Amplify Book Breakdown: Lessons From Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold
In 2022, Workiva's Amplify conference featured a pair of keynote speakers who've reached career heights few of us can ever dream of: Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold. Both Tommy and Alex have written memoirs about their experiences with rock climbing, taking risks, and life in general. Each book describes their feats of free soloing, including Alex's legendary ascent of El Capitan without a rope, a partner, or protective gear.
Wondering how rock climbers can relate to what you do every day? We have the answer! Alex and Tommy are familiar with themes in the finance and reporting world—just not in the way you might think. These world-renowned rock climbers face the unknown daily, which means they approach every day with a plan that comes down to one thing: trusting their tools.
Like scaling a mountain, reporting, risk, and ESG require different tools to help get the job done. Some walls mean having a partner, ropes, harnesses, and helmets. Others can be scaled with nothing but grit. But when you find the right balance of strategy, focus, and experience, like in Alex Honnold's El Capitan climb, success can be achieved.
Throughout their memoirs, Alex and Tommy write about having focus and taking risks. Most of these risks involve intense planning and lots of trust, a trait that overlaps with the world of finance and accounting.
Tommy Caldwell wrote The Push: A Climber's Search for the Path about his journey climbing El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park. This adventure took seven years of training, planning, and preparation. Tommy's ability to complete this climb with his partner is the accumulation of years of pushing himself to the limit.
You may be familiar with understanding pressure, like when analyzing ESG proposed disclosure rules. These proposed rules generated many new questions and unknowns. "The absence of pressure led to a feeling of freedom," wrote Tommy in his book. The question is, how do you relieve that pressure and answer those questions? Steve Soter, our ESG and SEC expert, said that if you start preparing for upcoming ESG rules now, you will be equipped to handle the unknowns later.
Even without pressure, getting your work across the finish line takes effort. Tommy emphasizes that strategizing before his climbs helps him pull off what seems impossible to many. He writes, "Strategy is as important as ability." Grant Ostler, our audit, SOX, and risk expert, agrees. He said that without a well-developed strategy for team members to execute in a unified way, even a highly qualified team may not perform well.
Alone on the Wall
Alex and David Roberts co-wrote Alone on the Wall, covering how Alex became one of the most notorious rock climbers in the field. Although Tommy and Alex both climbed El Capitan, the journey there was quite different for Alex because he completed the climb completely solo. Two whole chapters are dedicated to his iconic climb, describing how he prepared and completed his ascent.
One thought that came to Alex's mind was the amount of doubt that comes with a climb—doubt in your abilities, the tools you brought, and even the will to complete it. "Doubt is the biggest danger in soloing. As soon as you hesitate, you're screwed," Alex wrote. Overcoming doubt is a big part of reporting too—especially when facing uncertainty. Uncertainty is daunting, and it makes it easy to always be waiting on better data to come, which causes you to lose viable options for your organization. With that, it’s essential to trust the work you’ve already put in.
Grant mentioned that rock climbing shares similarities with reporting in that preparation pays off. On one hand, rock climbers run through routes and do physical training to stay in peak condition. Similarly, accounting and finance professionals run through strategic exercises to quickly and confidently evaluate their options to improve the organization's ability to react and respond promptly to unexpected situations. "In a real sense, I performed the hard work of that free solo during the days leading up to it. Once I was on the climb, it was just a matter of executing," said Alex.
Tommy and Alex deliver many lessons to be learned, like trusting the data, the importance of making a plan, and the need to work together—all to help pull off the climb (or report) of a lifetime.