Novelty, anxiety, growth

- 17 mins read

(~3500 words; reading time: 20 minutes)

How much of your life experiences are new-to-you novelty? 

How do you balance optimism and pessimism while navigating novelty?

How do you notice anxiety?

Have you ever felt stuck?

Multiple experiences in the last few months have led me to reflect on the continuum of experience from routine to novelty. I’ll tell you a story for each:

  1. Doing something new at work

  2. A colleague taking a visible leap

  3. Route finding on Cathedral Peak

  4. Winter Storm Uri

1. Doing something new at work

Recently, I was doing something new at work. It was both new to me, and new to everyone involved.

The work wasn’t entirely new. We were working on a new implementation of a mechanism that we were experienced with. The implementation was new-to-Indeed. The mechanism was not. 

The stakes weren’t very high. It was important work. It was time sensitive on the order of days, not seconds or months. But, if we “failed” (success always starts with failure, learning, and iteration), we wouldn’t lose anyone’s trust, the company wouldn’t end, no one would be hurt.

As I was working with my colleague (let’s call them A), the work started out familiar, but through the timeline, we realized we would need try the new implementation here. The challenge? Neither of us had experience with the new implementation.

So, what did we do? We asked around & up. We got pointed to one person who could help (let’s call them B). They were the most experienced person in the company with the new implementation. They had done the first instance :) We three were about to start the second.

A gave B context and B prepared the initial draft. To accelerate mutual understanding, we 3 met: me, A and B.

You see, while this was the second instance of this new implementation, it was different from the first instance both in a simple hurdle, and also in a more complicated hurdle.

We jumped the hurdles, together. 

At one point B said something like “This isn’t even my job. I’m a $TITLE. I never do this kind of work. I’m not even good at this kind of work.”

We all laughed, knowingly, nervously.

And, we persevered. Within the ~30 minute meeting, we 99% finished the implementation of this second instance.

At the end of the meeting, we joked about how B is the expert in these types of implementations. And that A is now the second expert.

We laughed again, for similar reasons :)

We thanked each other for the team work and went on with our day.

A day later, we re-thanked each other for the collaborative team work. It felt good to work together, likely even sweeter because it was important, new, and had some time pressure.

I wonder how quickly we become an expert.

Is expertise relative?

2. A colleague taking a visible leap

Within a few business days after the “Doing something new at work” experience described above, I observed a colleague doing something I thought was very brave.

In a 600+ person Slack channel at work for FIELD, the brave person stated they were considering a significant career change to FIELD, asked for guidance on paths that others took to FIELD and references to learn about FIELD. The channel is broadly monitored by both the folks who are in the FIELD at our company, as well as many other people who are seemingly interested in the FIELD but not as a full-time job. Numerous folks replied in the thread with references.

Since this was a few days after the first story and this was another case of someone doing something new, and looking to gain expertise, I connected the two and wondered:

  • How often, during my normal work, am I doing something new?

  • Are these displays of Growth Mindset in action?

3. Route finding on Cathedral Peak

Route finding is one aspect of climbing which sets traditional (“trad”) climbing apart from sport climbing or bouldering in a gym.

In bouldering, there’s rarely any protection other than a pad on the ground. In gyms, there are often very thick pads – sometimes multiple feet thick. But, there’s no rope. So, if you fall from 20 feet, you must land gracefully, or you will be injured.

In sport climbing and trad climbing, I use a rope and other gear so that my partner and I can catch each other if we fall. To make falls less severe, as we ascend, we clip the rope to protection periodically, so that if we fall, we don’t fall as far.

In sport climbing, the protection we clip into are bolts which have been previously secured into the rock. You can often visually see the next bolt, so your difficulty is in safely getting to the next bolt, and clipping your rope into the bolt via a quickdraw.

(Image from REI)

In trad climbing, we place our own temporary gear:

(Images from REI)

In trad climbing, you must find the next spot to place your piece of protection. The spot you choose needs to fit your remaining cams, draws, or other protection. The spot shouldn’t be too far to the right or left, or the piece may have stronger forces tugging at it during normal climbing, or falls. 

In trad climbing, sometimes the next spot is directionally obvious. But, sometimes there are multitudes of possibilities.

Herein lies one of the greatest differentiators of trad climbing: route finding.

Through experience, trad climbers develop their route finding skills. We learn to see the route. We learn to spot hints that we’re off track (e.g. a climb which has seen hundreds of climbing shoes in the last year won’t have moss or tiny rocks in an area where everyone steps).

Cathedral Peak’s most popular routes are known for having a plethora of easy ways to get from the ground to the summit. Luke and I were climbing Cathedral as our second to last climb on a 10-day trip. So, we were more fit and practiced than on day 1 of our trip. While route finding generally differentiates trad climbing, Cathedral’s number of ways to get to the top was a relatively unique experience for us compared to the routes we’d climbed in the previous week.

I led the first pitch. The guide book informed me that I could anchor at a bush. I could see the bush from the ground, so the path of the first pitch seemed straightforward.

And it largely was. 

The most challenging moment on the first pitch, for me, was when I neared the top, and a handhold that I grabbed broke off of the mountain. Thankfully, the rock didn’t fall and neither did I. But, it was a surprise to me which got me nervous about rock fall injuring Luke who was dozens of feet below. 

I was assured less than a minute later when I reached the anchor location – the bush – described by the guide book when I was back on solid rock. After a few minutes of belaying Luke up, I noticed my hand feeling sticky. I realized that the bush was dropping sap on the rock, and I had been placing my hand in sap periodically.

Guide books reduce route finding uncertainty, but they don’t eliminate it. This is partially because climbers want the challenge, and also because it’s impossible to practically describe all of the nuances of a mountain on the page of a book. The guide book didn’t warn me about the handhold that became loose. The guide book didn’t warn me about the sap from the bush.

Luke led the second pitch. He ended up going a little left. He finished the pitch at a comfortable spot. I met him. He asked what I thought of the bulge and I didn’t remember it.

I led the third pitch. This was the pitch where the guide book indicated we’d have to go to the right to stay on route. So, I peeled off to the right. 

There was an obvious weakness in the rock. For 10-20 foot sections, I was walking, rather than climbing, because the mountain was nearly horizontal. This happens in trad climbing. Some routes are 100% up a vertical cliff face. On other routes, you’ll meander on horizontal or near horizontal ledges between the crack you were on, and an adjacent one in the “crack system”.

When trad climbing, you bring your rope and protection gear (nuts, cams, helmet, etc) with you. You have a limited supply for practical reasons: more gear gets more in the way, more weight tires you faster, deciding which piece to use can take longer, etc.

As I went up, I started to notice that I was running out of rope and gear. No worries, I’d need to find a spot to anchor soon.

Then the moves started getting harder. No worries, it looks easier up there. Keep going.

OK, I made it to an easier spot, where I can rest temporarily. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good spot to anchor. Oh – up there looks good! Keep going.

Alright, this is an OK spot to anchor. Start setting the anchor. OK, anchor set and I’m secure to it. I’m safe now.

At these points in trad climbing, you normally communicate to your partner (or team) and let them know you’re safe, and they can take you off belay, and start climbing. So, I would have normally yelled down: “LUKE: OFF BELAY!”. But, I wanted to anticipate the next moves with the added safety of belay.

So, where would Luke stand? Hmm down there is OK.

So, where would Luke climb after he gets here? Hmm. I’m not sure. Keep looking.

Off to the right seems possible, but looks like a big step to get to that part of the mountain, and I’m not sure where the protection would be around that corner.

Could I go to the left? It does look like there’s a crack system there. But, it’s hard to see from here.

OK, so, you know what, I’m going to take the anchor out, downclimb, and go down to the left to see if that’s a better spot to anchor.

Downclimbing is also a skill you develop in trad climbing. You often need to downclimb on your hike in or out. And, from time to time, downclimbing is helpful in route finding.

On this day, at this location, downclimbing was a tad nerve racking because there was quite a bit of rope between my anchor and my previous piece of protection. But, that spot down to the left really seemed better.

All of this took a while: a little bit longer than my usual pitch speed. And, because I was descending, the rope below me was sliding back to Luke. Therefore, Luke asked “How’s it going up there Jason?”, to check-in on me and my comfort level. I replied something terse like “I’m OK” because it was difficult to hear him due to our distance apart, the fact that the route I took was horizontal at parts (I had no more line of sight with Luke, sound couldn’t travel as directly), and it was a bit windy.

I made it to that spot on the left without any physical drama.

When I got to the spot, which was relatively horizontal, I realized that the crack was not climbable as the original up/right option. Darn.

So: what to do now? Neither option looked good.

Go back to my anchor from a few minutes ago?

Downclimb further?

I decided to go back to my anchor spot from a few minutes ago. I got there fine. Set up the anchor, got safe, and started pulling in the rope.

As I pulled in the rope, I noticed a third climber to my right about 20 feet. I saw them moving up, and thought to myself “Ah, I should have gone MORE to the right”. I was “off route”.

This was a route I’d never climbed, with a multitude of options for ascent. I followed an “obvious path” and stumbled into difficulty.

At times on this pitch, I was anxious – making a hard move, downclimbing, etc. But, I had enough experience in similar situations that any hesitation was short-lived.

The route made me a better climber, equipped to handle even more scenarios in my future.

4. Winter Storm Uri

The Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 left many people in Texas, including my family, without power and water during below freezing temperatures. My family and friends were fortunate enough to get through the disaster with no serious injury or property damage.

The whole experience was rather fucked up.

I’ve lost power before, but not for this long at this temperature.

I am generally an optimistic person. I tend to think we can get through any challenge. So, as the Uri started to impact me and my family, I shrugged off some of the signs of stress.

On Friday, my neighbor and I chatted from our driveways about how cold it was. My neighbor said something about it getting colder in the coming days.

On Saturday, Mar went to the wholesale store - Costco. It was a normal trip for her, not one scheduled because of Uri. When she got home, she told me that the line to checkout was so long – longer than the beginning of COVID-19.

On Monday, Leo’s school was closed due to ice and snow making roads unsafe to drive, so I took the day off. In the first few months of COVID, I learned that it’s just too hard for me to work from home while Leo is at home. So, if his school is cancelled, I take the day off of work. That morning, I let my team know I’d be out for Monday, and that some Tuesday work may need to be postponed. This felt pretty normal. It started to feel different when one teammate in Austin, TX replied saying their power had been out since 2am and were also going to take the day off. This was the first I had heard about power issues. I still had power.

Mar’s parents live 10 minutes (by car) from us. I sent a message to Mar’s parents asking if they had power, letting them know we had power, Leo is home today, Mar/I weren’t working, and they could come over if they wanted. They didn’t reply.

Leo, Mar and I stayed at home for the day, playing in the snow, watching Leo’s Mickey Mouse, and doing at-home-on-what-is-typically-a-school-day things. That evening, I was planning to go to the grocery store - HEB - to get a few things we couldn’t get from Costco. But instead, Leo wanted a pizza, so I said I was going to go pick up a pizza from a nearby store. I had to call around a few places to find something that was open. Some stores were closed for the same reason Leo’s school was closed. But, a shop nearby was open. So, I ordered a pizza. Yea, there was snow on the roads, but I lived in upstate New York for four years for college, so I thought it’d be fine. As I was starting to get ready, Mar warned me that she saw that an ice storm was supposed to pick up in 45 minutes. I said I’d drive slow and be back quickly since the pizza place is only a few minutes away.

So, I hopped in my car, backed out of the driveway and went off. My car slid uncontrollably on the ice. Ok, wow. I need to go slow. In a few seconds, I had to make another turn. Again, my car slid. Huh. Should I just go back home? Should I continue? 

I made it there and back. But it was the slowest I had ever driven.

OK maybe this was different.

After getting Leo into bed for the night, I asked my teammate if they’d gotten power. And, no, not yet. OK, this is different.

So, I started looking into the situation more, following up on threads from Slack and Twitter from colleagues, energy folks, news sites, etc. Re-reading a quote from a colleague at noon “This IS now an emergency situation.” 

I realized that my inward focus on my family for the day meant the broader situation hadn’t registered with me.

That night, I rescheduled Tuesday work and told my team:

“If you live in Texas and have power, please consider taking Tuesday Feb 16 off and conserving energy so that people in Texas without power can get their power back faster. I am taking the day off because of the state of this emergency.”

Tuesday morning at 2am, we lost power. Mar woke me up to let me know. I asked if we were OK and warm enough and groggily went back to bed.

When we woke up at around 7am, it was colder in the house. We layered up, and started our day. We still had water & gas – so we could drink water, take hot showers, and make hot food on the gas stove. We couldn’t start the oven. The heater in the house is electric, so that wasn’t working.

At noon Tuesday, I received a reply from Mar’s parents – they had been out of power since Monday at 2am, but they were okay. Hearing that they were okay brought a sigh of relief. It was so weird not being able to communicate and confirm basic safety and health of Mar’s parents. It’s not unusual for Mar’s parents to take some time to respond to a text or call – but given the emergency, we wanted to know.

At 5pm Tuesday, Mar started to wonder. Are Mar’s parents ok, will they be able to stay okay if we don’t have power restored until the weekend, did they need us to come over? So we sent a text message asking.

We didn’t hear back.

Mar was nervous about her parents. Mar and I discussed options like driving to their house Wednesday to make sure they were really going to be okay. We knew this would be risky – especially since my driving Monday was unsafe, and the weather/roads had only gotten worse. 

I tried to reassure Mar that her parents are strong; they’ve navigated their lives with independence moving countries and getting through hard times; they’d be ok.

But, not knowing about their safety margins was excruciating.

That night, we went to bed with a heavy mind.

Wednesday morning, I woke to a text from my sister, Jessica, who’s in San Antonio, checking in on whether we had power and water, asking if she could help us at all. I let her know the situation and that we weren’t sure if she could help, we needed time to catch up with friends in Austin to find out if we’d lean on them. I had a few friends in Austin who had power and offered to take us in.

Fortunately, we got a text from Mar’s parents Wednesday morning reassuring us they were okay and equipped to handle the coming days. 

Anxiety reduced.

We lost water Wednesday at noon. Thankfully, since we were able to get some tips from friends in the Austin area that water was being turned off, we had filled numerous containers.

Wednesday evening, we were able to connect via phone with Mar’s parents (after days of phone calls NOT connecting).

Anxiety reduced further.

We went to bed Wednesday still considering leaving our house on Thursday due to the cold.

Our power returned Thursday at 2am. Anxiety reduced. We could stay put. The weather also warmed up Thursday afternoon and the ice on the road was melting.

Our water returned Friday at noon. Anxiety reduced. The weather was warmer Friday afternoon, and enough of the roads were clear that I felt comfortable driving.

Navigating a novel and safety-critical situation, without being able to communicate with our loved ones, generated anxiety in our household.

How do I notice emotion in myself? In the Uri experience, Mar’s worry made me worried. I picked up on her emotional state, and it influenced my emotion. Had Mar’s worry been hidden, would I have been as anxious about Mar’s parents? Am I $SOME_NEGATIVE_ADJECTIVE because I wasn’t as worried?

How do I remain sensitive to emotion and risk, while retaining the positive aspects of my “we can get through anything” mindset?

Novelty, anxiety, growth

Life is full of varied and novel experiences.

Novelty can be stressful and anxiety inducing. In the “right” amount, novelty, stress and anxiety help you grow!

How do you sense anxiety? How do you get into the range of optimal anxiety? How do you sense you’re outside the optimal range?

Where is the boundary of your comfort zone, fear zone, learning zone, growth zone?

We get better at what we practice. But, we cannot possibly practice for every scenario. How do we practice for novelty?