Why do so many engineers rock climb?

Rock climbing and the scientific method

Photo by David Boca on Unsplash

I got into rock climbing after a good friend of mine introduced me to the sport. I always thought rock climbing was for crazy adrenaline junkies or hardcore mountaineers. However, within 10 minutes of climbing, I was completely addicted! Rock climbing forms a potent drug, the dopamine from exercise combined with the satisfaction of problem-solving.

As I started going more often and made more friends at the local gym, I noticed something quite strange. 90% of the people I met were engineers or computer scientists. At first, I thought this was just a weird coincidence of the gym I was going to; however, I moved to Singapore a couple of months ago and once again, 90% of the people I meet at rock climbing gyms are engineers. A quick google search will confirm that these phenomena happen across the world

For this phenomena to be present across continents means that it cannot be a coincidence. There must be some underlying characteristic of rock climbing that makes it an engineer’s catnip.

It’s not enough to elaborate on why rock climbing is cool in general to explain the engineer phenomena. From the natural beauty one gets to experience to the adrenaline rush, one feels 30m above the ground. Because these are things that all people feel and there is nothing unique to engineers here, to explain it, we need to look more specifically at what engineers tend to be drawn to.

Rock Climbing and The Scientific Method

What you quickly learn about rock climbing is that it is only 50% strength and technique. The other 50% is problem-solving. It is about exploring and iterating the right “beta” (method) to climb a particular route. This process of problem-solving a route is what I think draws in so many engineers to the sport.

I think there are many parallels between figuring out the right sequence to climb a route and the scientific method. In a typical application of the scientific method, a researcher develops a hypothesis, tests it through various means, and then modifies the hypothesis on the basis of the outcome of the tests and experiments.

When you are rock climbing, you look at a route and come up with a hypothesis for the route’s beta. You think, “Okay, start with both hands here, right hand up here, shift your left foot, heel hook with the right, left hand up.” You then test your hypothesis and see if it works; sometimes, it will, most often, it won’t. So you iterate and adjust your hypothesis based on new data from the experiment.

The difference between rock climbing and other sports like soccer or basketball is that very few variables change from experiment to experiment. In soccer, you have 21 other players you need to account for and 1003 other variables that are entirely out of your control, how your teammates play, the mistakes your opponent makes, and the pitch’s condition.

When you rock climb, the wall stays the same (hopefully). The only variable that changes is you. So you have a very controlled environment with instant feedback for a limited number of variables. So you can test and iterate different hypothesis quickly. This process enables significant improvement within a short period, which is incredibly addictive, especially for engineers who tend to enjoy solving problems and testing solutions for that problem.

There is one other factor that is worth mentioning, but I am not entirely convinced by it. Rock climbing is mostly a solo sport. At the end of the day, the only person climbing the wall is you, so you are alone inside your own head trying to solve a problem. Few other sports offer this kind of independence, all you need is a chalk bag and a pair of shoes, and you can climb. One could argue that engineers tend to enjoy solving problems alone and enjoy the independence that comes from that. However, I don’t think this is true of all engineers, and even if it were, I don’t believe this is a feature unique to engineers.

Conclusion

There is a weird number of engineers who rock climb, and the problem-solving aspect of climbing it is my best guess as to why this occurs. Regardless if it is true or not, rock climbing is becoming an increasingly and increasingly popular sport. It’s the most addictive thing I do every week, and it’s great exercise, so I would strongly recommend giving it a shot if you have not already!

This post is part of a 30-day writing challenge I am doing. Every day for 30 days, I am posting an article of at least 500 words. If you notice that I miss a day, I will buy you lunch.

EFSG8 | Founder at Strive Math | Founder at Quillo

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