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Ben Brostoff

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31 Oct 2019
Counterintuitive Techniques

Watching Free Solo earlier this year inspired me to sign up for a rock-climbing gym in March. What I’ve learned since then that has most helped my climbing is contrary to how my mind wants to think about climbing. Mainly, footwork and positioning are the foundation for solving hard bouldering problems.

To this day, my first instinct is to rely on holds through overgripping and leverage upper body strength. This is an anti-pattern in climbing - overgripping is called overgripping for a reason. The evidence of this anti-pattern greets me every day at my gym, where I regularly see eight year old kids ascending V6s and beyond without breaking a sweat while I struggle to make it up soft V3s. Strength clearly is not a force multiplier in this sport.

While I’m still a newbie climber, whatever gains I have made I owe to improvements in foot usage that led to better positioning that led to efficiency gains. The hardest bouldering problems I’ve solved have never required me to hold onto some hold for dear life or do something super athletic. They have been exercises in strange foot positions that better distributed body weight so that the problem has felt 10x easier following the foot adjustment. One rock climbing technique called flagging allows you to use a free-hanging foot to counter body weight on an upward move - no hold is required. The foot simply uses the wall for balance. I never would’ve thought of this move on my own and had to see it done hundreds of times before starting to get it.

I want to label this example and others like it counterintuive techniques. I think of a counterintuitive technique as any method of problem solving that does not seem logical but has efficiency gains that make it completely necessary for solving a problem. The book Alchemy is full of them - Alchemy generally argues that the most (on the surface) logical techniques for marketing and running businesses are not effective because of a mismatch between how humans are wired and what seems rational to humans. What’s interesting here is that the book is full of citations of psychological studies and explorations of the human mind - the title Alchemy only comes from the fact that the ideas in the book (ex. ads with cute animals often have a larger ROI than major product improvements) seem absurd on the surface.

This idea I also think is powerful when applied to building software. The one I have had the most experience in recently is architecture planning and documentation. Both do not require writing code. Logically, it seems like writing code is the fastest way to build software. Yet, I’m finding that creating parallel work streams and strong API contracts only can happen when the upfront work of writing out schemas, API examples (with the underlying methods unimplemented) and box and flow diagrams is done. These documents once written last forever and will likely stay open in separate windows for reference as engineers build parts of the final product. In retrospect, this technique seems obvious - how would you build a house without a blueprint? - but the culture of measuring project progress by lines of code and GitHub activity remains unfortunately a staple of our industry.

Counterintuitive techniques are easy to adapt once and then forget. Unlike intuitive techniques (ex. use TODO lists, follow routines, write unit tests, don’t climb up without grabbing onto something), counterintuitive techniques have to be remembered and willpower is required to use them (ex. clean up your TODO list, break routine if not effective, stop writing unit tests that have no value, you don’t need a good hold to climb up if you have solid footing). Said another way, they’re not free or easy to adopt and that’s why they’re useful. Like being a contrarian in the market, counterintuitive techniques are most likely to not be in use by a lot of people, so it follows there are the most gains to be had from adopting them.

As a final note here, I think counterintuive techniques because they’re hard to find require deliberate practice. Sometimes it helps me to have this practice happen in a non-pressure situation, as my natural instincts would take over in a pressure situation. It’s easy to start overgripping on a hard bouldering problem to feel safe. On an easy route, flagging is easier to practice since falling is low probability. Practice needs to happen first where failure feels acceptable.


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