Lessons learned from my 31-days to climb 5.12 challenge

And to make it interesting: eating only food that came from my own property


I have some thoughts about what I did this month (below), but first, the scorecard:

  1. Red point 5.12 by August 31st ✅

  2. Eat only food that comes from my property ✅

  3. Write daily (stories published on Substack) ✅

  4. Jettison, for one month, my general aversion to documenting my life on social media ⚠️

Thank you to my girlfriend, who helped make sure I didn’t starve and also came out to belay whenever my climbing friends weren’t available. Thanks also to my mom and my son for telling me what was ready to be eaten from the garden, setting it aside for me, and not complaining (too much) when I commandeered 90% of what was coming out ground.

And of course thanks to my climbing partners for the support, the belays and the strategic advice: Thomas, Jess, Ela: you rock!

By the way, if you want to read the whole story, starting with Day 1, head on over to Live Free Climbing, where I documented the entire journey.

Now to some lessons:


Documenting my life

If you saw the post yesterday, you know I didn’t get any video or even a pic of the successful send attempt. My friends watched, my girlfriend belayed, but I honestly didn’t once think to myself: can one of you take a pic please?

And actually: I count that as a win. I was in the moment, entirely focused on what I had to do in front of me, which was the climb. There was an audience there, in person, which was audience enough.

The goal of sharing this journey on social media was one I added kind of an afterthought — and, you’ll notice, it’s the one goal that wasn’t clearly defined. That’s on me. What does it mean, exactly, to “jettison my aversion”? As any life coach or McKinsey management consultant will tell you, a poorly defined goal is one you’re bound not to accomplish.

But in this case, I’m ok with that.

The truth is that there are many times throughout the month where I could have been more diligent in documenting what I was doing, and I wasn’t. And that’s because no, I didn’t truly get over my aversion.

I do not want to go through life thinking to myself: should I film this? Do I need a picture? Should I pause to make an Instagram post? Should I now bury my head in my phone for 20 minutes while I tell the world what’s happening to me and what I’m thinking about it?

As I wrote on What Really Matters more than a year ago:

I don’t want to go through life thinking about which parts of it would look good on camera… Everywhere you go, every moment you live, every piece of avocado toast you order, in the back of your mind, you are thinking: Instagram? (Or, take your pick of social media broadcast platforms).

I wrote that almost exactly a year ago. This month has shown me: I haven’t changed my mind.

Self-sufficiency vs. community sufficiency

Another thing this month has illustrated in painfully hungry detail is the difference between self-sufficiency and community efficiency. I bought this house not just for the proximity to climbing, but for the proximity to a tight-knit community, and I’m grateful to have that.

A lot of people, when they think about self-sufficiency, they think about an off-grid cabin in the woods somewhere. But a better way is to think about resiliency in the face of crisis — be it a climate crisis, or a global pandemic — and for that, you need to look at the strength of your surrounding community.

Sure, the food that came from my own property got me through a month. But I also lost 15 pounds, was hungry pretty much all the time, and had to make exceptions for cooking oil (I downed a LOT of coconut oil, let me tell you) and spices to get through it. Plus, if I have to eat another piece of roast pumpkin I just may vomit.

If, on the other hand, I’d expanded my geography to just a 4-mile radius of rural New Hampshire around my house, I could have added honey, maple syrup, farm fresh chicken and duck eggs, corn, and I could also have tripled the number and variety of vegetables available. And in November, I’m picking up half a pig which is being raised on one of the many locals farms nearby. That is an actual, well-rounded diet.

Now, if I could only pick up some grain and more legumes rather than ordering those in bulk from a restaurant supply store. And the hazelnut trees we planted a few months ago can’t mature fast enough.

Models of achievement

Finally, earlier this month I wrote a piece for What Really Matters about my production function, or how I get things done. For years I’ve relied on an annual strategic planning for life model, but what I’ve done here offers a different possibility: the month-long sprint.

I’m not the first to try this, of course. Perhaps you’re familiar with NaNoWriMo — the idea is to write your novel in one month, or at least a first draft of it. The organization provides tools and community to support a very clearly defined goal: 50,000 words in 30 days. I actually signed up for NaNoWriMo three years ago, and did in fact finish the first draft of a memoir about my filmmaking days.

This month has reinforced for me that my production function works well off those kinds of sprints. I couldn’t continue this diet for a year, nor would I want to have to write every single day. But I can put in an intense amount of commitment and discipline over a shorter period of time.

Meanwhile, goals which have indefinite end dates are just difficult. Climbing 5.12 — I will reveal here — was actually a life goal of mine. I first put it down years ago, on a master list of life goals I maintain and check-in on from time to time. When I first put down the 5.12 goal all that time ago, it felt distant indeed. I didn’t yet own this house. I was living and working in Maryland. How would I even carve the time to get good enough to try? It was one of those, maybe, one day, don’t know how kind of things.

But recently, it seemed like climbing 5.12 just might be within reach. I needed a push, a model for achieving it. And this turned out to be that model.

So now I’m asking myself: what else can I do in a month?