Last week, I watched Free Solo, a documentary about 33-year-old Alex Honnold’s attempt to free climb El Capitan in 2017. It’s a horror film. You watch squirming in your seat, as this likeable young man dangles by his fingertips 2,300 metres off the ground in Yosemite. Even the cameraman can’t watch.
Yet he manages it, grinning all the way.
What powers this superhero? Honnold is quite frank about the secret of his success. He’s driven, he says, by a ‘bottomless pit of self-loathing’. His father died when he was young, and his rather icy mother didn’t hug him or show him much affection, but instead told him repeatedly that ‘nearly is not there’ and ‘good is not good enough’.
That’s what powered him to success — a critical mother, plus an unusual amygdala which doesn’t really feel fear, plus layers of Stoic armour.
He’s able to climb to the top of his sport because he has no fear, and no attachments. He lives in a van. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He eats his dinner straight from the sauce-pan with a spatula. He is totally focused on climbing. He accepts that ‘everyday you may die, and there’s nothing wrong with that’.
The problem is, Alex falls in love.
He meets Sanni, a beautiful bubbly and basically adorable woman, at a book signing. He decides to give it a go though he is barely committed to her at the start of the film.
Gradually, we see Alex let down his Stoic armour and allow Sanni in.
That’s when he starts to have accidents.
The first is her fault — she lets go of a rope and he falls on his back. The second is his fault. While climbing with her, he just lets go, falls ten feet, sprains his ankle.
He blames it on her: ‘I’ve never had an accident, then I meet her, and I have two in a year.’
He is beginning to feel fear, because he recognizes that he is vulnerable. He has something to lose.
His friend explains. To free solo effectively, you need to be single. Have no attachments, nothing to distract you.
And now he has an attachment. An emotional rope. She loves him, she doesn’t want him to die.
He buys a house with her. She’s excited, imagining where all the furniture will go. He couldn’t give a shit. ‘I could just sleep on the floor’ he shrugs. His indifference drives her mad.
As they become closer, she asks him tentatively, would you consider making longevity more of a priority? Absolutely not, he replies. It’s nice that you care if I live, but no.
He reflects out loud one day, as he drives to El Cap, that Sanni has different goals in life. She cares about things like relationships and happiness and contentment. But ‘nobody achieved anything great by being happy and cosy’.
He tells her he doesn’t want her around in the days before the free climb. She hugs him and drives off. As the camera stays on her, her lip begins to tremble, and then her face crumbles. She can’t bear the thought of not seeing him again.
He climbs El Cap. Sanni calls him at the top, and she bursts into tears with relief and love. ‘Don’t cry, you’ll make me cry. Maybe it’s OK to cry’, he says, trying to figure out what he feels.
Will he settle down now that he’s achieved climbing immortality? Will he commit to a long life with Sanni? Or will he carry on, and probably die in the next decade? I don’t know.
I thought about Alex, and his remark about achievement versus happiness, when I listened to a Tim Ferriss interview a few days later.
Ferriss is a self-declared ‘Type A’ personality.
He’s written five best-selling books, he has several million subscribers to his newsletter, his podcast has been downloaded three million times. He’s been an early investor in companies including Uber, Facebook, Twitter and Alibaba. He’s a world champion of tango, a polymath, a body-builder, an oenologist, an archer.
Seriously, screw that guy.
I first became interested in Ferriss back in 2011, because of his love of Stoicism. I wrote about him in my book Philosophy for Life.
I was interested in him because he’s such a self-improvement freak. There was something fanatical and obsessive about his self-experimentation and his obsession with being the best he could be in all facets of his life.
But I can’t say I liked him. He seemed like a plastic action figure rather than a genuine human I’d want to hang out with.
Since he launched his podcast three years ago, I’ve grown to like him a lot more. In conversation with his guests, he’s warmer, softer, humbler. And he’s opened up about his mental health issues.
It turns out, he’s a mess.
He said in one recent podcast: ‘For the vast majority of my adolescence and high school I came to the conclusion that I was not designed to be happy. And that was OK — I would be an instrument of competition and learn to be very good at things that were valued at college and in the business world. I would focus on being the best competitor possible.’
While amassing the accolades he went through ‘many bouts of extended depression’, and ‘came very, very close to killing myself in college’.
He carried on being unhappy but mega-successful all through his 20s and 30s, and then burned out after writing The Four Hour Cook-Book in 2012. That’s when he launched the podcast and started exploring mental health, meditation and psychedelics.
Like Alex Honnold, he has reflected on the connection between success and self-loathing. He says:
If I were happy, I wouldn’t be contributing to the things that are very clearly contributing to my success… I don’t just not love myself, there’s a deep sense of loathing — how could you be so stupid, how could you be so lazy. Toughen the fuck up. You may not have control over all things but you could get really get at absorbing pain. Then maybe you can be ‘successful’.
The stories of Tim and Alex show us that self-loathing can be the ultimate life-hack. Self-loathing is the lacerating edge to self-improvement culture. We hack ourselves into a more acceptable mental, emotional and physical shape, because we’re obviously not good enough as we are.
We don’t see this honestly acknowledged in self-improvement books or workshops. I think it’s a gap in the market. ‘Klutz: How to hate yourself and build the life you dream of’. ‘Blank: how my emotional emptiness powered my success’. ‘Where’s Daddy? How my absent, abusive father made me the man I am today.’ ‘I’m shit, you’re shit.’
Alain de Botton, for example, has built an international self-help empire, offering lessons in self-love to CEOs and yummy-mummies (and daddies). But what actually drives him, underneath the bonnet? What dirty fuel keeps him motoring? It’s the fact he had a violent tyrannical father who never accepted little Alain or made him feel good enough. All his books, he has said, were an attempt to connect with Pater Horribilis. The School of Life should offer a workshop in Radical Self-Loathing.
Given the close correlation between success and self-loathing, will we lose our edge if we learn to accept ourselves regardless of external achievements?
It all depends on your definition of success. If your definition of success is to have a life that looks incredible from the outside, but which is actually quite lonely and depressing on the inside, then whatever you do, don’t stop hating yourself. Keep that edge of self-loathing well sharpened. You will stay unhappy, toxic, and alone. But you will probably amass some accolades before you die. Woo-hoo!
Alternatively, you can change your definition of success.
To my mind, true success, true achievement, means dedicating yourself to helping all beings suffer less. Helping them be happier, wiser and more liberated.
‘All beings’ includes yourself. The deep well of compassion for others begins when we become kinder to ourselves.
If you’re being unkind to yourself, the poison from your self-loathing will seep out and affect other people, whether you mean to or not.
Imagine bringing all the dedication and energy and drive that Alex brings to climbing mountains, or that Tim brings to being a successful author, to the goal of relieving suffering. That’s what I see happening in Ferriss these last few months. And it’s beautiful. He’s helping millions of people be more aware of mental health.
Of course, awakening doesn’t happen instantaneously. Your ego comes along on the ride. You want everyone to know how spiritual you are. You want to be the best at meditation, have the most intense spiritual experiences, take the coolest psychedelics. Ferriss can’t help name-dropping the famous friends who told him about meditation and psychedelics. He’s still, to some extent, running on the dirty fuel of approval-neediness. So am I.
It’s a long road, which perhaps we travel over many lives. But hopefully we’re heading in the right direction.
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