One foot in order, one in chaos
Thoughts on what we can learn from someone who climbed the 14 tallest mountains in seven months
Project Possible I recently watched a documentary on Nims Purja, the no-name Nepalese/British guy who led the team that summited the 14 tallest mountains in the world in less than seven months. No. Big. Deal. The previous record was over seven years. Taking an initial crack at what we can learn from Nims’ achievement, the film ended with a quote from legendary Italian climber Reinhold Messner:
“Most of us are forgetting that from the beginning of our life, we are approaching death. Life is absurd. But you fill it with ideas, with enthusiasm, with joy.”
I felt this was an appropriate call to arms, an inspiring encouragement to seize the day and go after what we really want to achieve in life…as the clock ticks… But let's go deeper than that... And if we do, I’d like to argue that a meaningful achievement isn’t just about taking a big risk, setting off on a grand adventure, and hoping things work out. There is some lesson to be learned from Chris McCandless, who wandered into the Alaskan bush with minimal supplies and outdoor experience and never returned. There is a second dimension that matters too: competence. Nims’ endeavor was different from McCandless’s because Nims and his team were sufficiently competent to push through the inevitable fecal storms that were involved. Hiking those mountains had pushed the team to a limit, but to one they could bear. It had forced them, to borrow a phrase popularized by psychologist Jordan Peterson, to straddle the border between order and chaos. This order/chaos framework isn’t unique to extreme sports; it applies to achievements we undertake, too. An experience with too much order is boring and suffocating; what we’re doing is too routine and familiar. But too much chaos is overwhelming, and depending on the context, even dangerous. This can happen when our competence doesn’t match the challenge. That’s Billy McFarland managing (ahem, waving-hands-and-yelling) the disastrous Fyre Festival. In a perfect world, we want to be exposed to both so that we're in a kind of philosophical sweet spot, in which we can experience new things without getting out of control.
During their 14 peaks excursion, Nims and team were constantly exposed to both order and chaos, with the scale fortunately never tipping too hard in one direction. Here's a sample:
Chaos: Climbing up Annapurna, a mountain known for its random sudden avalanches and high fatality rate
Order: Reaching the summit as an experienced team
Chaos: Finding a stranded climber who cannot make it back down alone
Order: Orchestrating a successful helicopter rescue from 20,000+ feet
Chaos: Chinese government closes the next mountain for the season
Order: Organizing a social media campaign to persuade the Chinese to re-open the mountain
As Nims and his team weaved between the two, they forged what likely became the most meaningful experience of their lives. They certainly took a massive risk, to be sure, but one they had the competence to handle. Messner’s advice for seizing the day was not ignored. The Source of Meaning In an old YMCA that literally smells like old wet hair, I’m currently learning how to swim properly. At this stage, I feel accomplished if I swim just a few laps without inhaling bitter pool water. I’m balancing order and chaos, for now. Eventually, remembering life is finite and all that, I’ll set grander goals within my ability. This means, as an extreme example, swimming across the English Channel will remain a stratospheric challenge way above and beyond my circle of competence. Too chaotic. Here's how I interpret this:
Meaning comes from seizing challenging opportunities that aren’t absurdly out of my circle of competence, from forging order from chaos.
That's exactly what Nims and his team had to do. Of course, one doesn't need to book a ticket to Kathmandu for these opportunities. There is the chaos of a thousand good ideas… and a blank sheet of canvas. The chaos of more responsibility at work. The chaos of a new mouth to feed. These endeavors challenge us, not through avalanches and icefalls, but on more general terms, through the random problems they hurl our way. As we get better at dealing with those problems over time, we get more practice, get more competent and feel more comfortable. Order begins to settle in as we adapt to a new routine. Then, it’s time for a new challenge.
We'll Go Even Bigger At the end of the documentary, after successfully climbing all 14 mountains, Nims gets asked, “what next mate?” He pauses for a moment before settling on the answer:
“Well, I haven’t really started yet. And you know, next we’ll go even bigger.”
The chaos/order boundary had shifted for him. As it will for us too. It’s an infinite game.
References 1) 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible