Mental toughness and mountain climbing
Mental toughness and mountain climbing

I recall reading that Julian Robertson took his young Tiger hires mountain climbing as a test of their risk-taking skills and their mental toughness. Well, I thought at the time, given my acute acrophobia, I would have been summarily bounced to the secretarial pool.

There are obvious parallels between mountain climbing and trading. In a paper in the edited volume Mental Toughness in Sport (Daniel F. Gucciardi and Sandy Gordon, eds, Routledge Research in Sport and Exercise Science, 2011) Tom Fawcett takes as his first case study Alex, a high-level mountaineer with over 30 years’ climbing experience.

Alex said that mental toughness means different things at different times of an expedition. In advance of a trip, he identified “preparation, attention to detail, accurate risk assessment, the need to be realistic, seeing the bigger picture and having a sense of perspective and being adaptable” as important factors.

During the climb mental toughness is about having a “correct response [psychological and physical] in the moment it [whatever ‘it’ may be] happens.” It involves risk assessment (yet again) and managing anxiety. Importantly, it means having the ability and courage to accept failure at the expense of personal achievement or ego satisfaction. “People get carried away with their own egos, and the need to summit takes control over more logical judgments. People ‘lose it’ and many people have unfortunately lost their lives because of their obsession to get to the top. … They gamble and forfeit their lives in the quest for absolute success and the need to avoid failure.”

Being successful, he suggested, is an indication that one has not been truly tested to the ultimate limit. Failing, on the other hand, is both extremely difficult and, perhaps paradoxically, emotionally satisfying. As Alex said, “Failures are inner rewarding and not external like reaching a summit. I climb to live, not to die. The summit is optional, but returning is mandatory.”

You can draw the obvious parallels.