Essay: New Conquerors of The Useless — The Role Of Achieving Nothing in a World Obsessed with Doing Everything

New Conquerers of the Useless

Once while waiting for an exceptionally late bus in Uganda a guy from Kansas turned to me, with the surreptitious depravity exclusive to those who consider themselves of a superior fraternity, and said, “I guess it’s true what they say … Americans get more done by 10am than people in the third world do all day!”

Swallowing the vomit in my mouth, I provided a genial response to his elitist generalism for the sake of my bus ride. This comment, or the worldview this comment represents, has haunted me ever since. It seems to epitomize a mindset that has conflated doing more better, faster, and with more profit than ever before with happiness itself.

Consider the tilt of the future.

I heard a news report the other day about the importance of driverless cars in the name of increased productivity. I have spoken to pre-school teachers about the benefits of new “natural” playscapes to ease their students’ anxiety via “structure-less free play” and attempt to parse out how this is different than what we used to merely call “playing outside.” I see swaths of young people so disillusioned and overwhelmed by the American dream (not to mention the pile of student debt it now demands), that they have literally started a movement to live in tiny houses as a way of both revolt and obtaining peace. It seems, just maybe, that we are moving so fast that we cannot even catch up with ourselves.

In one of his many chalk-stained credos, dirtbag pulpit Yvon Chouinard suggested,

Surfing and climbing are both useless sports. You get to be conquistadors of the useless. And you could hike to the top from another direction. How you get there is the important part.

While the potency of this ad-hoc philosophy could get lost due to its similarity to like-minded bumper sticker slogans likely found in a local head shop, I’d like to belabor for a minute, if you’ll allow me. The genuinely radical notion of climbing, this sport we work and do so much for, as essentially being a non-act should actually offend us. After all, we spend hours in the gym, months if not years on that one project, and lifetimes dorking out over books, magazines, and videos that canonize our love affair.

However, if we step back from our bruised sense of ego and consider the point rationally, we know Chouinard is correct: you could just hike to the top from another direction (obviously not every time but bare with me …). The infamous zen-koan-like answer of mountaineer George Mallory to a reporter in 1923 when asked why he climbed Everest is an equally unhelpful, smug offering: “Because it’s there.”

But that is the point, isn’t it?

We can brag all we want about our latest project or the bulging tendons in our fingers, but the rock doesn’t care about your gnarly hangboard session or how many times you slipped off that sloper at the last second. The rock is just there. It’s not a phone call waiting to be answered or a text yearning for an immediate response. It’s not getting you any closer to obtaining a degree or getting a raise or a house or a 401k. Societally speaking, it’s purely unproductive. Useless. So why is that important?

In an old video for Black Diamond called, Life in the Gunks, BD Ambassador Whitney Boland suggests the following:

“The great thing about climbing is that it’s just a piece of rock. The only thing that makes you feel different is what you bring to it. It acts as a mirror that way, it reflects you. You fall and you’re like, ‘Ugh I suck!’ but you’re the one bringing that negativity to it. It’s just a piece of rock sitting there. When you realize that, it changes everything.”

Boland brings a bit more nuance to the same utterings of the monkish Chouinard and elusive Mallory. And, to take her point further, I’d ask what else we have in our daily lives that provides this unique type of reflection? Our phones? Computers? Tablets? The rigor with which we comport ourselves to get ahead or get more money? Our phenomenal ability to eat, think, and get places faster?

Our society is not one that emphasizes or praises such deliciously useless vehicles that aid in this type of reflection or introspection. Surely, there are other avenues for this and I recognize that the thought of rock climbing for some may just add more stress to their weekend rather than the type of meditative insight offered by Boland.

But for us-climbers, we know this feeling because we’ve experienced it in a way that is somehow incredibly tangible and excruciatingly ethereal. We’ve had one of the great privileges of life: to look back and see what the hell we’ve been doing with some semblance of clarity.

It is difficult not to feel indulgent writing about the importance of doing nothing in a time when so much needs to be done politically, socially, and economically. However, I’d argue that much of the polarization, squabbling, and outright violence occurring in our culture as of late is a product of too many individuals and institutions being unable to have that mirror for themselves. Yes, there is so much to be done, but a sheer volume of deeds will never surpass the depth of an intentional thought.

And to that man from Kansas all those years ago, I would offer the following:

While you were busying yourself in the “first world” before 10am, I have been offered shelter by saintly widows in Uganda, beautiful tea and bread by monks in the Himalayas, food by heroin addicts in rural Appalachia, and respite by children in Port-au-Prince. Those are your unproductive people, sir. And I’d take every single one of them climbing before you.


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  • Really well said

  • TheRock617

    Nice. You make it very clear. The rock is just there. It’s what One brings to it. That should correspond with everything One does. Great insight on the basics of why we are here. To learn and share,not just do. Thank you James.

  • Judy Russ

    Fuck. Yes.

  • Stuart W Philkill

    What a sobering and refreshing perspective. This took a load of stress off my back.