The thermometer read 7 F, and a magnificent full moon was setting as I arrived at “0-dark-thirty” in New Paltz, New York one Sunday in late January for a one-day ice climbing course.

The class was small, four students and an instructor. I was pleased that the luck of the draw had put two first responders into my class: this gave me a comfort about our well-being beyond my confidence in the EMS Climbing School, and their excellent instructor, Eric. Nobody has your back like a first responder.

Our gear: boots and crampons (extremely sharp spikes that clip to the sole of the boot), a harness; and two ice axes. (And most important of all, helmets.) Eric set us up to “top rope” — a rope threaded from our harnesses, through an anchor at the top of the wall, and back down to a partner who would belay us, or hold our rope, as we climbed.

All of the students had all been on indoor climbing walls; we all listened to the instructions, checked and double-checked our gear, and watched Eric’s demo. The action: reach well overhead with an ice axe (at right, photo from the EMS website); useIce Axe via ems.com a hammering motion to drive the point of the axe into the ice, deep enough to bear weight; and repeat with the other axe/arm. Hanging from the axes, step one foot up, kick the crampon points at the toe into the ice. Repeat with the other foot, ending up feet secured to the ice by crampons, several feet off the ground, in a squatting position; the next step is to stand up.

Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. In this way, you inch up the wall.

Well, I started up the wall. It didn’t take long to notice — to my great surprise, oddly enough — that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing.

Regular yoga practice keeps me pretty spry. On an average day, I can achieve a handstand: under the right conditions, I can stay there for several minutes: I’m strong, too.

So. I was shocked when I didn’t scramble right up that wall. So shocked that I came down, had a hot drink, ate something, and thought about it.

I had completely forgotten how many hundreds of times I had to practice that handstand, how many times I had fallen out of it. Also forgotten, my learning style: some learn by hearing, others by seeing a demo. Others, like me, learn by doing — by actually putting ourselves into the situation and trying it.

I shared this observation with Eric. On my next attempt, he climbed up the wall next to me and talked me through it. (Thanks, buddy. That’s good teaching.)

By day’s end, temperatures had soared into the 30s, and I had climbed up and down that wall. (And had fallen not a few times trying, and without any fear: with a skilled instructor and trusted climbing partners, I knew that I was okay.)

As a manager, I’ve climbed with great people on the other end of my rope. And I’ve learned by climbing and falling, hundreds of times, for well over 10 years.

The only way to learn is by practicing. Jim Collins calls this “fallure”, the commitment to continuing on up a climbing route until you fall. Penn psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth uses the word “grit” to describe the characteristic that gets you back up again when you’ve gone down.

Subject matter expertise doesn’t always translate into other domains. The example often bandied about in the financial world is that great traders aren’t often great people managers. (They might clamber up that wall quickly, but maybe they can’t stick a handstand. By the same token, I’m currently falling out of bakasana, or crow pose a couple of times a day — it takes a different je ne sais quoi than handstand!)

One of the things that I ponder as companies grow and shrink, thousands of people coming and going, is what it means to be an institution. At my last corporate job, it took me a while to figure out how to get people to show up for a meeting.

Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration. Point: participating in an organizational culture is a way of being that is unique to that ecosystem.

Whether it takes 10,000 hours or 10 years to master a skill, what do we do, as managers, about certain skills that are very sensitive to the setting they’re used in?

I don’t have an answer — it’s something I’m pondering.

I’ve been off-line for quite some time, practicing my skills in the “real world”. Ack, I haven’t even opened my feedreader in so long I’m wondering — do people even use them any more? And I can’t remember how I set the Facebook settings to suck blog posts onto my page; friends and family who get my newsletter will see more than one version of this article. And I changed the look and feel of my blog, which I’m still pondering, too.

Onwards!

(Bakasana In The Smoky Mountains by flickr’s kmh1967, used under Creative Commons license.)