Solver: Jason "Singer" Smith
June 16th, 2015
Many times, the expected way is fine. Not great – but fine.
We design for the guys who refuse to accept “fine”.
They’re the solvers – the ones reconsidering the problems that everyone else thought had already been reconciled. They believe there’s always a better way and, driven by curiosity and an inherent passion for the discovery process, they’ll work tirelessly until that better way is achieved.
Jason “Singer” Smith is that guy. In 2000, Smith – at the time, a climber and equipment designer for The North Face – was leading a TNF-sponsored expedition in Kyrgyzstan when he and his partners were kidnapped by a guerrilla army and held hostage for six days. Survival depended on quick, careful thinking, which finally culminated in the group pushing its captor off a cliff and then a subsequent escape to safety.
Having taken the time to make sense of the experience and why he and his teammates took the steps we did, Smith now uses the episode as a tool to teach decision-making by pursuit of the best possible outcome. Here, we catch up with him to learn more.
What do you think others can others learn about problem solving through your experience in Kyrgyzstan?
It’s an almost-perfect example of what classical economists call an imaginary construct or Robinson Crusoe economy - a set of false assumptions used to isolate cause-and-effect relationships in order to determine subjective value - except that this one is almost entirely interpersonal. Once we were captured, the number of options available to us were few and pretty much all outcomes that may have resulted from possible external factors were negative. So we were looking at catastrophic potential consequences combined with the absolute necessity of improving our own situation. I go through that decision process step-by-step and, whether one agrees with me or not, there’s a lot to consider. I think part of what impacts people about my story is that it’s easy for them to imagine themselves in it, what they might have done, and how self-evident many of the conclusions are. Maps and diagrams paint the scenario clearly and I stop at critical junctures to ask, “Okay, what do we do now?”. I would say that value, time, and happiness are the three concepts that I like to get people thinking about the most.
Did your experience challenge any preconceived notions you had about how you would act in an adverse situation?
I had been though a number of dodgy situations prior to being kidnapped so I did have some sense of my ability to remain calm and act rationally under pressure. Mostly, however, my experience was in the context of being alone when nobody was going to solve anything for me and the only consequence was losing my own life. Things are much different when you consider yourself responsible for the lives of other people and I don’t think anyone can really predict how they are going to act in that kind of situation until they are in it. The overall experience of losing your freedom is difficult to convey.
What motivates you to solve problems?
That I can. My top three motivators are probably the opportunity to learn something new, increasing efficiency, and assisting other people. Most of the barriers we confront in life are knowledge-based and my experience has been that it is incredible what you can achieve if you try really, really hard at just about anything. We are lucky to live in a world where people have generated a fantastic amount of knowledge as well as the tools to disseminate it. Knowledge leads to efficiency, and efficiency to increased potential. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu notes that, "What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease”.
Any tried-and-true work rituals?
I’m not sure “ritual” is the right word, but I am systematic. Just as Master Sun begins the method with measurement and estimation of quantity, I begin with a lot of questions: What do I want? How much do I value that? Compared to what? What is the alternative? What is the potential consequence? Where does knowledge end and assumption begin? What do I know that I don’t know? I like the be precise in defining the objective and to organize everything into groups of three.
How do you choose your mentors?
I thought they were choosing me! Mentors are natural teachers who recognize things like innate ability, potential, and dedication and make a personal choice to contribute. It’s your job as a student to demonstrate those sorts of qualities and, when you do, kind and helpful people seem to appear like magic. I’m inquisitive, enthused to try just about anything, and accept readily how little I know - which are the same qualities that compel me to teach another. If you look hard enough, every single person in the world is a specialist, and a potential teacher, at something; that is, there is some task that they are more proficient at than you are. You could spend a week with a five-year-old child in Afghanistan and be mystified by how much you learned.
What problem are you working on now? What’s your process?
I’ll avoid getting too philosophical, but I suppose that my process starts by not seeing problems at all. The sort of framework that I’ve adopted is that life itself is an unceasing stream of options from which we must choose; we rate those options with varying degrees of desirability and by their likelihood of success. That, fundamentally, is human nature - that we perpetually act to improve our condition in the world. There’s a slightly ironic overlap there between Buddhism and economics there insofar as everything we do is a reaction to conditions that already are, judging events as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a function of one’s own mind, and contentment is the ultimate goal. That framework contains important implications such as accepting things you can’t change and recognizing wealth as being content with what you have. Seeing everything I do as a choice immediately discards the negative aspects and ensures that the bright side is always apparent; things can always get worse and it sometimes worth being grateful that they haven’t already.
Right now I‘m in the process of shifting back to the US after almost fifteen years of traveling and living overseas. I would guess that I’ve spent around five or six years in Asia, a couple in Europe, and have been based in Australia for the last seven. On one hand, I feel like I’m stepping out of a time warp and need to somehow “catch up” with everyone else who has been busy. But, on the other, I’ve been really fortunate to visit places that not a lot of people get to and have crossed paths with some tremendously interesting people. I met a guy once, for example, who captained a German battleship in WWII; the opportunity to sit around for week asking questions of someone like that is pretty rare.
My focus is on finding ways to share my story in a way that others can benefit from what was a reasonably unfortunate experience. It turns out that getting kidnapped will give a person a lot to think about. Any sort of meaningful reflection about something like that takes a lot of time and effort to sort out. I don’t think any of us were ready to do so in the past but, after having a lot of time to process it, I’m ready now to happily share. I go about most things by myself with the support of my wife but have also been working with a speech writer toward the end of organizing and packaging my message.
In your mind, where’s the most special place to climb?
Climbing to me is all about the journey and removing myself from civilization so I aim for an environment in which I feel the most comfortable, untethered, and independent. I’ve been on seven trips to the Arctic so that has become a place where I feel free and experience a sort of reset. I doubt, however, that there will ever be a a replacement for home and that is the mountains in Utah where I am about to embark on a long walk.
What attracts you to a new climbing route? What do you do when you get stuck?
I’m not much of a “new-router” but I like natural, prominent lines done in minimalist style, in a remote places with a bit of suffering. Kind of a recipe for soloing, really. There is “stuck” in which I retreat to safety and reassess, or there’s the ”stuck” which simply takes reminding myself that whatever I’m doing I chose to do for my own benefit and moving on.
What have you learned recently?
I've been admiring elements of the United States that I previously took for granted or lacked the perspective to appreciate. Geographically, that is the great outdoors. Culturally, the "can-do" attitude that Americans are known for, often begrudgingly, has been refreshing.