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Inspired: Tommy Caldwell TED Talk Takeaways

If you’re new to the climbing scene, you may know Tommy Caldwell best for climbing the infamous Dawn Wall. What you might not know about him: he was taken hostage climbing the famed Yellow Wall in Kyrgyzsta and severed his own left index finger in an accident – all before he decided to embark on his biggest dream. Here are lessons from a legend.

Photo via Youtube / TEDxKC
Photo via Youtube / TEDxKC

In need of some Thursday #throwback dose of inspiration? Look to pro-climber Tommy Caldwell’s inspiring TED Talk that outlines his captivating journey to where he is today.

He begins his TED Talk by recounting his wild tale of being taken hostage on a climbing trip with his girlfriend at the time, involving machine guns, rifles, a rebel insurgency and six harrowing days of battle as human hostages. At the end of the journey, at the point of starvation, he suddenly was reinvigorated by his survival instincts: he killed his captor to save his group:

“We are capable of so much more than we could ever imagine. But we only find that capacity when pushed against the limit – the unendurable and existential threat. when we think we’re near our breaking point – when in fact, we’re not even close. Yes, I traded the life of one for four that mattered more to me, but within that, I gained a deeper knowledge of what our survival instincts can do.”

Islamic guerrillas allied with the IMU, northeastern Afghanistan, June 2000. Photo: Zulfras via Outside Online
Islamic guerrillas allied with the IMU, northeastern Afghanistan, June 2000. Photo: Zulfras via Outside Online

Not all of the hostages felt the same. Why, Caldwell posits, do some people come out of these experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder and some others experience post-traumatic growth?

For him, he posits that it was the experiential education and confidence his father gave him that gave him a strong foundation for embracing challenges, taking him on wild & difficult journeys as a child:

“He understood this idea of raising your children with grit – long before it became a parenting buzzword. He believed that you must prepare your children for the path, not the path for your children…The greatest gift that he gave me is that he reframed adversity as adventure and taught me to be bold. He showed me that if we allow ourselves to be exposed to challenge, then that challenge can energize us and show us who we are,”

Hardship was always taught as welcome for character building, and Caldwell’s hardship did not end after the hostage event. In 2011, he chopped of his left finger with a tablesaw and spent two grueling weeks in the hospital. His doctor told him that his finger couldn’t be saved, and that he could no longer be a professional climber.

tommy caldwell finger

That is a devastating statement to hear. But Caldwell didn’t accept defeat:

“When I walked out of that hospital a few days later,my finger just a swollen nub, I felt a drive. That drive became a maniacal focus. I started training 14 hours a day, I analyzed everything about how I lived. I honed new strengths, made changes. I searched out challenge in the form of big wall, free-climbing,”

He found a form of freedom in his pursuit of challenges, and in a moment of big wall free-climbing even after all he had gone through, a dream was born:

“Imagine a world where pain and pleasure merge. Where ego disappears. Where awareness grows upward, outward – in all directions. This was a powerful epiphany, and out of that curiosity…. I wondered, how far can I push this? I noticed when I was lost in pursuit, my world was full of wonder and color. It was only when complacency would encroach that it would cloud over.

So I decided I would have to come up with an elevated dream. Something that would completely consume me. And so was born the Dawn Wall project. It started as a spark, an idea. If I were to thought of it as a goal, I surely would have been too overwhelmed and given up. And so, it became a question: could there be a way?”

The rest, as they say, is history. If you were impressed with Caldwell and his Dawn Wall feat before, you may be more inspired by him now than ever.

What challenges are you facing? How can you shape your life, adapt how you live to meet your goals? As a community of climbers, dreamers, artists, entrepreneurs, take these lessons from Caldwell: don’t let anyone define what is impossible. Push yourself to your limits, challenge yourself, persevere and see what dreams can be born.

See the full TED Talk by Tommy Caldwell here:

Got grit? Join the BROOKLYN BEATDOWN competition On October 24th, 2015.