(PhD) Life Wisdom Learned from Bouldering. Part III #ComeBackStronger

We were almost about to skip last week’s post because we had both forgotten about it. But then I went bouldering (my bouldergym has reopened!) and realized there were a few more things to learn from bouldering that I wanted to share with you. And we ended up posting the post a week later anyway because life can get crazy, I guess you know what I mean 😉 So let’s get to it rightaway with life wisdom I learned while bouldering. (There are so many reasons why you should take up bouldering. Life wisdom gained bouldering definitely is one of the major pros besides reducing back pain!)


8) Sometimes progress isn’t visible immediately

Pretty self-explanatory but I’ll explain anyway. Sometimes progress isn’t visible immediately but that doesn’t mean you’re not making progress. I thought because I wasn’t climbing in the bouldering gym which is what I want to get better at, I was essentially wasting time.

Like I felt I had been wasting time on my dissertation because I had procrastinated on it. But I didn’t just procrastinate by being on social media, I actually did some deep (related) work in the meantime. I used the corona crisis to learn things even though they didn’t immediately relate to my thesis. But I see how they made me progress just the same. Maybe I just wasn’t ready before and the procrastination had its uses (which, if you’re procrastinating doing something useful and after you’d already put in effort in the task you’re supposed to complete, has actually been shown to make your work better).

My bouldering progress was invisible to me while climbing outside. It also remained invisible the first time I went back to climbing inside. It was only afterwards that it began to dawn on me that I had made substantial progress after all. So don’t get discouraged if you can’t see results rightaway – your progress might just need a ‘turning point’ until it really shows. Always keep going! When you’re practicing in the same way every day, it’s hard to see progress. Maybe you just need to change up your routine for a bit and it will show.


9) Failing the first time around can mean that deep inside, you were still preparing for something greater

Failing the first time around can mean that deep inside, you were still preparing for something greater. Had you just given up after the first failure, you’d never have known. This is what happened to me after the bouldergym reopened. I had been climbing regularly and bouldering outside, yet it is not the same as indoor bouldering. The skin on my hands wasn’t used to the new gym holds anymore because outside, I would never climb so aggressively. (I usually would go bouldering alone and while I do have a crashpad, I didn’t dare jump around like crazy just in case I overshot the crashpad).

So the first time I went back, I felt pretty weak. But then, the second time around, I could suddenly feel I had improved a lot from climbing outside. I would approach some climbs differently. I am much less afraid of falling and of bad holds. So I did progress after all.

In climbing, it would be out of the question for me to give up just because I had one bad training session. It’s a bit of a letdown for sure but no reason to quit. However, in other persuits, I do in fact tend to want to give up after one failed attempt. A rejcetion can be crippling. But it’s really not the end of the world. Maybe you’re abstract really wasn’t good enough and the rejection gives you the opportunity to improve. By the way, it’s a mark of the pro, according to Steven Pressfield, to take neither failures nor successes personally. Taking everything personally clouds your vision with regard to the objective quality of your work. A pro learns to distance themselves from such emotional reactions. And while I find that to be much easier said than done, I think he is right.

Had I given up after one training session and taken it all personally, blaming the gym or whatever, I would have never gone back the second time where I ended up doing surprisingly well. You never know what life has in stock for you, so you need to put momentary failures into perspective and try not to take them too personally. Especially don’t let momentary failure determine your self-worth. Not only is that a really bad idea, they also really aren’t good indicators of your potential. Failures show your limitations. Focusing on failures clouds your vision of your potential. Focus on potential, not failure.


10) Doing something else (but related) is not a waste of time

Doing “the real thing”, which for me is indoor gym bouldering, wasn’t an option for almost three months now during lockdown. Despite all the #ComeBackStronger thing on social media, I somehow didn’t really buy it. I knew that my dreams of progress would be ruined and I decided I had to live with that. Even though, right before the lockdown, I had been just about to break that plateau. I was pretty devastated. (I am totally aware that this is a major first world problem.)

Climbing with my crashpad, alone and always a bit careful that I wouldn’t hurt myself falling, I now have a much more relaxed perspective on indoor bouldering. I mean – there is a fucking mat below you at all times and you’re really not all that high up. I feel that you’re probably most likely to sprain an ankle when falling from a relatively low point but otherwise, it’s really not all that dangerous. I think that I’m much more daring and dynamic now, even though (or because) I was climbing mostly statically outside because the holds were just less good and harder to find at all. In the bouldergym, the holds have bright colours, there really is no way to miss them. So I guess I’m just much less afraid of swinging around now. Also, I improved a lot with small footholds which had been a special training focus of mine before the lockdown but with climbing outside all the time and nothing but bad footholds, this problem kind of solved itself with no special actions taken ever at all.


11) You’re stronger than you would have yourself believe

Since climbing outside with holds that couldn’t be any more unlike those nice pockets from the boulder gym, I’m also more trusting with bad hand holds. I tend to doubt my hands can support my whole body off of them but interestingly, it’s usually much less of a problem than I would think. This is a simple point but that’s really all you need to know. Just try consciously pushing your limits a little bit every day. Trust yourself to achieve more. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower – which I re-watched during lockdown and I cried a lot – the most memorable quote is “We accept the love we think we deserve.” With this being universally very true, I also think it applies to your own strength: You only have the strength you trust yourself to have – so believe in yourselves, you’ve got it!


12) Alternatives are nice but no “happy talk” can make an alternative exactly the same as the real thing. It’s ok to admit that

And with all the “seeing the good in alternative Corona ways of life”, coming back to the bouldering gym has been the single most effective thing to get my motivation and happiness back. A bouldering gym is like a playground for adults and I feel that it is especially effective in this PhD phase where I’m really very much more susceptible to stressing out than I had been ever before. And that’s even though I’ve been living a high-stress life since my early teens and definitely identify as some sort of persionified dynamite.

Anyway, the bouldering gym really helps me let off steam, clear my head and handle my hurting back. And I have, by the way, had this (slightly weird) dream recently that I was at the bouldering gym and my PhD advisor was there – but he was my trainer. And he told me to not let go and to pull through my fear of falling and failure. I think there is a lot of truth to this dream – albeit I find the idea of my PhD advisor as a climbing coach a bit strange 😉 But overall, I think it’s very true that my fear of falling and fear of failure in climbing relate pretty directly to my fear of failure with my PhD thesis. I think facing the fear of falling regularly in climbing sessions helps relieve fear of failure with regards to the PhD or at least alleviates it enough so that it doesn’t become crippling. When I didn’t have that, things got pretty ugly, to be honest.

While being out in nature was definitely good for me and I will continue talking walks and going to outside climbing spots, I felt that it was just not the same as climbing inside. Outdoor climbing was relaxing the mind like a sort of meditation. But the maximum strength explosive workout in the bouldergym overall helps me cope with stress much better and climbing outside is just much more about inner calm and endurance. That’s nice sometimes too but not the same. So I’m really glad to be back at the boulder gym.

It sounds horribly like a first-world-problem to say that I suffered a lot from the boulder gym being closed (and it is). But honestly, the positive effects on my psychological well-being are so great that I think my complaining is not totally ridiculous after all. Self-care is key!


I highly recommend bouldering if you’re a stressed out PhD student

If you’re stressed out during your PhD phase, I highly recommend you try bouldering. However, I will not hide from you that indoor bouldering is expensive: While you only need to get shoes once (from 50-130€ depending on how good ones you want), entry to bouldergyms is around 10-15€ per session in Europe. I have a 6 months ticket currently but it’s still quite a steep price, even if you go four times a week. For bouldering outside, you only need a crashpad (200-300€ one time expense). Though, if you’ve never climbed before, starting outside might prove too hard. However, despite the cost, I find that bouldering is totally worth it for my physical and especially mental wellbeing. At least I save money on therapy that way 😀


Hoping you are well,



PS: As a reminder, the wisdom nuggets from this series’ previous posts (one and two) were:

  1. You don’t have to take bad holds.
  2. There is more than one possible path.
  3. You don’t need to reach the top the way the others did.
  4. Sometimes it’s a leap of faith.
  5. You have to try it again and again.
  6. Keep moving!
  7. Cool down.


Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2020, June 14). (PhD) Life Wisdom Learned from Bouldering. Part III #ComeBackStronger. Epigrammetry. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/og6z

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1 Response

  1. 03/04/2022

    […] As a reminder, the wisdom nuggets from this series’ previous posts (one and two and three = Covid edition #ComeBackStronger) […]

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