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Iain Miller: “Don’t limit your imagination”

A healthy as possible lifestyle is the foundation for any fitness or performance strategy. If most people treated their cars the same why they neglected their health, their cars would not travel far at all. I do not really do anything outside of trying to be as healthy as possible. Being in my 50’s I […]


A healthy as possible lifestyle is the foundation for any fitness or performance strategy. If most people treated their cars the same why they neglected their health, their cars would not travel far at all. I do not really do anything outside of trying to be as healthy as possible. Being in my 50’s I find daily light exercise with a focus on core works very well at keeping me at an optimum power to weight ratio. For climbing this power to weight ratio greatly affects your endurance especially forearm stamina. I am extremely fortunate that I climb outdoors on real rock pretty much every day and as such for many weeks of the years I need to maintain a level of moderation in what I’m doing.


As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Iain Miller.

Iain Miller is a rock climber, guidebook author and mountain trekker living, working and playing on the sea cliffs, sea stacks, mountain ranges and uninhabited islands of County Donegal. He has specialized in sea stack climbing and is considered to be the world’s only full-time professional sea stack climber. He runs the Mountain Training company Unique Ascent based in County Donegal in Republic of Ireland.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I have lived and grown up in three quite different locations in Scotland, Dunoon on the west coast, Dundee on the east coast and Orkney in the northern Islands. Although each of these locations are quite demographically different, they all share the same close affinity to the sea. I have therefor always lived, worked, or played either in, on or by the sea all my life. After I left school, I joined the Merchant Navy (Merchant Marine in the US) as an engineering cadet. Over the next 20 years I sailed the world several times and worked on many different types on ships. What kept me sane during this time of being away from home so much was my love of the mountains and the great outdoors.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

Unfortunately, the shipping industry has an incredibly high rate of alcohol dependency within the people who spend their lives at sea. What prevented me from following suit was I continually trained for my next ships leave as I always had another mountain to climb. I spent a huge percentage of my life at sea, training for my next off ship free time. It was by keeping rock climbing and mountaineering present during my time on boats that I learnt the self-discipline required to achieve long term goals and objectives. Once I left the merchant navy, I then had a lot more time to dedicate to become, not so much fitter or strong but to increase my endurance. It was the perfect transition to becoming a full-time rock climber.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

The person who helped me greatly in many aspects was my grandfather on my mother side, Tom Towers. He was also a ships engineer all his working life and he spent a great portion of his life in the merchant navy travelling the world on a large variety of different cargo vessels. He was of the ships engineering school of thought that you had to “mend and make do.” This meant in the event of a ships breakdown he was able to use whatever he had on board to keep the ship motoring to the next available port of call to effect permanent repair. It was this mend and make do, approach to life that I learned to adopt and have used throughout my own life.

In saying this, we fundamentally disagreed on many aspects of mechanical and shipping principles as we were two full seafaring generations apart. In those two generations of time technology on board had changed dramatically as electronics took over remote monitoring of machinery spaces onboard ships. It was always good sport having full blown discussions and arguments with him about the smallest details of how best to run a ships engine room, I greatly miss him.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

In 2009 I was alone on a very remote unclimbed sea stack off the south-west coast of Donegal in Ireland. I had paddled the 3 kilometers along the Atlantic coast past the bases of huge inescapable sea cliffs and landed on the bottom of the 50-meter-high stack. My cunning plan was to climb this previously unclimbed sea stack. At this time, I had a personal ethic of not telling anyone where I was or what I was doing and I had no means of contacting help if things went wrong, I was totally and utterly alone. The climb looked hard, so I opted to rope solo which means I was attached to an anchored rope and I placed removable climbing equipment as I climbed up to prevent a big fall. To cut a long climbing term technical and uninteresting paragraph short, I fell off the sea stack. I fell about 60 feet into a cauldron of white water below its north face. Underneath this face on the stack, the sea is a confliction of opposing currents. This creates a heaving pit of white-water rage, the pounding heart of the ocean I call it. I unfortunately landed in this maelstrom of white water and as I was being thrown about upside down under ocean, I had a moment of absolute clarity. All I had to do was breath out and it was over, it was at this juncture that it felt like my left leg was being cut in half. It was my attached rope back to the anchor at the start point of the climb, I hauled and hauled alone the rope until my head broke the surface of the sea.

There was off course many, many lessons learned on this day but the main one being I was not immortal. Not that I thought I was, but this incident opened the door to me examining my mental approach and motivations to my aversion to uncontrolled risk.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

I think as we go through life, we pick up skills that cannot be taught in any formal education format. These skills are numerous, and they are what transforms a person into becoming competent at whatever they have chosen to do. These skills can be summarized as experience and experience can not be taught; it can only be gained through doing. Until you gain this experience you need an education, as it is your education that is the foundation of your career. For example, an engineer straight out of engineering school will in general, not be a particularly good hands on Engineer. As the years go by and they gain the correct workplace and practical experience they become a better and better engineer as their experience increases. The foundation of their career is their academic qualifications, but as their experience grows their academics usually become less relevant.

To become a full-time professional climber, you need first and foremost to be a very experienced climber and this takes time, a lot of time. My advice to anyone wanting to be a full-time rock climber is to perhaps have a parallel career in something they both enjoy and are also interested in doing. A more formal education and career allows you the income and time to follow your dream of being a full-time athlete. To leave school to be a full-time climber is of course very possible, but it is also a very hard road to follow and can very easily lead to lack of motivation as income and free time can be in short supply. Another fact to consider is that being a good climber is the absolute minimum requirement other essential skills required include photography, social media, interviews, article writing, press releases, filming and this list is only limited to your imagination.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

At the moment I am waiting for the correct sea and weather conditions to allow access to a huge sea cave, this cave is approximately the size of a 5-story building. In the center of the roof of the cave is a very seasonal waterfall which means it only runs after heavy rain. I have a very cunning plan to position myself in the roof beside the entry point of the fall as direct sunlight hits the falling water through the mouth of the cave. This I suspect will create a completely circular rainbow; these are only usually seen from aircraft windows at altitude. I would very much like to get a picture this incredibly rare natural phenomenon.

This is of course only one of many projects and plans I am currently working on and planning towards. How this might help people is that as you increase your skill set and your range of understanding you also increase the range of things and activities you can achieve in. This in turn opens more doors in your imagination and allows more avenues for you to have fun.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Self-Belief is a personal attribute that is an essential to allow you to achieve in whatever you set out to do. A belief that you will succeed rather than considering and dwelling on what is between you and success is a much more productive focus.

I spend a lot of time in potentially situations where it is a case of fall and you die. In these high stakes’ situations, I don’t focus on the potential outcome of a fall as this is quite obvious and almost irrelevant. It is not relevant as it is an obvious and certain outcome and I most certainly do not want to die. I instead focus on the aspects of the situation that will potentially allow a fall to happen. I mentally cross off all the aspect to the situation that will potentially increase my chance of taking the fall. For example, there are many aspects to any situation that you have no control over, say the weather, but you can choose a day when weather is perfect. It is this type of prior planning that enables you to achieve optimum mental conditioning.

By removing as many of the aspects that you may worry about, frees a lot more of your metal capacity to focus on the task at hand

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

It is easier to simply try to remember to breath rather than trying to master a particular technique. By remembering to breath, you make a conscience effect to focus on the act of breathing. I tend to think of breathing as being very similar to central heating or air conditioning in your home. It is amazingly easy to forget about it as it is operating correctly as it operates on its own and in the background. It is only when it ceases to function that you notice its absence.

The act of simply remembering to breath centers your focus on what is truly important in life. By focusing on breathing you open your perspective to whatever else you may be doing as whatever else your doing is secondary to the act of breathing.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

A healthy as possible lifestyle is the foundation for any fitness or performance strategy. If most people treated their cars the same why they neglected their health, their cars would not travel far at all. I do not really do anything outside of trying to be as healthy as possible. Being in my 50’s I find daily light exercise with a focus on core works very well at keeping me at an optimum power to weight ratio. For climbing this power to weight ratio greatly affects your endurance especially forearm stamina. I am extremely fortunate that I climb outdoors on real rock pretty much every day and as such for many weeks of the years I need to maintain a level of moderation in what I’m doing. This moderation prevents muscle fatigue, burn out and prevents most potential niggling injuries.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

To create and integrate good habits into your daily lifestyle they must be simple and easy to achieve and of course ideally, they much be fun. It is much more difficult to integrate exercise into your daily routine is it is a chore from the outset. If it starts off as a chore in no time at all the motivation to continue will disappear and you will stop or at the very least, you will not put the same enthusiasm into your routine. For most people to train and become exceptionally good at something takes a lot of time and effort. To integrate sustainably into your everyday routine, it is much better to work of your current fitness levels. What I mean by this, is many people start at a very high bar from the outset, ie most new year resolutions. I find to set the bar perhaps a little lower and to make gains, is initially easier and they happen quicker. This in turn gives you a mental boost early on, as everyone loves to see and feel the benefit of gains. Then once you have made some gains and implemented your new lifestyle can you to the bar more achievably, in summary Rome was not built in a day.

As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

When free soloing or climbing in a potentially dangerous position, this is when the mental battle commences as reason and paranoia jostle for the dominant position. In 2015 I free soloed Cnoc Na Mara, Cnoc na Mara climbing footage, Cnoc na Mara summit view using this day as an example. The road and then sea journey allow me to reach a level of mental equilibrium in which there is no room for thoughts of the past and future only the present, living in the moment as it is commonly called. This is an extremely dangerous mental place to be because if you are truly in the moment you can have the mistaken belief that you are immortal. Which is not something you consciously think but by only being present only in the moment your actions have no consequence, as consequence can only happen in the future and you are only in the present. This is flow and it is a type of subconscious immortality and what this means in real-time is flow allows an outrageous heightened sense of awareness of both the inner and outer realms both conscious and subconscious. It is during these visits to the inner realms that you will meet the true you and the true you will allow you to potentially see the links between everything in our real-world existence.

It is incredibly simple to achieve this mental state and that is simply to be present both physically and mentally in any given situation. Unfortunately, it is perhaps not so easy to be present mentally, as our thoughts tend to stray onto the long and short term future outcomes and concerns as we maneuver through the present.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

If I use a standard day as an example. This is a day which I have planned do a solo climb with potentially fatal consequences in the event of a mishap as an analogy.

As the chosen day approaches and as the planets begin to align to allow correct weather, sea conditions and a whole host of other uncontrollable external circumstances that must be correctly aligned to allow a maximum margin of safety. If you consider the fact that there is no such thing as a coincidence and therefore everything happens for a reason. This is also an excellent gauge as to whether the time is right for the chosen goal and I regularly change or abandon cunning plans based solely on perhaps the most obscure facet not being right. This is where the journey to the inner realms both begins or ends. This is a conscious mental approach to remove fear by a positive mindset by a process of elimination of the facets that cause you to be fearful.

We simply have many aspects of our life we have the power to control and many aspects we have no control over. I focus primarily on aspects I can control and therefor influence to produce a positive result. Aspects I have no control over I try and gauge to achieve their optimum moment or condition to achieve whatever goal I have set.

For me, “changing the Channel” is achieved by having a currently unobtainable goal. This goal can only be achieved after successfully completing other lesser goals. This for me, creates focus and the focus is always on the end goal.

If we view a successful and unsuccessful outcome as the same and they are simply a result of what we have done. What must I learn from an unsuccessful outcome to make it successful? This for me is the key to a positive mindset.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

An unexpected effect of what I have been doing on the sea stacks off the coast of Ireland is an increased and steady flow of adventure tourism to Donegal. Donegal is traditionally quite a poor county in terms of infrastructure and visitor numbers. In the last 5 years the increase in visitors to the county has brought a steady stream of income for providers of accommodation, food and other tourism related businesses. It is through this increase in visitor numbers that I have created good relationships with landowners and business owners around the county. These relationships will help keep the wild outdoor locations that I play in open and sustainable to future visitors.

As a provider of Mountain training qualifications, I have trained and assessed 100’s of people over the years. I have kept close contact with dozens of them as they rise through their own career ladder and achieve their own goals in life and sport.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Nothing ever happens to (2) you it only ever happens for (4) you.

Always turn the 2 into a 4 and you can learn something from every interaction, occasion, or event. The initial outcome of something may seem, appear or be negative but with a little thought and hindsight you will always find the positive.

This resonates with me as no matter what happens, as I always look for the positive and, in many ways, this is the best method to “change the channel” as mentioned above. The golden rule is there are no exceptions to this rule there is always a positive just sometimes it is harder to see or find.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

HA, HA, I really can’t think of anyone I’d like to have a conversation with but I’m sure there are many I’m not thinking off. I would very much like to stand on top of Ball’s Pyramid in the Pacific Ocean but alas climbing has been banned and then very tightly controlled on this incredibly special island.

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