What is the connection between fear and grit?

Today is November 5 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “what is the connection between fear and grit?” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote “The heights charm us, but the steps do not; with the mountain in our view we love to walk the plains.”


There are a few people, however, who are navigating the chaos that simply seek out the heights and the steps required to climb the mountain. In so doing, these individuals spend a good deal of time thinking about the connection between fear and grit. Their lives hang in the balance so the must have a keen sense of their relationship with fear and the role grit plays in the pursuit of their dreams.

One such person who understands this connection between fear and grit is Alex Honnold. Honnold is an American rock climber best known for his free-solo ascents of big walls. He is the only person to have free-soloed El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Honnold was born in Sacramento, California. He started climbing in a climbing gym at the age of 5 and was climbing "many times a week" by age 10. He participated in many national and international youth climbing championships as a teenager. He would enroll in Berkeley but dropped out and spent time living at home and driving around California to go climbing.

He gained mainstream recognition after his 2012 solo of The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome was featured in the film Alone on the Wall and a subsequent 60 Minutes interview. He also co-authored the book Alone on the Wall: The Ultimate Limits of Adventure.

On June 3, 2017, he made the first free-solo ascent of El Capitan, completing the 2,900-foot Freerider route in 3 hours and 56 minutes. The feat, described as "one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever," was documented by climber and photographer Jimmy Chin, and was the subject of the 2018 documentary Free Solo. To understand his remarkable physical achievement, it is necessary to reflect upon the connection between fear and grit for today’s Navigate the Chaos post. While there are many dynamics involved with the connection between fear and grit, here are three to consider.

The first connection between fear and grit involves years of practice. Honnold started climbing at the age of 5 and spent 10 years inside learning the fundamentals until they became routine. After 10 years of being inside, he ventured outside and took on more challenging climbs with each passing year. As Honnold stated “I started climbing in a gym when I was around 10 years old, which means that my life has been centered on climbing for more than 20 years. After nearly a decade of climbing mostly indoors, I made the transition to the outdoors and gradually started free soloing. I built up my comfort over time and slowly took on bigger and more challenging walls.”

The second connection between fear and grit involves deep self-awareness. Honnold took the time to study other climbers and then measured himself against them to increase his self-awareness. If you are going to be 2,000-3,000 feet in the air without a rope climbing a mountain, you better have an intimate relationship with your abilities since your life depends upon it. As Honnold said "I was never, like, a bad climber [as a kid], but I was never a great climber, either. There were a lot of other climbers who were much, much stronger than me, who started as kids and were, like, instantly freakishly strong––like they just have a natural gift. And that was never me. I just loved climbing, and I've been climbing all the time ever since, so I've naturally gotten better at it, but I've never been gifted."

The third connection between fear and grit involves combining the years of practice with a deep sense of self-awareness so the impossible task of free soloing becomes possible. As Honnold noted “I've done a lot of thinking about fear. For me the crucial question is not how to climb without fear-that's impossible- but how to deal with it when it creeps into your nerve endings. There is no adrenaline rush. If I get an adrenaline rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong. In a real sense, I performed the hard work of that free solo during the days leading up to it. Practicing for years allowed me to find the climbing sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorize them. I had to make sure that they were so deeply ingrained within me that there was no possibility of error. I did not want to be wondering if I was going the right way or using the best holds. I needed everything to feel automatic. Once I was on the climb, it was just a matter of executing.”