collins and Caldwell discussed the challenge that this climb offered when Collins asked, “Why do you keep throwing yourself at this? All it does is give you failure upon failure. Why go back?”

“Because success is not the primary point,” Caldwell said. “I go back because the climb is making me better. It is making me stronger. I am not failing; I am growing.”

As stated in the article, “Caldwell viewed failure as an essential part of his search for the outer reaches of his capabilities as a climber.” “To find your limit and experience the most growth, you have to go on a journey of cumulative failure,” Caldwell said.

“Even if I never succeed in free climbing the Dawn Wall, it will make me so much stronger, and so much better, that most other climbs will seem easy by comparison.”

I thought Caldwell’s response was incredibly inspiring, and it definitely re-shaped my thoughts around ‘failure.’  The word ‘failure’ itself carries a negative stigma for many people in our society and can also stifle the best innovation within our organizations. When we start thinking about new ideas or our goals the potential for failure can sometimes overwhelm us and might hold back from pursuing our biggest aspirations as a result.

I remember this exact feeling when I wanted to start my own ‘climb’ which meant shifting from a career in commercial real estate to leadership development. It definitely delayed my decision for awhile as I was afraid it wouldn’t work out or I would fail.

But what if we saw ‘failing’ on the pathway toward a compelling personal or professional vision as a growth opportunity? What if it was just a necessary step in the process. It might shift our thinking from why it won’t work out to the thought of what might be possible?

“For me, I love to dream big, and I love to find ways to be a bit of an explorer,” Caldwell said in a recent NY Times article. “These days it seems like everything is padded and comes with warning labels. This just lights a fire under me, and that’s a really exciting way to live.”

On December 27, 2014, Caldwell would start his sixth attempt at the Dawn Wall with Jorgeson. Many continued to believe this route was not possible. But I believe for Caldwell, success was not always about making it the top. It was more about following his passion and stretching the limits of his potential along the way. He accepted that failed Dawn Wall attempts were a natural part of the process and had been planning for this climb since 2007.

After 19 grueling days and 7 years of work, they made it to the top. What a moment.


It was certainly time to celebrate with a toast. It had been more than just a ‘climb’ for Caldwell as he shared with National Geographic. “For me the Dawn Wall is the perfect venue for some of the most important values I want to show [my son] Fitz,” said Caldwell… “Optimism, perseverance, dedication and the importance of dreaming big.”

Tommy/Kevin, thanks for inspiring us with your dream. You remind us that when we stretch the perceived limits of our potential, it might just be true that anything is possible.

I think this is why so many people around the world could relate to their story. As Jorgeson explained for the NY Times, “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will. We’ve been working on this thing a long time, slowly and surely. I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”

As you reflect today, what is something compelling that you want to go after? What is your Dawn Wall?

Intentional MVMT