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In 2016, Alex Honnold accomplished one of the greatest human feats of athleticism ever, climbing 3,000+ feet of El Capitan without a rope. If you haven’t seen the movie Free Solo, check it out on Netflix. It is mind-blowing. There’s several lessons we can learn from Honnold, and today I’m going to look at a particular mistake from his book Alone on the Wall.


In the book, Honnold tells a story of climbing with his friend Brad Gobright. After scaling a particularly hard pitch, they decided to do another short climb. It was a mistake, as Gobright fell and broke his foot when the rock gave out.


In his justification for why they climbed that particular pitch, Honnold said “it was easy 5.5 slab climbing, so we didn’t think much of it.” A 5.5 route is to rock climbing what a green trail is to skiing. The point–it looked easy on the surface, and they were careless. They messed up where it was easy. They messed up “close to home.”


The phrase “close to home” comes from the fact that roughly 70% of car accidents happen within a 10-mile radius from home. This makes sense. We’re on familiar territory, we get complacent, and we stop paying close attention.


This happens across disciplines. Derren Brown, one of the most experienced and prolific magicians in the world, tells a story in A Book of Secrets of messing up the same trick three nights in a row on Broadway. Why? Because he’d done the trick hundreds of times, and in the sheer repetition of his Broadway run, he let himself slip.


I’ve experienced the same thing. When I performed at Caesar’s Palace, it wasn’t the trick that I practiced literally hundreds of times–the one that I practically had nightmares about–that I messed up. Instead, it was the one that was supposedly easy–so much so that I was overconfident.


There are two lessons here. First, no one is immune to mistakes. Alex Honnold can fall (and he does, which you can read about in his book or watch in Free Solo), Derren Brown can mess up on Broadway. Brené Brown, for example, talks about how time for mistakes is actually built into her team’s processes. And there’s nothing wrong with this! As I’ve talked about in the past, I want mistakes to happen so that I can overcome them.


Second, while everyone will make mistakes, we must have less tolerance for mistakes that happen “close to home,” because they result from complacency. It’s not that you should beat yourself up after a mistake. It’s that you should acknowledge, in a healthy way, that this is not a mistake that should reasonably be repeated.


I’m talking about when I decide not to check my checklist because I think I memorized it. When I don’t find out the distance between the stage and the audience, resulting in dead time during a show. When I don’t check the lighting in the theater, and the audience can’t see a particular prop. These are small mistakes that have big impacts and can all be prevented with deliberate thought.


In short, mistakes that happen “close to home” are generally faults of the ego–we get too comfortable. The most dangerous thing you can say to yourself is “I’m sure of this” or “I don’t need to check this again.” There is always something that you can learn or perfect.


How do we prevent errors that are “close to home”? Systems and habits. For a magician, this includes:

  • Checking your checklist before the show (I even have a checklist for my blog posts!)

  • Practicing mistakes during rehearsal

  • Scheduling rehearsal time for the little things, like walking to the back of the theater

  • Practicing remembering people’s names on stage

This all comes back to awareness. It is by being fundamentally aware of our capacity to make mistakes that we overcome our tendency to fail.


Eliminate ego. Be curious. Ask questions. Systematically do that, and you will be far less prone to mistakes.


Thanks for reading! By the way, if you're in D.C., make sure to grab tickets to my LAST SHOW at GW, Everything I Don't Know, on April 23rd. See you there!

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