Chris Sharma Sends the Corporate Ladder
Still dominant on the crag at 36, Sharma reflects on his greatest climbs and how those lessons have helped him break into the business world
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Name: Chris Sharma
Job: Rock climber and climbing gym owner
Home Base: Barcelona, Spain
Chris Sharma has been the face of American sport climbing since sending the hardest climb in the United States (a 5.14c) in 1997, at age 15. He’s since become the first person to climb a 5.15a and 5.15b and the second to top out a 5.15c.
Over the past decade, the climber has also branched into business—designing shoes for Evolv, opening three rock gyms (Sender One gyms in Los Angeles and Santa Ana, California; and Sharma Climbing BCN in Barcelona, Spain), and recently signing on as a face of Ralph Lauren’s Red Extreme cologne.
Before Sharma helped figure out how to balance elite performance with making a living, “professional climber” was an oxymoron. Now the next generation of athletes has a guide to living the dream on their terms. We spoke with Sharma about his mental training, habits for success, and what’s next for the climber who, at 36, is still at the top of his game.
On His Most Important Habit for Success: “Sometimes climbing things that are well within my limits is fun…but I love struggling with the unknown. Trying things that are beyond my abilities forces me to be creative. I think harder, and if I succeed, it’s because I’ve changed. Being inquisitive is an attitude, but you can’t fake inspiration. When you’re truly motivated, breaking through to the next level doesn’t feel like work.”
On Deciding Whether to Make His Passion His Job: “My career began really suddenly: I won nationals at 14 and climbed the hardest route in America at 15. People started treating me differently, just because I had strong fingers or whatever. I started questioning whether being a professional climber had any value. Eventually, everyone is forced to review their life choices. Stepping back to think is a great way to find that sober dose of reality.”
On Playing the Game By His Rules: “At 20, I stepped away from climbing, began studying Buddhism, and found a life outside the sport. I came back to it after deciding I could inspire people through my videos. I never stopped loving climbing, but for me, that gave it meaning. Once I accepted my place in the game, I saw how I could add some value to it.”
On His Favorite Books: “I love One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I was just given a copy in Spanish, so I’m excited to reread it in the language in which it was written.”
On Finding Fulfillment in Climbing: “In general, I climb for the same reason I always have: It’s so much fun. But recently I’ve started to appreciate how much it grounds me as a person. Climbing is comforting to me. It’s my center. My roots. Life gets more complicated when you get older, so find something that grounds you. Be thankful for every day you can do the thing you love.”
On His Diet: “Honestly, I’m pretty easy. Something healthy and tasty. Salmon, veggies, and quinoa.”
On Building Relationships with Employees: “As a professional climber and rock gym owner, I work with people from so many walks of life. Some of them I grew up with, and others I’ve known for years and years. Because I have a shared history with them, I remember my career as a path we’ve traveled together. When your hobby becomes you profession, it’s easy to lose the passion you had for it. Because I’ve surrounded myself with friends I trust, climbing is still a very personal thing to me.”
On Running a Business: “When we were planning Sharma Climbing BCN, we found the right building and then figured out a lot of the other details as we went. Had we waited until everything was completely dialed, we’d probably still be in the planning stage. You can plan and plan, but at some point you have to just dive in and learn how to swim. Still, that doesn’t mean you should be reckless.”
On What People Don’t Realize About Professional Climbing: “Like any other industry, climbing is a business. You can climb at a high level but be unable to make a living at it. Brands have to believe you’ll boost their sales. For professional climbers, this career is like a balancing act: How do you stay passionate and keep your climbing pure but also make enough money to live on? My solution was to compartmentalize. When I’m at a trade show, it’s for work. When I’m out climbing, it’s for fun. Don’t go into your career trying to become someone, and don’t allow it to make you into someone.”
On His Favorite Piece of Technology: “My phone.”
On a New Habit That’s Improved His Life: “Not looking at my phone before going to bed. It’s improved my sleep a lot.”
On Boosting His Efficiency and Setting Boundaries: “To climb La Dura Dura (5.15c), I set aside six months. I thought having unlimited time would allow me to succeed faster. Instead, it made me lackadaisical. I didn’t send. Later, I limited myself to five-day windows. It made me try harder, and I finished the climb. Sometimes, setting boundaries is the best way to get things done. Otherwise you’ll get hung up on tiny, unnecessary details.”
On His Mental Training: “I try to improve my skills every day, regardless of whether it’s been a good one or a bad one. Staying in the moment has been one of my keys to progressing. On a climb, I don’t think about the anchors overhead. I think about the move in front of me. Some climbs have taken me years. When I send, the difference has usually been my mindset. Just immerse yourself in the moment and enjoy it.”
On Losing His Ego: “When I let go of wanting to reach the top, I relax and I get there quicker. For First Round, First Minute (5.15b), I fell off the same move month after month. Once I stopped thinking about it as a career goal, I sent. Sometimes success hinges on turning off your ego and desires.”
On Climbing For the Right Reasons: “Climbing is a personal activity. It’s about finding your way. So it’s important to pursue the climbs that fascinate you. Grades and fads don’t matter. In this sport, when inspiration hits you, listen. I think that’s how it is with most great things in life.”
On How He Relaxes: “These days, my time is at a premium. I do the two things I love most: spend time with my family and go climbing.”
On What’s Next: “I’m constantly working on projects in Catalonia. In fact, I’m going climbing this afternoon. The project might be 5.15d or so. Also, I have deep-water solo projects in Mallorca and other places. I just want to ride this wave as far as I can and share it with other people. Exploring these places keeps me inspired. I still want to climb. It’s what makes me happy.”