On confidence, fear and making decisions: Lessons from ‘Learning to Fly’ by Steph Davis

You’ll notice how far away from the ledge we are in this photo. This was about three steps beyond my comfort zone, and I couldn’t wait to stop smiling for pictures.

“In the moment your feet leave the cliff, there’s no going back. The past is simply finished. And it’s you who must fly forward.”
          — Steph Davis,
Learning to Fly

I had a period last year when I got sucked into a bunch of climbing documentaries. Free Solo, of course, but also The Dawn Wall, Mountain and Valley Uprising, among others.

I’m not into heights, as you might have figured from the opening paragraph. What I’m into is understanding people who are different from me, particularly if they are excellent at what they do.

Somewhere along the way, I bumped into Steph Davis (not literally, I just came across her online).

I picked up her book Learning to Fly on Kindle.

She takes us through her life to the point of the book’s writing, and, if you’d rather read the book, just close this out and come back when you’re done.

Davis wanted to be a concert pianist, got a master’s degree, and then attended law school, for about a day. After that, she dropped out, lived in a truck and climbed mountains, eventually becoming an elite free soloist. That means she climbs mountains without ropes — not like walking uphill, more like completely vertical walls. In her words:

I grew up a studious, aspiring concert pianist with a master’s degree in literature, then subsequently dropped out of law school to live in a truck and become a professional climber, so I’ve learned not to rule anything out.

Then, she started skydiving — even though falling is the one thing every mountain climber doesn’t want to do.

Then, she started base jumping. It gave her the ability to climb a mountain without a rope and then just jump off it.

Then, she started taking a wing suit up with her. If base jumping allows you a couple of seconds of free fall then you open a parachute and ride it to the ground, a wing suit lets you steer at a high velocity for minutes before opening a chute. She lost her husband, and later her ex-husband, to wing suit accidents.

I am interested in exactly none of the things that Davis does for fun (and for a living, at various times). But there are three things to take away for everyone: decision-making, overcoming fear, and confidence.

Making decisions

Almost everything we do in life is reversible. Not all of is easy to reverse, but most of it is reversible. If you dive 50 meters, you’re in really deep water. If you get in trouble down there, you can’t just magically stick your head up above the surface — you have almost 200 feet of upward swimming to do, and you have to do it slowly enough that you don’t have problems with the decreasing pressure.

Two other things that are irreversible: Climbing a sheer face without a rope, and jumping from a high point, like a plane or a bridge or a mountain.

It seems from not only Davis’s book but also from the documentaries I’ve seen and interviews I’ve heard that the decisions to climb, how to climb, and whether and where to jump are not made lightly or without much research. People who plan to climb without a rope practice the route many times with a rope first. People who jump scout the landing area and check for obstacles before they even go to the jumping point, and they figure in the weather.

In other words, this is all dangerous, but very calculated. Davis again:

First of all, I’m not a thrill seeker. Second, like any serious climber, I’m inherently cheap, and skydiving is expensive. Third, I don’t prefer being scared. Falling, loud wind, cold air, hitting the ground hard…these are all things I also don’t usually go out looking for.

Consider some points to see what sort of decision-maker Davis is:

• She dropped out of law school to live in a truck and climb. It not only takes guts, it takes self-knowledge: she knew that law school wasn’t for her, and she knew that climbing was. She did what she had to do to climb, and she went on to make a living at it.

• When it was obvious her marriage wasn’t working, Davis got divorced.

• When Davis needed to try something new, she was ready to skydive. She called a friend, and asked him to help her learn — the next day, after she’d have to drive out to the place he lived.

He had barely got out his happy hellos when I burst out, “Brendan, I want to learn to skydive. Can you teach me if I come to Boulder? Tomorrow?”

• When it became obvious to her that skydiving was too expensive to be more than a whenever-she-could-afford-it hobby and she felt she had enough experience, she went right for base jumping lessons.

These are all major decisions, made quickly. From the Hagakure:

In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil.” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly.”

But also keep in mind that, to the point of her writing the book, she had never suffered a serious injury climbing, and the couple of times she hurt herself jumping, she had bad gut feelings about the jumps but went anyway.

This speaks to experience. Get good at something, then make decisions. Go for it or don’t.

Overcoming fear

I didn’t want to feel scared, my physical ability impaired by feelings of fear. I flatly drew the line at free soloing anything I considered at all difficult and would choose moderate, classic routes as my overall ability increased year after year.

“My immunity to fear was not impenetrable,” she goes on to write, noting that, in some instances, she should have been much more nervous than she was.

But, we find out, when we make the decision to be done with fear, we can be done with fear.

Making the decision to not do something doesn’t have to be rooted in fear. It can be rooted in the understanding that our skill sets are not all-encompassing. Another way to say that: Know your limits. Stretch them, yes, and stretch your comfort zone, but don’t attempt anything that is outside the scope of your capabilities, especially if your life is at stake.

You can practice and build your skill set in a safe manner before you take those bigger risks.

When it comes to something like free soloing, that means practicing over and over with a rope until you never miss. Yes, the possibility of a mistake still stands, but it diminishes greatly the more we practice.

Don’t take unnecessary risks, but don’t let fear stop you from doing the thing you’re prepared for.


I was coming at the problem the way I knew, taking apart my weakness and working at it relentlessly, like the complicated parts of a Bach fugue. I wanted to fix it. And I knew from years spent on a piano bench that through sheer discipline and focus, I could.

This works for any problem you could possibly have, any weakness you could have. Focus and discipline can eliminate weakness — just remember to put that focus and discipline to work on the right thing. Where does it lead? “My natural confidence and strength were rooted in discipline and practice,” Davis writes.

Practice. Get stronger. It will give you confidence.


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