We're All in This Together, Or Are We?

Are you "Team Dawn Wall" or "Team Free Solo?"

Posted Dec 09, 2018

In December, a lot of us reflect on the year gone by through the making of personal “best of” lists. What were the most memorable articles, books, songs, memes, quotes, jokes, shows, tweets, blog posts, sunsets, comebacks, takeovers and turnaround jump shots of 2018? What were the best movies? For many people, that last list has a strange quirk: it contains not one but two climbing films. They were released this summer within a few months of each other.

And they were cut from the same stone.

Both featured world-beating young American climbers doing unprecedented things on storied El Capitan, in Yosemite. Together—if you want them to—the two films say something about the state of human affairs right now.

The first film, The Dawn Wall, features two climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, who try to spider up what’s long been considered an unclimbable face —a smooth, 3200-foot granite table tipped upright. Some of the finger-shredding holds are no bigger than the width of a credit card. At one point Jorgeson encounters a pitch he just can’t solve. He tries and fails for literally days. Eventually, he decides to just give up and belay his friend, the superior climber, to the top. But Caldwell refuses the gesture. They’re in this together; either they both make it to the top or neither of them does. The film is a study of bro love, but more than that a hymn to teamwork.

The second film, Free Solo, involves Alex Honnold’s attempt to conquer El Cap all by himself, via a slightly easier route but without protection. This one’s about what one insanely driven ubermensch can do alone. Unfettered by gear, or rope, or other people. The stakes are as high as stakes go: one wrong move and he’s dead.

It wasn’t either filmmaker’s intention to make a political statement. But, together, they accidentally did just that.

“We’re almost talking about two rival spiritual orientations,” the Indian-American journalist Anand Giridharadas said recently on an episode of Krista Tippett’s public radio show On Being. The conversation wasn’t about climbing films. It was about the increasingly divided nature of life in his country of origin, India, and especially in his adopted country of the United States. Those rival orientations are individualism vs. communitarianism. One celebrates what we do alone. The other celebrates what we do together.

The first story—“the heroic, capitalist, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps story”—is the one most people think of when they think of America, Giridharadas said. “But that’s never been the only story. It wasn’t individuals who got rid of the King of England, right? The story of America is also the story of movements. The most important things we’ve done in this culture have also been together.”

Americans at their best, said Giridharadas, who now lives in New York and writes for the Times, “do things together in a way that allows people to do things alone. And we also do things alone that creates the opportunity to do them together. These things don’t have to be at war with each other. But they are absolutely at war today.”

These days, it seems, you have to choose. Are you Team Dawn Wall or Team Free Solo?

In India, the subject of Giridharadas’s last book, there’s been a clear shift from one model to the other. A new generation of young people is joining Team Free Solo, building the life they want, even if that means abandoning the home fires and the traditional obligations to elders and family and folks for whom “I” remains a vulgar word. It’s a staggering development.

In America, the movement isn’t as clearly directional. On one hand, psychologists like Adam Grant are cheerleaders for Team Dawn Wall, trumpeting the payoffs of thinking “give” before you think “get.” (The most powerful thing you can be as an entrepreneur, Seth Godin insists, is generous.) But teamwork isn’t always the best tool for a job. There are times – while doing deep creative work, for example — when you have to be a little ruthless in defending your time and fending off distractions in your solo climb. The better to build the resources to mount a group expedition.

The point is: you don’t have to commit to one paradigm or the other in all circumstances. You just have to be aware of the choice you’re making: Is this just about me, or am I trying to get someone else to the top of the mountain, too?

So as you reflect on 2018 and think of the moments that made your “best of” list, ask yourself: Which itch did they scratch? Did they speak to titanic individual effort or to teamwork, community, connection? Did you experience them alone or did you share them?

Were you Team Dawn Wall or Team Free Solo?

And which way do you want the balance to tip in 2019?

Tommy Lisbin / Unsplash
Source: Tommy Lisbin / Unsplash