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Chicken Wire

Chicken Wire 

Morgan J. McArthur

For Plenty

Where does confidence come from? Glenn Abel will tell you it comes from a wire – the Chicken Wire.

Glenn operates a business north of Taupo called Rock ‘n Ropes (RnR). RnR is a high ropes course. People pay to don a helmet and safety harness, climb telephone poles three storeys above the ground and confront their fear by walking from pole to pole on cables. Glenn is part circus trainer, part drill sergeant and part psychotherapist. He gets people to do amazing tricks. And he tricks them into discovering how amazing they can be.

Glenn says that it’s not uncommon for people to arrive at RnR meek as mice and leave large as lions. He changes lives. Every day.

He did mine.

The Chicken Wire is aptly named. Participants work their way up to it by tackling challenges of escalating risk. (Risk is perceived – safety practices at RnR are solid and serious.) Completion of each activity – walking on a single wire while holding another to steady oneself, walking across a pole no-handed, traversing an unstable suspension bridge without support - colours one with enough confidence to have a go at the next one. In a couple of hours you’re so puffed with self-assurance that stretch marks are a worry.

But the Chicken Wire is the equalizer. It’s the ultimate challenge - in sequence and in difficulty. Glenn says that only one in twenty gets across on the first go. That’s a 95% failure rate! And here I was. Oh Joy.

The Chicken Wire is actually two wires – cables thick as a thumb – parallel, tight and shoulder width apart. Ten metres of airspace separates the pole you don’t want to let go of and the one Glenn tells you to walk to. The only way to get there is to walk on those two wee wires. Hands out to the sides, of course.

Standing high on the mast with a pantleg luffing in the breeze I was thinking of you, dear reader. My muscles quivered as if 20,000 volts of electricity flowed through those wires! The gravitational force on my feet was incredible. They would_not_move!

In that moment I pondered the question: Where does confidence come from? I wanted some.

I’m not an adrenaline-seeker. I’m 48 years old. There was a time when I might have done crazy stuff like bungy jumping for the rush or on a peer-provoked dare. No more. I wasn’t at RnR for recreation; instead, I saw it as a laboratory for life experience. I was studying confidence.

Confidence is essential for a full and fun life. As I quivered on the Chicken Wire I realised three truths about confidence.

One – confidence begins with first times. First times are scary territory. Forays into the Unknown. Do you remember your first time? At anything: riding a bike, driving a manual transmission, doing gallbladder surgery (having gallbladder surgery)… whatever. First times pull us out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone.

Our lives are a compilation of first times. Whenever we mustered the courage to do something new we expanded our life experience. When we were young life was out in front of us and firsts were frequent. The opportunity for first times doesn’t diminish as we get older. The impulse to try them does. First times can be as simple as changing routine tasks so they are different. They can be meeting new people. Or sailing solo around the world.

I’m not advocating that you take up extreme adventures. The Chicken Wire is a metaphor for the fear that can dissuade us from experiencing new things. Discomfort and fear tell us where our boundaries are. I urge you to nudge those boundaries and cultivate your curiosity. Embracing firsts is a brilliant way of creating confidence and living large.

Two – failure is our best teacher. It’s often the fear of failure that dissuades us from trying new stuff. Glenn told me that 95% of people fail their first attempt at the Chicken Wire. That didn’t stop me from having a go. Failure gives us a good indication of whether we want to pursue something after our first attempt. If we feel like trying again it tells us where we need work. We can learn far more from failure than from success.

I failed at the Chicken Wire. I was up there gyrating like Elvis, never more than an arm’s length from the starting pole and couldn’t… no, wouldn’t, go any further. Glenn gave me all the encouragement he could muster but I just didn’t have it on the day. Henry Ford once said ‘Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.’ On this windy day in Taupo I thought I couldn’t. And I didn’t.

I asked Glenn to let me down on the safety rope. He said I’d already let myself down.

He was only partially right. My ego was bruised but I have learned how to learn from failure. analyse what went well, what didn’t, and how I can do things differently next time. I often write these things down. I’ll study, consult experts if necessary, perhaps even rehearse. The next attempt may result in some degree of dissatisfaction (the definitions of success and failure are a very personal thing) but I’ll be steps closer to success.

A Palmerston North taxi driver captured the failure-as-teacher concept for me several years ago. Driving to town from the airport an incredible solo from his favourite blues guitarist wailed from his stereo like a lonely tomcat at midnight. I said ‘Wow, that must be hard to play.’ He said, ‘It’s only hard the first thousand times, mate.’ Try-fail-learn-repeat.

Channelled correctly, failure, or maybe more appropriately, dissatisfaction, can be a powerful motivator and teacher. I call it learning by burning.

Three – confidence has a shelf life. What words do we use about confidence? We build it. We gain it. We lose it. We renew it.

We don’t buy it. We don’t borrow it. It’s not instant. We build it. For me that means I can grow mine by developing an ethic of choosing challenge at some level – sometimes small, sometimes large. Confidence is like fitness – it can be trained and regular exercise keeps it strong.

Haven’t played the piano in months, maybe years? And how is it when you finally get back to the bench? Good? Perhaps. How good? Golfers, you know how fleeting confidence can be. I get a lesson in the longevity of confidence whenever I go to America and get behind a left-hand drive vehicle. Other motorists should be scared. Very scared. I am.

The credo for confidence: use it or lose it.

When I’m in Taupo I like to go to Rock ‘n Ropes and watch Glenn Abel work with people. He gets them to do amazing tricks. They face their fears. They walk the wire. In so doing they discover how amazing they can be.

French author Anais Nin said ‘Life either expands or contracts in proportion to one’s courage.’

Too true. Don’t be chicken. Find your wire and walk it.




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