Valuable Insights in the Art of Living
What a mountain climber can teach us about pursuing excellence
You’re reading the Vertical Mindset Newsletter by Jono Sanders, a creativity enthusiast — lessons & stories of elevated performance, lifestyle experiments, and outdoor adventure.
Since the fall I can’t seem to shift into the low gears on my bike. I replaced the chain recently, which made things worse, and the mechanic at the bike shop also seemed a bit stumped.
And as the mechanic searched for a small replacement pulley, I inspected my chain more closely and identified the problem - the chain width didn’t fit my rear cassette. I bought the wrong chain like a dummy!
With the correct chain on my bike rides smooth as a 1976 Ford Bronco! And I’m reminded that the simplest answer is usually correct.
This week we dive into the business philosophy the founder of Patagonia calls MBA, or management by absence, plus advice on creative constraints.
Valuable Insights in the Art of Living
Yvon Chouinard not only pioneered first ascents that impress climbers to this day, but he also built an enormously influential business; Patagonia.
He set out to simply earn enough for the next climbing trip, but he created an amazing company full of enthusiastic misfits that show up every day and take the stairs two at a time.
In the 1950s, Yvon wanted a better piton, which led him to learn blacksmithing. As it turned out, other climbers wanted his high-quality pitons so he should them from the back of his truck. This experience taught Yvon the power of simple design which he carries through his entire career.
Simplicity is complexity resolved
Yvon Chouinard took inspiration from cars in the ‘60s. The Ferraris aim for high performance while a Cadillac aspires to be a “living room on wheels.”
With clean lines, a Ferrari’s design emphasizes the speed and function of the car. The enormous engine on a Cadillac fails to come with the steering, suspension, or braking capability to back it up. The resulting car looks like a weird combination of fins and decorative features.
When they expanded too quickly and offered 12 different styles of climbing shirts in the ‘90s, it stretched their resources too thin. They aimed to grow too quickly!
One of Yvon Chouinard’s favorite lines comes from the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
Chouinard’s innovation and products include:
First Chockstones. Yvon’s next innovation — “chocks” — sold well in the first few months. He promptly discovered a new way to build them, and they redesigned the tooling to release an updated product by the next year. A competitor launched an imitation of the original hexentric chocks that same month, already rendered out-of-date.
Durable Apparel. While climbing in Scotland, Yvon discovered thick rugby shirts with a collar. He bought a handful once he saw that they protected his neck while climbing with loaded slings. Back in the States he sold them all immediately to friends, and so emerged Patagonia, the clothing brand.
Better Base Layers. Yvon noticed that regardless of your waterproof outer jacket, if you had cotton underwear in the cold it would get wet and then freeze. They brought polypropylene underwear to the market which wicked away moisture to keep you dry — game-changing!
Yvon and Patagonia never wanted to compete with other brands in the outdoor gear space. They specialized early and dove deep into the art of making terrific products.
Even these lessons can be boiled down and simplified— high quality people want specialization (agreed by Akio Marita, founder of Sony, and Johnny Ive at Apple)
Build a team of high performers
For five years, Patagonia’s leadership team tried several reorgs, none of which quite fixed the challenges as they expanded and grew. Yvon calls this a period of acid stomachs and long nights.
What ultimately worked for the team involved a larger effort to write the company’s business philosophy. One core tenant was setting an example of a business operating to last 100 years and have a positive impact on the environment.
And Yvon began teaching the Patagonia values to employees, which served as the basis for his terrific book “Let My People Go Surfing.”
My favorite concept from the book is the business philosophy of MBA — management by absence — and Yvon would spend 6 months of the year in the mountains.
As the generator of new product ideas for the R&D team, Yvon Chouinard always served as the “first customer.” On his expeditions, he would explore and try out all the gear he could carry. He returned each time with new product ideas and feedback on the existing lines.
During the other half of the year at the Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, Yvon frequently ducked out of the office to catch waves on the nearby beach and encouraged his employees to do the same.
The secret to Patagonia’s success lay in the other amazing partners and team members. Kris Tompkins (CEO) and other exectives at the company kept improving processes and innovating in sustainable materials and manufacturing techniques.
I cannot imagine any company that wants to make the best product of its kind being staffed by people who do not care passionately about the product.
— Yvon Chouinard
From making pitons out of the back of a truck to climbing far off peaks to test new jackets and bags, Yvon Chouinard kept his ideal lifestyle. It’s proof that you can pursue business ownership, purposeful work, and keep going on adventures.
Worthy & Remarkable
The Fuell Flluid e-bike chose some funny spelling but it packs a serious battery and range — 250mi — plus raised over $1 million on IndieGogo.
Furniture that can fold and change from lounge chair to cube to table? The crowdsourcer are unfolding their wallets for the Oru Camp outdoor furniture.
The Mellow Youtube channel showcases tons of hard climbing ascents, but this short video of the route “Levity” in Boone North Carolina takes the cake.
Documenting the melting of Glacier National Park sounds depressing but these athletes make it look inspiring! (The North Face).
An amazing story of a Taiwanese thru-hiker creatively crafting his lightweight gear as he walks the Pacific Crest Trail.
I recently rewatched and laughed very hard at this classic — Alex Honnold Solos Lovers Leap in a Mullet, 2017.
One Thing from Me
Last week on a bike ride I listened to the CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, share his perspective on how to make amazing products.
This line from architect Frank Gehry keeps bouncing around in my head:
“One of the greatest sources of creativity is having a budget and a timeline.”
I’m inspired by stories of people building successful businesses while maintaining a work-life balance. You don’t have to kill yourself to succeed and I think the constraint of ending work at 5 pm (or whenever it is for you) can make people more effective.
Do you have other ideas of people, particularly in physical products or the outdoor industry outdoor, that I should research? Let us know in the comments - I’ll add my current list there:
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PS - after a trip to The Netherlands last month this felt like a revelation.
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