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 STYLE MATTERS

I run my mouth. It’s nothing new. A dozen years ago I used a advertising campaign to broadcast my message. The ads were meant to sell climbing equipment but my motive was more subversive. I used the platform to both admonish and inspire. I suppose that hasn’t changed.

The premise of that campaign was that Style Matters. How you do a thing is as important—if not more so—than the task itself or its accomplishment. This philosophy informed the way I climbed mountains and derived from a phrase written by Trevanian in his magnificent book titled, “Shibumi”. Therein he wrote that, “… style and form are everything, and substance a passing myth.” Of course you must DO something but it ain’t simply the doing. It’s how you do it.

We interpreted this in the mountains by paring technology to an absolute minimum. Doing so placed greater responsibility for the outcome on ourselves and our own capacities. Where others went heavy and slow, placing safety ahead of accomplishment, our style was to cover the same terrain in a blaze of light, accepting the ultimate risk in order to have the ultimate, transformative experience. Sometimes our physical ability and mental resilience were equal to the task. Sometimes not. Fortunately, most of my closest friends and partners survived. Of course, it was a close thing and some guys didn’t make it but that kept us attentive — and honest.

This philosophy still pervades. The gym project I founded (Gym Jones) was built on it. NonProphet is a refinement of the ideal: Style Matters.

I could write about form and proper execution of movement but that would be simplistic. Yes, proper movement matters, the fundamentals matter. Full range of motion and graceful execution should be a given. We shouldn’t even have to discuss it because efficiency always expresses as grace. No, when I speak of style it applies to everything. The aesthetic of the old gym project was driven by style, which I meant as lifestyle—lived style—not fabrication.

The most important point of our training philosophy as I have written it is “The Mind Is Primary”, a concept I encountered in “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do”, written by Bruce Lee. All physical performance, all behavior and eventual restructuring of it originates in the mind. All limitations dwell there too. It’s a clever slogan. It’s easy to say. It’s easy to pay lip service and fun to wear on a t-shirt but difficult to understand.

Physical performance is important to me only to the extent that physical experience can cause psychological change. My body is a vessel. My mind rides along with it. To be sure, the more physically capable I am the further I can go. Higher. Sometimes deeper. Toward greater understanding. But this is my bias because I am physical. I could not attain the same awareness without participation of my body. However, many do. I admire their ability to journey separate from the vessel.

On the other hand I do not admire those for whom the vessel is the point. They reject the mind as anything more than a means to attain complete concentration on the immediate task. For them muscles, leverage and technique cause outcome and trump other influence. Any underlying psychological force that might precede or allow performance is considered less important than the power and force expressed by the muscles. I’ve never learned anything of value from these people.

On its own, our modern, artificial interpretation of the physical is too easy to cause meaningful internal change.

In fact, practitioners of the more internally guided martial arts feel that emphasis on the external (physical) impedes growth and development of the internal. I saw this manifested in climbing over and over: the physically gifted beginner could progress rapidly through the grades but eventually stalled out because emphasis on the physical is limited. On the other hand, a climber with few physical talents but a strong and flexible mind may progress as far or further by focusing mental and spiritual power, and expressing his or her limited physical abilities efficiently.

The strong individual solves problems with strength. The weak individual solves problems with economy and flexibility. Of course, the individual who is both physically strong and mentally resilient is always more capable — and that’s the point: do not neglect one aspect in favor of the other. Do not fall in love with one aspect while ignoring the other.

This has more to do with style than is obvious. We all know Mongo, the big, strong and clumsy trainee whose philosophy in the gym and in life is to go harder. And we all know his opposite, whose philosophy is flexibility and suppleness both in the studio and in life. Stereotypically one eats meat while the other doesn’t. Vehicle choices and speech characteristics follow the same pattern. And because we are human beings, we are the same in our own ways.

We identify with who we perceive to be like us or who we would like to become. We adopt the style and composure of who we role model, who we want to be. We try to do the things they do and if or when we fall short we settle for mimicking their behavior, and their style.

As leaders our style matters. Actions matter. If we confront hardship gracefully we make doing so more accessible to those who might otherwise retreat. If we suffer well, and take difficulty seriously without blowing it out of proportion we reduce the gap between the couch and the goalposts for anyone who happens to be watching. When we breathe easily and in control during the hardest efforts we tell our own minds that it is OK to go this hard, and to feel like this. When we accept a difficult challenge with words like, “Let’s try it” instead of phrases like, “This will be ugly”, we chop hardship down to a manageable level. Then we can handle it one step or one bite at a time.

Our style in the face of adversity determines the degree of difficulty that comes with it. A smile and laugh are just as fake as the loud words we speak through our gritted teeth. Instead of posturing, flow with it. Bend. Accept. Then push as hard as is necessary but no harder. At the end of the day put false humility and ego aside. Just be cool. Because cool is good style.

And it goes a lot further than tough ever will.