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How to make stress work for you

Rock climbing is an apt metaphor for teaching life lessons, but Arno Ilgner distinguishes between right lessons and wrong lessons. Ilgner, speaking March 22 at Southwestern Michigan College’s Student Activity Center theatre, said, “You go against gravity. Every amount of progress you make requires effort. You make a lot of decisions, which all have real consequences. But you could learn the wrong lessons from climbing. I want you to understand my perspective on what the correct lessons are.”

 “Stress is a natural part of life. We need to change how we think about it,” Ilgner said. “We don’t have to think of it as a problem. We can also think of it as a challenge or an opportunity. It’s better to love what you do than to do what you love or you’re not going to enjoy much of your life until you find it. The doing is most important. The wrong lesson is to make the goal primary and the learning secondary. The right lesson reverses that. Have goals, but make them secondary to the learning journey that makes up the majority of your life.”

The Tennessean, rock climbing for 45 years and teaching The Warrior’s Way mental training since 1995, said, “You come to college looking to create a career in something you’re passionate about,” but the Washington Post found recently that just 27 percent find jobs in their majors. “That’s disillusioning, but moments of truth when we re-evaluate the direction we’re going in our lives.”

His moment came when the French horn player failed to make all-state band and re-evaluated pursuing a music career.

Ilgner “broadened my focus to see other opportunities,” starting college at Tennessee Tech, studying geology — figuring “it might be nice to study rocks since I enjoy climbing them” — and entering Army ROTC.

After three years he transferred to the University of Colorado at Boulder, considered a U.S. climbing center. “After I graduated, I went into the Army to fulfill my obligation (in the Korean DMZ), then got a job as a geologist in the Wyoming oil fields. The oil industry goes in boom-bust cycles, so I lost my job after a couple of years.”

He returned to Tennessee and joined his father’s industrial tool business. “The disadvantage to a family business was separating family relationships from business relationships. My father’s generation has a different idea than mine how to run a business. There was lots of frustration from those competing ideas.”

Ilgner chose climbing, which had been “an important part of my life” since he started as an 18-year-old high school senior and began developing his program around “warriors are trained to move toward threats and stress.”

“When we fall into ‘unconscious comfort motivation,’ we lose contact with what’s most important — the learning process itself,” Ilgner said. “Climbers look for the easiest way up a rock face. If you want to go from here to Boulder, Google maps seeks the easiest route. Technology’s very purpose is to make your life easier and more comfortable. Life’s stressful. We have a choice to move toward struggles and live more courageously or to move away, like victims. We bring consciousness by having goals.”

Ilgner coaches Colorado professional Heather Weidner. “When she conquered China Doll, she became one of an elite few women in the world. A movie was made around her journey. She’d set a big goal and if she didn’t make progress the way she expected, she’d get frustrated. She’d persist,” but her elation was short-lived.

“How she feels about herself depends on striving. When we’re craving that kind of self-worth, we’re never good enough. The wrong lesson to learn from climbing is making the learning that takes us to a goal secondary. It’s important in anything we do to separate how we feel about ourselves from outcomes we’re creating. In other words, shifting from craving achievement to craving learning.”

“Honor your petty tyrants,” Ilgner describes “something that irritates, frustrates or stresses you. That’s where opportunities are to learn and grow.”

Ilgner, who wears a penny around his wrist as a “constant reminder to move toward stressors as warriors do because it constantly gets in my way,” said climbers compete for Olympic gold for the first time at the 2020 Tokyo Games.