The Dawn Wall And The Idea of ‘Wasting Time’

A week ago, two guys finished climbing an astronomically difficult 3,000-foot route on El Capitan as the world kept up via seemingly every mainstream news source: CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, and all of the major news networks. Climbers and non-climbers followed the final pitches of Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell’s 19-day efforts on a live video feed, which was simultaneously kind of boring (as watching rock climbing from a distance usually is) and absolutely enthralling.

When Jorgeson joined Caldwell at the final anchor at the top of the final pitch, two tired guys hugged at the end of a monumental, multi-year effort, many of us rejoiced, and social media feeds blew up with everyone’s own version of “[exclamatory phrase here] Dawn Wall!”

Throughout the two weeks of media coverage, a few people seemed to not get the whole thing, calling the climbers adrenaline junkies, or accusing them of doing it for fame or attention or money, or saying that they should have spent their time doing something that would benefit humanity. I dug into the comments section on a New York Times story on the climb and found a gold mine of vitriol. I cringed, laughed, and collected it and put it all together in an Adventure Journal post.

It’s one thing to not understand climbing—turns out it’s incredibly complicated to explain why the route, and the climb, was such a big deal. If you don’t climb, you might not get that it’s statistically relatively safe (compared to driving on the freeway), relatively not harmful to the park (compared to the impact of thousands of park visitors every year), and that there are differences between aid climbing, free climbing, and free soloing. Many of us don’t understand the technicalities rules of lots of Olympic sports, or stock car racing, or the categories at the Oscars, and the idea of using or not using ropes was definitely lost on many people.

But there were also dozens of indignant comments from people who seemed to think the whole thing was a giant waste of time:

waste of time

waste of energy

Sometimes we complain that the news is all negative: if-it-bleeds-it-leads, Man Shot, Baby Drowns, Car Accident Kills 6, Hostage Beheaded, War Continues Even If We Don’t Call It War. And then a story that’s hard to see as negative (Two Men Climb Giant Difficult Rock Face, No One Dies, Some Fingertip Skin Damaged) takes over some headlines for a while and people flock to the internet to take a shit on it, saying these two guys could have done something different with their time.

Well, OK, what’s an acceptable way to spend your time, instead of climbing the Dawn Wall? Would it make us feel better to see Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson sitting next to us in traffic on Monday morning? Should they have sat down and watched all the seasons of Game of Thrones consecutively? Spent some days at one of those drink-wine-while-you-learn-to-paint classes? Done their part to contribute to the 3 billion hours we spend playing video games each week? Maybe replied to all the Internet comments concerning their climb?

When we see someone doing something we deem foolish, we have a tendency to say something like “they have too much time on their hands.” And we forget that we’re privileged to have any spare time on our hands at all, something that was an unforeseeable luxury not too many generations ago, when we spent all of our time trying to survive—and something that doesn’t exist at all for the often-invisible people who pick the produce we eat or make the clothes we wear in factories halfway around the world.

The advance of civilization has given people the opportunity to have some spare time, and with that spare time, we have found ways to express ourselves. Art, whether it’s Shakespeare or Picasso or Illmatic or The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, is created by people with spare time, and consumed by a much larger amount of people with spare time. Some of it we embrace, some of it we discard, and all of it, in the grand scheme of things, is arguably folly.

Charlie Todd, the founder of prank collective Improv Everywhere, gave a Ted Talk on “The Shared Experience of Absurdity” in 2011, and addressed the criticism he’d heard about how he chose to spend his spare time:

“One of the most common criticisms I see of Improv Everywhere left anonymously on YouTube comments is: ‘These people have too much time on their hands.’ And you know, not everybody’s going to like everything you do, and I’ve certainly developed a thick skin thanks to Internet comments, but that one’s always bothered me, because we don’t have too much time on our hands. The participants at Improv Everywhere events have just as much leisure time as any other New Yorkers, they just occasionally choose to spend it in an unusual way.

You know, every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people each fall gather in football stadiums to watch games. And I’ve never seen anybody comment, looking at a football game, saying, ‘All those people in the stands, they have too much time on their hands.’ And of course they don’t. It’s a perfectly wonderful way to spent a weekend afternoon, watching a football game in a stadium. But I think it’s also a perfectly valid way to spend an afternoon freezing in place with 200 people in the Grand Central terminal or dressing up like a Ghostbuster and running through the New York Public Library. …

As kids, we’re taught to play. And we’re never given a reason why we should play. It’s just acceptable that play is a good thing. … I think, as adults, we need to learn that there’s no right or wrong way to play.”

In our early years, like Charlie Todd says, we all find different ways to have fun: playground football, drama club, being the class clown, building elaborate models out of toothpicks, rock climbing, writing stories. Some people find ways to turn “play” into a job later, but not all of us do, and some of us consider ourselves lucky enough to hang onto playing well into adulthood as something we can do for a few hours a week or a month.

In an interview with the New York Times at the top of El Cap, Jorgeson said, “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall.” I like to think he means a couple things with that: that we all should have and hold onto big dreams, and we should never stop playing, whether or not everyone agrees that it’s making the world a better place.


36 replies on “The Dawn Wall And The Idea of ‘Wasting Time’

  • Blaine

    – Those things that are the least necessary for survival are the very things that make us human. –

    By this standard, and many others, TC& KJ are incredible humans. Nice work guys. Thanks for the inspiration and lesson in persistence and the value of chasing a dream.

  • Dirty Mike

    Dude awesome. I work as an engineer in the oil and gas industry in Houston. I all to much get negative comments because I spend my weekends racing bikes, camping, hiking and climbing. I can never wrap my mind around the fact that people think I should be watching football or tv instead. I think deep down they are a bit jealous since I spend my time out of the office playing and having fun instead of sitting around waiting for Monday. I think you make a great point about never stopping playing. I can’t tell you how often I see children smile in awe when I ride by and how they always get stoked when I throw them a thumbs up. I often think it’s a shame because someday they are most likely grow up to hate that road biker that’s making there commute so hard. Play on!

  • riley morton

    Wasting Time is a time honored and wonderful tradition that is part of what makes us human. For further proof, do yourself a favor and Spotify ‘Wasting Time’ by California’s ALO. you’ll be glad you did.

  • Mark Hense

    Hmm…no million dollar contract, no doping, no complaining and no show boating or foul language all while doing something that millions seemed to have enjoyed. Sounds like the difference between an athlete and a professional athlete. And no one ever accused anyone in the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL of wasting their time.

    I saw this from a blurb sent out by Anton Krupicka, which kinda reminded me of the nature of the outdoor sporting community. It seems to largely revolve around personal growth and experiences. Which is probably why there aren’t too many ‘arm chair’ fans of Climbing, Ultramarathoning, Mountain Biking, Skiing, Snowboarding. These fans ARE in fact inspired because they share the same drive for doing what they do.

  • Velosopher

    I mountain bike/road bike/fat bike on the weekends and mornings so that I can sit in my office and help people untangle the thickets of their traumatized lives in the afternoons. I’m *creating* time, dammit, not wasting it.

  • Anthony

    Thanks for the great post, Brendan. Made me think of a quote posted on adventure-journal a few years ago:

    In 1922, responding to questions about his attempt to climb Mt. Everest, George Mallory put the whole thing in perspective.

    “The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

  • Josh

    Great perspective on this!!! It seems all to easy to criticize the dreamer these days. Its cliche’ but true, that when you rise up above the sea of mediocrity, you’re bound to get hit by most of the tomatoes!!! I say, learn to love tomatoes (ketchup) and continue to strive to be exceptional!!

  • Kate C

    There seems to be a growing worship of “busy-ness” in our culture. The people who we revere are the ones that work long hours, and drive their kids to tons of enrichment activities, and cook a week’s worth of healthy meals on Sunday afternoon. Always busy, always moving, never really happy. The “Job Creators” and the “Super-Moms” would never be seen doing something for themselves, or something for the pure joy of it, or really, something that makes them happy other than a trip to the mall.

  • Mary Pat

    This is an excellent piece! A lack of experience or understanding about all sorts of things makes many people believe they’re experts in critiquing the very things they don’t get.

  • Bob D

    Thank God for the time to play. I work a stressful full-time job, and in certain seasons, I work two jobs just to keep the bills and taxes paid. I’m not sure I’d be mentally all there if I didn’t have some time to go run a trail, hike through the woods or climb a mountain or two.

    I admire the heck out of those climbers. Excellence right on par with what we see on Sundays, or when Michael Jordan was still collecting rings.

  • Anne

    On Twitter, I saw such a comment, something to the effect of “Seriously who gives a %uck about 2 idiots climbing a granite rock in California in 19 days????”

    I replied “Me, for one. What inspires you?”

    So far, no answer.

    I call those negative comments that bring nothing thoughtful or reflective to the conversation bellybutton selfies. I believe that opinions are like bellybuttons; everyone has one but really , it’s best to keep them covered except under certain conditions.

    For bellybuttons, that would be at home, at the beach, at the doctor’s office, on a hot day, etc. You would not, for example, lift your shirt in the middle of a crowded commuter bus demanding the world look at your bellybutton.

    For opinions, you should share them when you have something relevant or thoughtful to share; something that adds to the conversation. Maybe this needs to be covered in the Common Core but you write publicly when you have something to say beyond the latest thought that scrolled through your mind.

    One more thing: I have never read a comment that included the word “idiot” that added anything to conversation. Ever. My rule of thumb is that if I am tempted to use the word idiot, I should not post the comment. The world doesn’t need to see my bellybutton all the time, either.

  • Rachel @ Betty LIVIN

    First off, I am so sick of people being negative online and on social media! What started off as a fun way to share photos and information is turning into a forum where you have to watch everything you say or do or risk persecution. I make sure that if I have nothing nice to say, I don’t say anything at all (an old adage that people should remember).

    As for this “too much time” topic- that is another way our society has gotten life wrong. Suddenly having leisure time is looked on as a negative and we all think everyone should be over scheduled and over stressed all the time. I envy stay at home wives for the time they have to do crafts or try new recipes and make their home a home for their families but almost every other woman I work with call them “lazy”.

    These guys just had a major life accomplishment, let’s celebrate it not try to tear them down.

  • Dan

    Thanks for the great article.
    I am left with the thought that if you have time to comment on a news story, facebook, or youtube “You have too much time on your hands” then you also have too much time on your hands and proved it by wasting at least 10 minutes of your life reading a story you didn’t like and then commenting. You just haven’t found an outlet that anyone could possible care about, let alone make a national news story. This is an example of an inflated ego mixed with jealousy, a pinch of nothing to show for it, and a semi truck full belittlement upon those who pursue their folly so you feel better about sitting on your couch at night with a stick of butter and a cubicle waiting for you in the morning. You are not curing cancer or anything close to it, so quiet your criticisms. Also, those people who are trying to cure cancer or at least treat it, have time for a beer, and quite a few of them climb.
    In climbing we have all thought, “why am I doing this” only to have that thought catapulted into space the moment we get to the top replaced by “why don’t I do this everyday”. When I climb they are my most present, most exhilarating, hardest, most challenging, most rewarding days and moments.
    Keep writing Brendan!!

  • stan

    — To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
    Signifying nothing.

  • Jake

    Somewhat related, this author talks about whenever she has free time, it’s always used to check items off her to-do list. Instead, she contends it’s very important to plan on doing nothing and just letting your brain be creative. That’s where some of our best ideas come from, daydreaming with no expectations…

    Also why I like climbing on a mtn bike so much, is that in that space of being completely exhausted is sometimes where I have my best thoughts.

  • Cristina Rose

    Thanks for the great article. I believe that they ARE making the world a better place by taking care of themselves and making themselves better people. By doing what they love they will be happier people; thereby making them better husbands, fathers, sons, co-workers. The lessons they learned and the satisfaction they felt will stay with them and they may smile at more people on the street or in the grocery store. People should put their own happiness first more often and I believe America would be a friendlier place. It all starts from within. “Be the change…”

  • Brian

    Great read! And check it out, all positive comments! Says something about our tribe I think. Play hard folks! Love life!!

  • Jacob Frederick

    Can’t people just do stuff nowadays without receiving a ton of crap or peoples opinions about it? seems like everywhere every time no matter what happens there’s always somebody who doesn’t like it when people do stuff. Is climbing mount Everest a waste of time? Can’t people be selfish sometimes without being called out about it? i appreciate people who dedicate literally there entire lives to working and helping others but occasionally i’m just interested in lookin out for number 1 and i don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

  • Jon

    Brenden, don’t forget one of the most important rules of the Internet: Don’t feed the trolls. Ignore them. By responding to them with another post this only gives them exactly what they want, attention.

  • Max Jones

    “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman
    And we should all celebrate and encourage this!

  • Joe

    With say, proper planning prevents poor performance, most people could (within a day) hike to the top of El Cap. And if you cannot – no big deal. When you find your mountain, even if in Louisiana, say hello to the best time of your life! Scalp the football tickets and buy a pair of hiking boots – they will last longer too, of course.

  • david

    I think you can go farther by breaking down exactly what these guys’ “jobs” are. For instance:
    – Marketing – they are paid to promote gear and brands. Maybe that IS a waste of time, but then you’d have to discount the entire advertising industry and consumerism while you’re at it.
    – Writing – ok, not as authors, but with the media they are working with they are presenting a compelling and interesting story which is inspiring (to some) and just plain cool. So if you like books, TV shows, movies, etc, you cannot discredit the live story these guys have laid out for us!
    – Sports – the obvious analogy, but no one seems to get in Lebron James’ face about wasting his life.
    – Models – I may or may not have a picture of TC on the traverse pitch as my computer background. TC’s basically as sexy as Victoria Secrete models.

    End rant. I’ll stop wasting my time now and go back to work…

  • chaz evans

    Look at these guys, professionals with a goal. Congress could learn a lot from them. They saw the challenge, geared up for it, adjusted the rout to stay viable alive, and finished the goal without partisan bickering. Anyone who has something negative to say about this extraordinary accomplishment shows their true colors, they are passive sheep with an armchair opinion who never set goals and finish the deal. What have you done lately?

  • John

    Man, I fight the urge to work non-stop as an entrepreneur. Essays like this inspire me to get off the net, get off the ladder, stop working and start playing! Thanks

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