5 Business Lessons That I Took From ‘Free Solo’

5 Business Lessons That I Took From ‘Free Solo’

Written By: Dylan Snyder
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This past weekend I finally got around to watching Free Solo. If you have not seen the film, I would highly recommend it. Shot by [the now Oscar-Winning] Jimmy Chin and company, Free Solo follows the lauded rock climbing legend, Alex Honnold, as he prepares to free climb the 900 metre vertical face of Yosimete’s El Capitan.

As Alex trains his body and mind to attempt a feat that no climber has ever before achieved, Chin and his team are there to give the audience a window into Honnold’s world.  

Full disclosure, if you are looking for a review on the film, check out IMDB – better yet, just watch it! This article is more suited for the LinkedIn crowd primarily because my focus as of late has been on growing my business and improving my professional skills. Through that lens, I offer you these 5 lessons that I took from the film:

1. Learn to Hug [ I Know, It Can Be Awkward ]

This tip is exclusively for non-huggers like me. At a certain point in the film Alex speaks about how he had to teach himself how to hug. If you are a hugger, well done! Non-huggers, if you work in a role that is client facing you know that emotional intelligence is key. If you are any good at your job, then it won’t take you too long to develop trust with your clients and business partners. Once you’ve earned another’s trust, it is only a matter of time before you encounter a hugger. If you have already encountered a hugger, and you aren’t much of  a hugger yourself, then you know how awkward this can be. Just embrace Honnold’s advice and avoid this awkward moment altogether by learning to hug. I think that you’ll find it’s not all that bad after all.

2. Set Proper Expectations [Honesty Is The Best Policy]

In the name of selling books and booking seminars this age old truism has recently been recently re-branded for the business world as Radical Candor. As Honnold prepares for his ascent he demonstrates the value of honesty and reminds the viewer of the essential role that setting proper expectations plays in building and maintaining healthy relationships. This point is further illustrated as his partner, Sanni, expresses her desire for Honnold to be more risk averse in his climbing expeditions and to take into account her affection for him and the impact that his untimely death would have upon her own well being.

While maintaining a considerable amount of concern for Sanni, Alex candidly reminds her of his priorities. Sanni is not particularly happy with Alex’s priorities, yet she respects Alex and his priorities because he respects her enough to be honest with her.

In the workplace we are not always working towards the same end – each person may have a different motivations for their actions and day-to-day performance. Despite our different goals and motivations, we must still work together and foster positive relationships. The foundation of a positive relationship with a colleague or a client is the setting of proper expectations and a mutual understanding that honesty will be a guiding principle when it comes to communication.

3. Words of Support Should be Crafted to Suit Their Benefactor [It Is Not About You]

Throughout the film we witness Honnold’s friends and new found partner, Sanni, accompanying him as he trains for El Capitan. Along the way, each of them, in their own way, expresses their fear that Alex may not make it. “Should he fall,” they all think “how will this weigh on my conscience?” For Chin and company the question is, “Is our film pressuring Alex to do things that he is uncomfortable with?” For Sanni, the questions are different, yet very much the same, “Does our relationship impact his performance? Can I support the person that I care about in achieving their goals knowing that one wrong move will almost certainly result in their death?”

Knowing good and well that his life [and the film] is at stake, Alex’s friends do their best to support him. The thing that I noted in particular was that their support was carefully seasoned to be Alex-centered support. While they do voice their concerns, they are careful to voice them in a way that will not discourage Alex from completing his objective. In other words, they do a beautiful job at balancing their fears for his life and their potential loss with his ambition to achieve his life’s greatest accomplishment. This is imperative in working with and training teams.

When you intend to support a friend or colleague, how do you choose to communicate your support? Is the way in which you are offering support going to drive them to achieve their goals, or is it going to discourage them from moving forward? Will it impose undue anxiety upon them as they strive to conquer their next challenge, or will it put them at ease in the face of adversity? Will it deter them from pushing themselves? When you offer support and express your opinion be sure to be considerate of what you say and how you say it. Words of true support ought to be crafted with the audience in mind and tailored to benefit their recipient.

4. “EVERYONE can be comfortable and happy.” 

This quote requires some context from the film to be understood, but generally speaking it translates to, “Go big, or go home to your sofa.” Alex makes this statement while discussing why he chooses to lead the lifestyle he leads. 

As an exemplar of true minimalism, Honnold lives in a van and eats only what is necessary in order to allow his body to build the strength to solo the next pitch. In pursuit of his passion, Alex is willing to sacrifice everything.

Next time that you look at a colleague or a competitor with a sense jealously or envy, ask yourself, “What have I sacrificed in order to achieve what they have? Do I work to work, or do I work to win?” There is not a wrong answer to this question, and there is nothing wrong with seeking comfort, but if you want to excel in business you have to get comfortable with the idea of sacrificing comfort.

This simple quote spoke volumes to me because I recently chose to leave my very comfortable sales job with a large corporation in order to pursue my passion and start my own small business. The question that I have to answer for myself on a daily basis is, “Do want to be comfortable, or do you want to reach beyond comfort and achieve your full potential?”

I will leave you to answer this question on your own. For me, the answer is clear.

5.  Forgiveness [Failure Is Not A Flaw]

At a certain point in his training Alex relies on Sanni to spot him as he climbs. As an amateur climber, she does not not have the same level experience that Alex has gained in his lifetime of climbing. Lacking experience and professional knowhow, she drops him. Not once does she drop Alex, but twice. Alex’s fall results in a minor injury which is a major setback in his efforts to ascend El Capitan.  

Sanni’s failure to spot Alex can be easily judged as a character flaw – a lack a of discipline. As the film revolves around Alex, this moment has the effect of villainizing Sanni. That being said, I would argue that Sanni is not a villain at all, nor is she foolish in her actions. Through no fault of her own, Sanni has not been exposed to the experience of climbing under the same conditions that Alex is accustomed to. Her failure is due to a lack of experience, not a lack of commitment or discipline. Although Sanni drops Alex, she is very much committed to his success and remains, throughout the film and beyond, one of his greatest sources of emotional support. 

In our day to day work sometimes the people that we work with let us down, and sometimes we let down others. Perhaps you can recall a time where you or your colleague missed a deadline or failed to close a large sale. How did you or your team react towards your teammate at fault? Yes, these events are frustrating; however, it is important to remember that not everyone brings the same set of experiences to the table, and at some point we all will fail.

Certainly there are some workplace behaviors that cannot and should not be tolerated (i.e. sexual harassment, theft, damage to company property, etc.) but to a certain degree, we should refrain from seeing failures in the workplace as an opportunity for discipline. Instead, when a colleague or team member fails the team you should show them forgiveness and encourage them to move forward – after all, they are a member of the team, and when the next big pitch comes and you fall down, they may just be the person that steps in to close the deal.

On this subject I might also recommend that you check out this TED Radio Hour episode wherein Astro Teller of Google X discusses why he has chosen to reward his teams for failure. 

If you are interested in watching the film yourself, then here is a link to the trailer:

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