Democracy has lost its shine. Unimaginable leaders fuelling violence are filling our news feeds. People are locked down. It’s not a stretch to say we’re more divided than ever.

I grew up in what I consider to be the UN Generation. We were bought up to deeply believe in the power of a globalised and united world. Our classrooms were filled with messages of coming together and that we lived in a system that would be held accountable to creating a better world. It was the capitalist growth-on-growth mentality fuelled towards a belief that if we work together, we can solve challenges and build a bigger, better and fairer world.

Flash forward to 2020 and it feels as if those foundations are starting to crack. As if the grounding of those beliefs beneath my feet is starting to crumble slowly, but noticeably.

When the ground beneath you is feeling pretty unsteady, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Shifting values and reframed global perceptions are engrossing. It’s hard to stop watching until you are in a paralysis. And the more time you spend looking at or thinking about your unsteady footing, the more unbalanced you become.

I like solutions and I don’t think staring at your feet or stewing on a messy broth of the worlds big challenges is a particularly productive solution, so this week I spent some time looking for inspiration for how to create the space and clarity for action. As an antidote to bad news paralysis, I found just the man for the job.

What we can all learn from Alex Honnold

Along with thousands of others my palms sweated the whole way through watching Alex Honnald’s free climb ascent of El Capitan, captured on the documentary “Free Solo”. It was without a doubt one of the most incredible feats of human courage, focus, ingenuity and absolute mastery that I have ever seen.

If you watch interviews with him describing the climb, he is resolute, matter of fact and knows the consequences. If he did slip and fall on that climb, he had no ropes and would die. Yet, after years of preparation he got up and did it anyway. It was just something he had to do.

This brings me back to me staring at my feet and overwhelm paralysis. At an incredibly simplistic level Alex Honnald succeeded because he kept reaching and looking up. One hand in front of the other. His absolute focus was on what was above him, the next pitch, the next challenge.

His success relied on shutting down the fear instinct and instead focusing all of his attention on what he was accountable for – his next step. For me this feat highlighted a couple of significant lessons relevant for moments in time where the world starts to feel overwhelming and difficult to influence.

Look up to find your focus – What does El Capitan mean to you?   

In order to move forward Alex needed a summit to climb. Most of us need our own El Capitan. Something beyond us. Something that matters. Alex knew what he was seeking and could therefore plot the path forward. Movement is created from intention. He knew he wanted to reach the top and this fuelled his actions and his focus.

What does that mean in the world right now? I feel like we’re all looking for a big vision or set of foundations to strive for, but the road map is getting really blurry. Truth, equality, you name the universal value – we all agree they matter, but the more time you spend looking at your feet (or the problems), the more distracting it is to find and focus on a way forward and something you can do.

We’re wired towards meaning and a creating a fulfilling narrative for our lives. To do good work that matters to the world, to our communities, to our families and to ourselves. This is the El Capitan we all need to find in our lives. What does your El Capitan look like? For the late great Ruth Beda Ginsburg it was the fight for women’s rights (amongst a whole set of other values) that was her summit, a lifetime of work. This ultimate goal kept her reaching like Alex, even through the most tiring and trying of times (as COVID has been for lots of people).

I guess it’s finding the change you want to make in the world or the challenge that drives you. I always think it’s interesting to take the perspective of what you want your life to have been about when you turn 101? When you look down from your life’s summit what will have been meaningful? What values or changes in the world would have been part of your life and kept a fire burning inside you, holding you steady, focused and accountable to your deepest sense of self.

What does this looked like for me:

This week I’ve been trying to focus on what are the social movements and things in my life that really matter and how can I keep focused on those being the El Capitan for me.

The Core Question:

What’s worth the long climb to the summit? What are the movements, values, priorities and beliefs that deeply matter to you and how can they hold you steady through this uncertain time?

Looking for your next hand or foot hold – What’s your next immediate action?

It’s easy when thinking about Alex and Ruth to feel like reaching these heights of mastery and absolute focus and persistence towards making an impact is impossible. While it’s undeniable that we’re wired towards different strengths – inside you is a unique impact ready to be cultivated and to drive your focus.

So, how do you transition from being focused on your unsteady footing, into creating the hardest thing – the momentum to move forward?

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

It feels like unsteady feet can be best met by looking up to find the next place to reach for. For most of the climb Alex couldn’t see the summit. He knew he was heading in the right direction and just focused on the next relevant action. When breaking it down, it feels like this small action is the seed to everything.

When it comes to life, this is akin to what is the next thing you can do to move forward in creating a positive impact? What is the next action you can take to support a movement you care about? To learn from Alex we can’t be caught up in the clouds, nor trapped thinking about unsteady footing – all you have is your focus on what’s next?

In a time when the world around us is so confusing, it feels like accountability to ourselves and to our actions takes on a whole new level of significance.

What does this look like for me:

This week I’ve been focusing on the next practical steps I can take to contribute to the movements that I care about. Where do I want to put my dollars, my energy and my attention? And how do I do something immediately to move that goal forward?

The core question:

What’s the next practical step you can take to focus your attention, that will hold you accountable to making a positive contribution to the summit/summits that matter to you?

It’s a question of valuing your focus and its compounding implications

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.” ― Mahatma Gandhi.

Similar to this quote, at its core, surviving the fragile foundations of the world right now feels like a question of being strategic with your attention. As one of our most undervalued life commodities, it feels like if you want to create Alex and Ruth sized impacts on the world, it largely rests with channelling your attention deliberately. Could it be as simple as focusing with precision on your immediate actions and finding a summit that’s worth climbing.

What does this look like for me:

I am a big fan of effective Altruism and this week I am going to realign my ongoing charity giving through Peter Singer’s charity foundation ‘The Life You Can Save’. It’s amazing how much more impact you can have by being strategic in your charity giving. I am also going to reconnect with a range of charities working in the careers space for young people, as this is an area that I care deeply for.

A final thought…

Our feet weren’t meant to be stared at and in life we weren’t designed to be surrounded by an insurmountable wall of bad news. I still feel optimistic about the world and it seems as though the only answer to fragile foundations is to look up, to focus on what you can do next and to keep heading in the right direction.