"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."  — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Dancing with Fear

First order of business, if you haven't read what Shelly and Jeff have been writing about... FIX THAT!

Read Don't Touch My Jet and My UnInvisable Friend before you do anything else!

Ok, now back to me. 

Dancing with fear...and pain and rock climbing and mountain biking. A metaphor too far.

Maybe fear is a bit like pain. A warning system, pain tells us when things are not right, when we are hurt or sick.

It turns out I’m going to talk about fear by talking about pain.
Sorry... here’s a video of a cute cat to help you cope:

Athletes learn to manage pain, and differentiate between good pain and bad pain. The pain that means you’re working hard and the pain that means you’re hurting yourself.
When I was racing mountain bikes and cyclocross the general rule I came up with was:

  1. Good pain is dull and in your muscles and lungs.
  2. Bad pain is sharp and in your joints.

I needed to learn to understand and manage the warning system so that I could train and improve. Lets face it, getting fit hurts, but it’s good pain. The good pain is also telling you how far you are going into your reserves of effort, energy and suffering. For me when I start to taste metal I’m getting to my limit but I can keep going for a bit. But when my teeth start to feel like they are going to fall out I need to take my foot off the gas. It turns out that training and peak performance in endurance sport is a dance with evolutionary systems of safeguards to keep us from running ourselves to death as we chased antelope across the desert. It’s a constant and complex set of steps, pain, rest recovery, too much? too hard? too long? bad? good? listen to the warning system but always looking for ways to push the boundaries of the possible. A dance of pushing against pain, then retreating to recover and returning while your physiology is still compensating and your boundaries are just a little bit farther out, while all the time being vigilant and attentive to the possibility of injury and over training.

There are many conditions where the warning system is just on all the time. This is a brutally oversimplified definition of chronic pain. The system that is supposed to tell you that something is breaking your arm is on all the time. That’s not very helpful. In fact, when I got hit by a car a few years ago my level of pain was important to the EMTs and Doctors initially while they were trying to determine the extent of my injuries, then it wasn’t useful anymore so they helped me turn it off with some pain killers.

In my recovery from the accident pain management was important, and my pain was minor compared to what others with more dire situations than mine experience. The pain I felt was an important tracker of progress as I did Physical Therapy, but it was also important that I not let the pain restrict my range of motion and posture so it was important to manage the pain so that I could stay active and return to training.

Fear is similar. It’s a warning system that we need to manage and when it’s over active it can severely limit us.

Since the car accident I’ve found that rock climbing is fantastic exercise for strengthening my compromised back (it turns out that going through a windshield with your butt, while better than using your face, is hard on the back... yeah - if you had plans, cancel them!). In climbing you dance with pain, but not the same way you do in bike racing. Climbing shouldn’t hurt too much, and the pain should never be unexpected. A pop, a twinge, and you yell “take” your belayer pulls the rope tight and you swing back weightless in your harness as she pilots you safely to the ground to climb another day.

The dance in climbing is with this other warning system, fear.


And I think this dance with fear is also the operative struggle in life. I’ll stick with what I know - climbing, and then extrapolate to what I’m trying to understand - life.


Something I have to explain often is that climbers don’t take many risks. When I leave the ground I’m protected by redundant sets of systems that keep me from hitting the ground. In fact, people are sometimes surprised to learn how often, and how safely, climbers fall. These falls are scary but if you want to get better at climbing, and climb more interesting and challenging routes you’ve got to learn to trust the systems of ropes and anchors. 


At the same time, you need a healthy respect for what you’re doing. I always say that a climber who isn’t scared of heights is a dangerous one. You see the key to safe climbing is checking the safety systems instinctively. A little fear keeps you sharp. Too much fear can paralyze you. 


You need to be aware of what will happen when you fall at all times, but you need to be able to control you’re imaginations of disaster, and weigh the possibilities and eventualities. Just when you get to the hardest part of the route and your’e about to make the move where you think you might fall you need to be able to quiet your mind and free your body to m



Fear of falling is healthy. In fact, because falling is catastrophically unhealthy we develop systems of protection that we set up and double check before we climb so that when fear attacks our ability to move upward we can quiet our minds and move. We dance with fear. 


Like pain, when fear becomes over active it inhibits us. Both of these systems are tools - they should be helping and not hurting. We need to make sure we don’t hit our thumbs. 


In life and climbing we need to manage fear, let it participate in thoughtful preparation and decision making, but once the systems are in place we need to shut down 

the fear and move upward.


Last summer I spent a lot of time working on some objectives. Quitting a job, getting into  grad school and climbing a route called Black Monday located in Big Cottonwood Canyon, just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Deciding to go to grad school and to quit a job are dances with fear. 


The route Black Monday follows a 35 degree overhang and is protected by a series of expansion bolt to which the rope can be attached with quick-draws (two carabiners and a sewn loop of webbing about a foot long - see over on the right?).


When we talk about climbs we break them into sections made up of a sequence of moves.

Black Monday starts with a few very hard moves up a bulge with less than ideal holds for feet and hands to a good hold where you can clip the rope to the first bolt and take a rest on a nearby ledge. A mistake before the first bolt won’t kill you. Your feet are only a few feet off of the ground, at worst you’d turn an ankle, but that’s a risk worth managing - especially while you’re learning and gaining strength to do the initial sequence. So we bring a pad made of layers of closed and open cell foam to soften the fall. At this point I make sure I have my harness on properly, that I have all of the quick-draws I need for the route, that the rope is tied correctly to my harness, and that my partner’s belay device is correctly attached to the rope. Then focus on the moves to the good holds and the safety of the first bolt.

Here's a photo of me belaying a good friend and using a pad early on a climb, because I like photos of climbing and so you know what I'm talking about:

On the ledge, safely clipped into bolts I catch my breath, shake the fatigue of that first powerful sequence from my arms and try to visualize the sequence of moves out the overhang. I resist the urge to quadruple check my knot... more checks is safer right? but I’ve learned to manage fear by double checking the systems on the ground and then putting them out of my mind to deal with the task at hand: moving upward. These are steps in the dance with fear, on the ground fear leads and I carefully count quick-draws, test systems, tighten harness, tie and check knots, then on the route I lead.

Quitting my job, a good... but increasingly less good one, was like this too. So was choosing grad school over the more immediate payoff of another stable job. I was afraid. So long before I quit I was creating systems, plans, connections, honing skills, preparing and double checking. I spent a long time, days, on the ledge paralyzed by fear miserably immobile. Checking in with my partners, and I had many in this endeavor. And then it was time to leave the ledge, put in the applications, take the tests, quit the job, and move upward. Mobility replaced misery and the dance resumed.

I fill my mind with visions of perfect movement these dance steps are upward with the stone. Fear has done it’s job, I’m safe, now my job is to move upward. I move off the ledge, and move fluidly from hold to hold, breathing deeply, clipping into bolts as I got, calm and focused with just enough excitement to pull hard and hold on to those last slippery holds as I pull over the over hang and onto the glorious headwall above. I clip two more bolts and then I’m at the anchors at the end of the route. I attach the rope to them and yell take. The rope goes tight and I sit back into my harness, I feel the rope stretch, the knot tighten on itself. Everything is as it should be, I’m safe and free swinging from a cliff on the side of a mountain while cars whine along the road to Brighton and Solitude Resorts to ride lifts and look at the scenery.

Me. Back on the ground after success on Black Monday - still months from getting into grad school.

Principal at tenlitre, Arthur Morris lives and climbs along the Wasatach Front with his wife, Jessica, who is his belayer in life and on the rock, and their two cats, who think that all that climbing gear was designed wholly for them to chase, swat, sniff, explore, and nap on... and some days they are right. Arthur starts his PhD program this fall at the University of Utah.



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Good post Arthur. As a person who climbed once and hated every minute of it, I respect climbers and the feats, mental and otherwise, that allow them to conquer and surmount physical and internal sheer walls. I respect but will never pretend to understand (at a more than superficial level) the motivation. So be it. Climb well, climb safe, and come back, to climb again. 

shelly lee williams's picture

Excellent Telling! Arthur, I agree with Jeff. Good post. No wait...Great post! You a have brought me into a world I know nothing of -climbing- showing that even there we are not so different in this Dancing with Fear. Your brushes paint in broad powerful stroke your journey and I thank you. I look forward to your next post and the coming span of time in which you paint more story and share more of yourself through the work of an athlete, a post grad student and a beautiful Being. 

Flying Below the Radar — No Jet.

(Formerly titled My UnInvisible Friend) Part of my work, as Minister of Support is to promote the work of our bloggers which is where this story begins. One  of the TAObloggers, Jeff Clay, had finished his article, "Don't Touch My Jet"  and it was ready for me to do my part — curate. He needed one more thing to finish the blog, an image, and he, knew exactly where he would go to shoot this image. He found his shot, inserted the image and sent word it was ready to be released.

I opened his blog and started to read, "….the (super) rich continue to get richer and the poor? Well, they will just show up on your nearest mall exit or intersection island, sign in hand, but invisible."  I looked at the images he had taken and the middle one caught me by surprise. I know her. l picked up my phone and sent Jeff a text, "Jeff, I know this woman in the center shot. Her name is Judy. She is a friend. I'll begin the publication of your post shortly and with a great smile at the things that link us all together ... in my world."


Jeff responded, "Fascinating! Do you know her story?"


"I know some of it. I know some of her struggle to get disability. I know that somehow she is being penalized for a 401k from 15 years at 7/11, and that 401k is no where to be found and given her. She is open really. She works 6/7 days a week at that corner and has to fight for the spot where she "holds the sign". I know that she is disappointed in the "homeless news paper" she could sell because there is so little of the local plight written in it. I know she has been approved for disability federally but  not by the state and that the state trumps federal in these matters, so she can receive neither. I know the state turned her down because her Doctor had sent the wrong reports and only shared the report of her broken arm. I know that she would sell things where she stands, rather than simply ask for donations, but that she needs help to do so. Having an inventory fronted for the first time and then pay for it daily. And I know… she likes chocolate. I know that she is leery of lotions and creams because of allergies, and that many in her group feel the same. I know that every Sunday she shows up to help a delivery driver off load at a local shop, that he pays her cash and brings her hand warmers in the winter. She grew up around horses. Her eyes are powerfully light sky blue."

"Wow…you have just made her un-invisible."

"Btw (by the way in texting shorthand), the other two images were taken in NYC."



The above has stayed with me the entire month, as Judy herself has been present within me since we met more than a year ago, she was "holding the sign", and I was — "carrying groceries home". I went to her and we began a conversation we have continued sporadically since then. I enjoy her. She says things, or rather teaches me something every time we meet. One day, I was standing with her and a driver yelled some cruel expletive. Judy said to me "She doesn't know she is angry at herself, that's all. She thinks she's different from me." 

She is my teacher, whom when many drive or walk past is not seen, or seen from the view of "Whew, I'm glad that's not me." or "My hell, why don't those people get a job? Why should I give them my hard earned money?" These are the perches of separation through pity, relief, or superiority — all of them the same thing: judgment.  I have begun to see the line between me and thee grow thin, wobble, fade and blur. There is this movement now of Oneness and I have found a home to explore that we are all the same, that we share the same point of origin. My exploration in easy though, feeling blessed with home,  gifts, the relationships I experience. It is safe for me to explore this sense of "sameness" in the safety of these, but to live in that awareness when living on the street, sleeping in shelters, exposed to cruelties, violence -  this when I stand with Judy, is a powerful example of grace. 

I am grateful for my lessons, and profoundly so, for and to my teachers, all of them, from every walk, each one courageous even if they don't see it. I am grateful to Judy for affirming the truth of my heart in the truth of hers and for sharing her story with me, and her thoughts. I have learned, there are two kinds of poverty, and one is cloaked as the emperor's clothes, the poverty of thought.  And I have learned, that even the richest of us, can live their own lives of luxury, weighted in the mire of that deeper poverty. 

Thank you Judy, you have wakened an even deeper sense of wealth to my soul. 


Shelly Williams has been the Minister of Support, which includes Social Media, for four years at The Arts Organization. Her focus and growing passion at TAO MetaversityThe Academy of Innerdimensional Studies. She is a TAOblogger and has begun a series of blogs intimately focused on Divine Proportion; Excavating the Wealth of the Feminine.


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Thanks for putting a coda on my "Don't Touch my Jet" piece. This really proves again the power of Knowing. Once you know someone, though they may remian a statistic to others, to the knower, they are a person, an individual, flesh and blood as we all are.

A rather horrendous quote is attributed to Josef Stalin: A million deaths are a statistic, one death is a tragedy. I have often thought of this quote and (unfortunately) so true it seems. Whether the battlefield dead, the school yard massacred, the homeless on corners, the impoverished in Africa, India or Mississippi, we become numbed by the numbers and it is not really until we know the ONE, that the count becomes more than an abstract.  

I've got a friend who is on the Downtown Alliance for Salt Lake City. He has lived in New York and other "full sized" cities around the world so I was intrigued to hear him mention, off-hand and as though it were well known, that Salt Lake's problem with homelessness (an oversimplification in terms) is far worse than any of those cities. Now I'm sure that the total number of folks living outside-but-not-for-fun is lower here than in other American cities, but we have a lot less city here. I don't know what the metric is, but I'm interested in the perception, and his explanation.

I asked why he thought is was worse here, fully expecting some statigic answer. 

"Because we ignore it here."

Well, Shelly, beautiful conversations like this one are making that less true by the day. 

Fantastically written and composed.

WAM, WoW, Education, and Creativity

One of the wonderful things about getting to work here at TAO HQ, is WAM.

That's Wendy Adams Mendenhall - WAM, founder of The Arts Organization.

Wendy is constantly challenging us to rethink our assumptions about education and the world. We’ve been having a fascinating discussion about learning and creativity...

...and World of Warcraft (WoW)!

I thought I'd invite you all to join in. So read on and join us in the comment section!

It starts with Wendy’s son who is apparently really good at WoW, and this Video:

The ideas here are exciting and clearly revolutionary. I’m especially interested in the methods of “post-raid” evaluations - I’m a huge believer in the power of honest thorough evaluation for the purpose of improvement. This is something that appears to happen infrequently and poorly throughout the business and non-profit world.

So are there ways to bring the lessons from the gamer’s world to real-world problems? Certainly. foldit is an example of gamers solving puzzles, collaboratively for science.

But how would this work for a corporation or an organization? How does this creativity and cooperation translate into products and services that are delivered to and sustain real people in the real world? Should I be worried that the future of creativity involves raiding bands of fantastical marauders? 

And... how would this work for the gamer that Dr. Brown hires?

“If I ain’t learning it ain’t fun,” he says. I agree with him this far: learning is fun. But, I’ve been in jobs where I ain’t been learning, and it ain’t been fun.

Does WoW prepare you for that? Something you don't see even in foldit is the tedium of working in a lab. My brother has been doing medical research for years in various labs from the Mayo Clinic, to BYU, Duke, and the University of Utah, and let me assure you most days are a bit on the slow side. Lots of careful squirting of liquids into various glass wares, squinting at readouts on monitors of all shapes and sizes (the squinting may be his fault though since he doesn't always wear his glasses, and he's studying ophthalmology for crying out loud). He insists it's interesting, but I bet he'd say it's slightly less exciting than... say storming a castle.

These questions remind me of a provocative lecture from one of the most feared professors at my alma mater (a great guy btw), where he argued that of all the things one gains from a liberal arts education the only one that will help you land and keep a job is being able to meet and exceed expectations on schedule. Or in other words, the ability to get to the office on time and get your work done.

So, he argues, the best thing he has to offer as an educator is not his scintillating lectures, but his Draconian homework and exam policies. Because they force students to develop the discipline that will actually prepare them to succeed. 

Now you could argue that the “office” is becoming increasingly obsolete, and you’d be right.

I’m working from home right now, and it’s more like college than ever.

Juggling deadlines, not getting paid to occupy a cubicle from nine to five, and wholly failing or succeeding on the quality and timeliness of the work that I deliver. I'm not paid to occupy a chair from 9 to 5. I'm paid to deliver.

That’s a lot like college, good old fashioned college.

Even now, with my fantastic colleagues, and fascinating project portfolio, sometimes I ain’t learning and it ain’t fun. For me the fun is in the discovery, fixing the problem, finding the solution, gaining capacity, learning new things - that is the thrilling hunt for me. Once I’ve figured it out, the thrill is gone then it's the training both from my undergrad, and from the construction work that paid for that undergrad, that enables me to keep going and deliver the product on time.

The weakness I see in a “ World of Warcraft education” is twofold. First, WoW is designed to be endlessly interesting and engaging. That’s the job of the people creating the environment, that’s not the job of the company you’re trying to work at, or of your clients, or of the university you’re trying to study at. Even if you spend your days curing AIDS or cancer there will be drudgery. And second, that there is no real life consequence to giving up. If the product that is needed in WoW is no longer something that motivates me I'm out. Or in my case... well I was never in. In other words, how will a WoW-esque education model develop the discipline that my feared-professor friend is so proud of? Can it?

At the same time conventional education is clearly under serving vast swaths of our world's socioeconomic and psycho-social tapestry. How do we include them?

My question is how do we modify education to include the collaborative creativity of WoW and the discipline of more traditional education and work. Alone neither is sufficient.


Arthur Morris is principal at tenlitrea consulting firm in Salt Lake City, Utah. His experience with "gaming" is limited to a brief fling with Metal Gear Solid on his brother's Play Station during Christmas break during his junior year of high-school, and sleeping through dorm-room Starcraft benders, so his understanding of World of Warcraft is wholly theoretical.



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Very interesting post. I found myself fluctuating betwixt 'yeah right' and 'you're right!'

I played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) pre-PC and found that creative and in many, many cases collaborative solutions were the ONLY ones that worked. Often we pushed the bounds of the DM's (Dungeon Master) rules and constructs, but even within those limits there was large amounts of bandwidth for both ad-hoc gameplay. I spent much more time in the world of S&T though. In the gamer's world of historical wars (or hypothetical, future wars), as built by Avalon Hill (the old AH, not the current, more commercial incarnation) , Strategy & Tactics, SPI, the rules are copious, multi-dimensional, and rarely open for interpretation and ad-libbing. In these games, the joy of playing is not in the melee round but rather in the execution of a grand strategy. 

Extrapolating to the reality of working in a lab (as I did for years), the joy was definitely not in the day-to-day experiments, but rather in the whole of completing a successful study. There is a very linear, intellectual beauty in that S&T type approach. My more current work in the world of non-profits and small businesses is much closer to the frenetic, creative whirlwind of the D&D melee round. However, as fun as the melee round is, we need to keep in mind that the point of D&D is not endless nano battles, but rather to reach a more prosaic journey's end.

Tactics with out strategy is endless war, strategy without tactics is empty exercise.

I appreciate your comparison between D & D and the lab, and your idea about strategy and tactics. This is exactly what I'm getting at!

The creative possibilities of the WoW model can supplement and enrich but not replace the discipline that we hope is part of what conventional education is developing. However, there is an argument that kids who are not connecting with education need to get pulled in to learning and WoW model may have something to offer in this area where conventional education is clearly failing large sections of the population. 

Let's be Numbers People!

You’ve heard it.

“I’m just not a numbers person.”

... and it probably didn’t phase you, it’s a thing people say.

I’m writing today because I don’t think that this is okay, or necessary.

Or more glibly, you can’t cop out of the last ten characters of our orthography, notably the most universal of those characters, by simply saying that you’re some how not able to handle them.

Also you shouldn’t. Data are numbers and data drive decision making, and data are used to mislead, confuse, obfuscate, illuminate, explain, illustrate, communicate, and guide in increasingly important contexts.

This video illustrates the problem with numerical illiteracy very well. It’s a satire poking fun at the unrealistic numbers used in the debate over intellectual property rights.

Watching the news it seems like pundits and spin doctors use numbers to mostly communicate the ideas of “big,” “huge,” “growing,” “shrinking,” and “calamity” and not for any complex purpose. But we tend to tune out the numbers and equations and trust the conclusions.

We shouldn’t do this and, I argue, we don’t need to.

I think part of the problem is that some of us didn’t do well in math in the third grade because we didn’t memorize our multiplication tables. I’ll admit I’m a rather abysmal arithmetician, but most of what you need in order to understand “numbers” is an ability to think conceptually and understand symbols.... not the skills that you struggled with in math class.

You need to be able to stop and think about what the numbers mean, just like when you read words and stop to think what they mean.

We actually do this with numbers all the time, it’s how we know a tall tale from a true story. You know the difference between one mile and one hundred miles. So if someone tells you they ran a mile you think, “it’s great that you are getting back into shape.” But if they tell you they ran one hundred miles, you think “Wow, I didn’t know you were a closeted ultra-marathoner.” And when they tell you they ran 3,000 miles you might ask them if they fell asleep watching Forrest Gump and maybe just dreamed it.

That’s exactly what Rob Reid is doing in his talk. You could do that with a little time and Wikipedia. See maybe you’re a numbers person already!
There’s no reason why all of us can’t use all of the “math-ey” information out there to help us make better decisions. We first need to step around the misconception that some people just can’t “do math” and then get on to the “doing math.”

If you’re skeptical, I’ll chalk that up to an education system particularly effective at teaching people not to learn. But we are here to change all of that.

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notunwell's picture


creativity gives to all and remains yours

©2010 notunwell


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