These days, more and more people are coming face-to-face with adversity. In this installment of The M.A.P. Maker Podcast, you'll hear from Erik Weihenmayer, a man who has turned dealing with adversity into an art form.
Back in 2001, Weihenmayer made big news by becoming the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. It was one stop along the way to climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents.
His autobiography, Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man's Journey to Climb Farther Than the Eye Can See was a best-seller. His most recent book, The Adversity Advantage: Turning Everyday Struggles Into Everyday Greatness, written together with Paul Stolz, offers the tools to use adversity to help you thrive.
In this podcast, you will hear Weihenmayer talk about:
- How you can benefit from adversity
- Making the hard choices
- Why now is a great time to reexamine your priorities
- The importance of surrounding yourself with the right people
- His experience taking six blind Tibetan kids up a mountain
- How his work to help people shatter barriers inspires him
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Curt Rosengren's M.A.P. Maker Podcast: Erik Weihenmayer
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Hello, and welcome to Curt Rosengren’s M.A.P. Maker Podcast. I’m
Curt Rosengren, and my focus is helping people create careers that
energize and inspire them. It’s all about answering the question, how
do you put your passion to work to make a difference that inspires you,
in a way that lets you thrive?
In this series, you will find insights and inspiration from thought leaders and trailblazers – people who are crafting a life of Meaning, Abundance, and Passion.
Recently I caught up with Erik Weihenmayer, who is a climber, author, and motivational speaker. Weihenmayer reached the top of Mount Everest in 2001 on the way to reaching the seven summits, the highest peaks on each of seven continents. He is the co-author of the book The Adversity Advantage, author of a best-selling autobiography Touch the Top of the World, and subject of two documentaries.
Oh, and did I happen to mention that he’s blind?
Weihenmayer is the first to admit that the path he has taken is a bit on the unlikely side.
My name is Erik Weihenmayer and I’m basically I guess a Jamaican bobsledder. I’m a blind climber. I’ve been climbing for 12 years professionally. Climbing isn’t something where you’re like an NFL football player where people give you money to climb, but you kind of figure out a way to make a life out of it, and that’s what I’ve been doing for ten years, climbing and adventuring all over the world. It’s been really fulfilling.
He has also been able to parlay those adventures into a successful career as a motivational speaker. He recently spoke at the National Youth Forum for the inauguration weekend in Washington DC, sharing a platform with speakers such as Al Gore and Colin Powell.
With so many people encountering big hairy doses of adversity these days, the timing for Weihenmayer’s recent book, The Adversity Advantage, couldn’t be better. The seeds for the book were planted a few years ago, when he and co-author Paul Stolz met and realized that they had both discovered many of the same insights about making the most of life’s challenges.
A few years ago I met this doctor. He was a scientist, a PhD. His name’s Doctor Paul Stolz. And he’s a social scientist who had studied resiliency all over the world in a systematic way. He has something called the human resilience project, and he found, he came up with a theory on adversity. People talk about you IQ, well he talks about your AQ, your Adversity Quotient, and that people have a threshold for adversity. The most accurate determination of your success is not your intelligence, but how well you deal with adversity.
So he made it his life mission to help people change their relationship with adversity. So he interviewed me for one of his other projects and we started talking and we just hit it off, and we found that we had a lot in common.
And we came at the subject from very different places. I came from very much an experiential level, and he came at it from science, but we basically had the same ideas. We had come to understand through very different ways. And we thought it would be really cool to collaborate on a book, like no one’s ever written a book like this, where – I don’t know, fairly goofy, but like a peanut butter cup, you know? Coming together, chocolate and peanut butter, basically coming together to form something meaningful. So we did that. I wrote all the experiential stuff and he wrote all the science based stuff.
I asked Weihenmayer to sum up what the book is about.
Well, I think if I were to condense it into a phrase, the book is about alchemy. It’s really about taking bad things and making them into good things. And a lot of times you have to go through adversity in order to do that. But you can’t tell people, just walk into a storm, because if they do walk into a storm they get crushed. It’s like climbing a mountain. You can’t just go climb a mountain without the right skill and the right preparation. So essentially the book gets people prepared for the storm.
A key part of the book’s message is that adversity can be a vital part of moving forward in life.
And the focus of the book is to really understand who those people at the top of the adversity continuum, like the people who aren’t just dealing well with adversity, or avoiding it, but really take it to a new level, which is to harness adversity and use that energy created to propel yourself forward to places that you might not have gone to in any other way. And can propel you to innovation, can propel you towards more compassion in your life, to friendships, to all sorts of areas that you would never expect.
It’s like adversity is one of those things that you never ask for. But when it happens and you look back and you realize a lot of times you didn’t just survive it. It made you better. It made you stronger in certain ways. And we wanted to really understand how people do that, so we broke it down and kind of made it like the seven summits. We had seven ideas that we break down and help people to understand.
Weihenmayer admits that, while the ideas in the book are powerful, they can be a hard sell because they’re not about taking the easy road.
But all of them come down to this. I’ve thought a lot about it, and they all come down to the same thing, and that’s basically hard choices. Not easy choices. And that’s a hard pill to swallow for most people.
It’s the idea that adversity means – we’re telling people to go have more adversity in your life. Rarely are people going to go do that. It’s not like we’re saying be a sadist and ask for adversity. But adversity hits you in life, and you have a choice. It either destroys you, it stops you in your tracks, or you figure out a way to harness it and use that energy to go forward in your life. And if you do it right, sometimes you go farther than you’d go without the adversity. So in a weird way the adversity becomes the pathway. But it’s not an easy ride, so it’s a hard sell to people.
So we talked about how you can find your strengths through adversity. But again, you find a lot of your best, most powerful strengths through adverse situations. And you grow those strengths through adversity. We talked about how you become more innovative through adversity, but again, you have to go through adversity to become more – a lot of times you have to go through adversity to become more innovative. So a lot of the things that you gain, unfortunately have to be gained through adversity. And that’s tough. That’s like telling people go suffer.
I asked Weihenmayer what advice he would have for people out there who are suffering through adversity in today’s economy.
Well, one of the chapters we talk about a concept we call pack light. And that’s a really applicable subject at this time, because we’re all talking about scaling back right now. Because in society we’ve been such consumers, and we’ve let that consumerism distract us from our goals, our dreams. So we talk about packing like a climber, like I would have to pack for a mountain. You’re carrying basically your house on your back, and you can’t carry everything you want to carry up a mountain. And as you get higher up the mountain, and as it gets harder, you have to basically drop stuff.
So when you summit, you’re on a mountain, maybe you’re on Antarctica’s summit, Mount Vincent, it’s 50 below zero. You’ve dropped your pack even, down the mountain, because it’s too heavy. So you’re just carrying everything you need in your person, in your down suit.
And so we talk about as you move up in this hierarchy of life, where you’re moving towards what you want, your goals in life, you have to become more strategic and focused. And you have to drop a lot of extraneous stuff in life that weighs you down, that becomes a distraction. All those obligations. All those responsibilities that you think you’re obliged to. All those materials that you thought were the things that defined you. You have to strip yourself down so you’re more nimble, and you’re more ready to take on adversity, which will always spring up in your path, and so that you’ll be more able, more nimble, to achieve what you want. And again, that’s another thing that’s just like a hard choice for people.
Put another way, it’s a great time to examine your priorities and ask yourself what life you really want to create.
Well, I think it’s a time to make those hard choices, to scale down your material possessions, your distractions. It’s time to take a hard look at maybe some of the losses that you’ve had and see if there is anything that’s there, a nugget you can use that actually propel you forward and can make a change in your life that you’ve been wanting to do anyway, and you’ve been too scared to do it. Or maybe moving slowly in that direction.
But I think this is a really crucial time to really analyze our life, and our families, and try to figure out, how do we not just repeat the same things, and go through the same patterns that maybe haven’t been very effective in the past. But how do we create a new paradigm where we’re using these tough things to help us move forward in new ways that we’ve never been able to do before. Sometimes these tough times are the best times to make a change in our life, or to propel us in a direction – sometimes the adversity that we face is the catalyst that we need to do it. So I would say, see this time as a great time of change and progress in our lives and use it as such.
Weihenmayer has been taking his advice in his own career as his speaking business has felt the effects of the economy.
I’ve been speaking quite a bit, but my speaking, because of the recession, has scaled back. And it’s interesting that maybe six months ago I turned 40 and I said, you know you’re not going to be able to climb forever. So I want to go back to my roots. I want to climb. I want to do interesting adventures around the world, working with youth, working with disabled people. In February I’ll be climbing an icefall with an organization, with an amputee that lost his leg in Iraq. In June I’ll be climbing Mexican volcanoes with blind kids. In July I’ll be doing a rafting trip with my family.
So I think this is a great time for me – my kids are six and eight years old. This is a great time to step back and to say, what’s really important? And for me it’s my family and my adventures. And so I’m really using this time to understand how important those are, and to make good use of time, and not worry about, I’m not getting as much work as I used to. That’s OK. Everything ebbs and flows.
As we talked about his unusual career, we got to talking about how much more potential there is to create your own path than most people realize. While he agreed, he didn’t want to whitewash the challenges involved.
So not to downplay the difficulties of doing that. Because when you’re going forward and there’s no map, you’re creating your own map. And that’s extremely challenging. In a way, that’s where adventure lies, when you’re kind of creating your way when you go. And it’s a rare privilege to be able to do that, but it also lays a lot of adversity on your shoulders. When you live that kind of life, it’s almost like you’re asking for more adversity
There’s this connection between trying to be innovative and the adversity that you take on. And that works in reverse too. Sometimes the adversity you take on, that is what thrusts you into innovation, and doing new things. So the two are kind of connected. So it does bring on a lot of adversity, but I think the rewards are worth it.
As Weihenmayer sees it, a big part of achieving your potential is surrounding yourself with people who feed that potential.
I think one is to throw yourself into the right environment. I wanted to be a climber, so I threw myself into the climbing world. I joined every climbing club I could. I joined a rock gym. I surrounded myself with climbers. I found people that believed in my mission, and supported it, and wanted to be a part of it, and I dropped the people that didn’t. It was literally as simple as that.
Because as one individual, you don’t have the power to have the world on your shoulders. You need a team. You need a good group of people who believe in you. So I’ve been very lucky to find people and surround myself with people – and I’ve been lucky that it’s my family, mostly – some people don’t have that luxury, but for me it’s been a good family to support me, and good friends that I’ve reached out and found that support me. And we support each other.
And it’s like on a mountain you have a rope team, people connected on a rope and you’re moving together. And you kind of have to find your rope team in life. And I’ve worked hard to do that and maintain that rope team.
I want to be a climber, so I surrounded myself with the best climbers I could, and the most positive people I could, that didn’t bring me down. That gave me belief, that didn’t take it away.
Despite all that he has accomplished, Weihenmayer is quick to point out that he’s not, as he puts it, some Super Blind Guy. In many ways, he’s no different than the next person.
I’ve had that happen a lot. And I guess I’d first respond by saying I’m a decent athlete, but I’m not a great athlete. I’m not this great physical specimen. And I have the same ailments and frailties. I have the same uncertainties, and doubts, and fears that anyone else has. In fact, fear used to paralyze me. And I’m no Super Blind Guy.
And I think people have said that in the past. They say, you’re inspiring. And that’s a huge compliment, sure, but in a way I think that word is a double-edged sword, because people use the word inspiring to say, hey, you’re like that, but I’m like this. And it’s a way that people use as a defense mechanism so they don’t have to make hard choices in their life. They separate themselves from me, let’s say, and it’s a way that they don’t have to wrestle with their own choices.
So I do think people do that quite a bit. And it’s important for people to know that yes, most people have the ability to do more in their lives than they think.
A big part of Weihenmayer’s success comes from his focus on problem-solving, a skill he says being blind has honed.
I’ve had obstacles, where maybe I wanted to learn to climb as a blind person, or I wanted to learn to trek up a mountain. Or I wanted to paraglide solo. Or I wanted to be a better dad. You know, it’s not like those ideas are right in front of you. Without eyes, you have to be a better problem solver. So in a way, those obstacles have helped me to be a better problem solver. To find ways – when I want to – instead of stepping back, to step forward, and engage more.
And so, being a blind dad, I wanted to be the best dad I could. I wanted to be a part of my kids’ lives, and so I devised a lot of systems. I had a friend design a candyland game where, instead of seeing the colors, each color has a different tactile texture so I can feel where my little guy is on the board. We put a wrestling mat and have these balls that we can throw at each other. They’re big blow-up balls, so when they peg me in the head it doesn’t hurt so bad.
And so those obstacles, those fears of not engaging help you sometimes create a lot of awesome systems that you can take with you wherever you go in life. And sometimes they’re even good enough that they extend and help other people. And I happen to call them systems. They’re systems, or strategies, or ideas that help you be more productive, more efficient, sometimes safer. In combination, they’re the difference between success and failure, and they lead you to solutions. The purpose that you’re looking for in your life, they’re getting you closer to that. So you’re not doing things in such a helter-skelter kind of way, you’re doing them in a strategic way.
In 2004, Erik’s path took him to Tibet to lead a group of blind Tibetan students on a summit attempt of a 23,000 foot mountain, an effort that was the subject of the documentary Blindsight. It all started with an invitation from a blind German woman living in Tibet.
After I climbed Everest, it was maybe a couple years after I climbed Everest, I got this beautiful letter – I listen to my e-mail with a voice synthesizer that reads me the screen – and I got this letter from this lady named Sabria. And Sabria’s this beautiful blind lady. She’s German, and she lives in Tibet now, and her story is that she tried to get into the German equivalent of the Peace Corps. And she was blind and they said, you’re a risk. You’re a liability. We don’t send blind people into the field. And so they rejected her even though she was amazingly qualified. And she had studied Tibetology in college, the study of Tibet.
And so she funded her own way, just her and her cane, to Tibet, and met some locals and rode horseback through some villages, and wanted to investigate blindness. And she found blind kids that were three years old, four years old, hadn’t been taught to walk. Their parents – it wasn’t like they didn’t love them, but they’d go out to the fields, herding their yaks and they didn’t know what to do with these blind kids, and so they’d tie them to beds in dark rooms to keep them safe, and the kids were just sitting there. [13:22] And all these superstitions had cropped up, like if you’re blind, maybe there’s a reason for it, like you have evil spirits inside you. You have demons inside you.
So she realized this was her calling and she started a school, fought through tons of bureaucracy and superstition and now trains hundreds of kids a year. Blindness is very prevalent in Tibet because of all the yak dung fires and all the UV rays because you’re so high in altitude. And these are the best educated kids in Tibet now.
And she wrote us a note and said I was inspired by your book, and the kids were too in our school, and she said, would you ever come over for a visit? And I went to my Everest team and I said, how would you guys like to do a project in Tibet? And we went over there and we trained six of her kids. She picked six really fit, motivated students who were blind, and we went and trained them, and we came back in the fall and we took them on a month-long climbing expedition. We pushed through a lot of hardship, but it definitely was an awesome adventure.
They ultimately stood at almost 22,000 feet together – all six kids, myself, Sabria – and that was higher than any other team of blind people had ever stood.
And those kids are going on now, all those blind Tibetans, they’re going on to doing really amazing things. They’re not just surviving blindness, but they’re flourishing. Two of them have started the biggest massage clinic in Lhasa. One of them started a Braille printing press. One of them graduated from high school in a sighted school, which first of all didn’t even want to let her in. She graduated number one in the whole school. And then one of the kids is taking over the school now that Sabria and Paul are taking over another project in India.
me it’s a really cool story. Sabria’s basically changed a whole society
in certain ways. In ten years. It’s crazy to think that one person has
that much power.
I asked Weihenmayer what attracted him to the project.
I just wanted to be a part of Sabria’s mission. I just really got inspired by what she had done in Tibet, and I thought it would be really cool to be a part of that mission in the way I know how, which is a climbing expedition. And why not take these kids on an amazing adventure? Something big. Something that nobody in their families, nobody in their culture had done. Take these kids who were pariahs and have them do something really special. Because when you start thinking about big things in your life, the bigness of that, it kind of ingrains itself into your psyche and it affects you as you move forward, and you think bigger in your life. You don’t think about just surviving. You think about doing great. You think about flourishing. So I wanted to be a part of that.
And then I like climbing too, so it was a good chance to go to Tibet and be a part of something really cool. And I also learned at the end, because we did fall short of the actual summit that we wanted to get to – we made it almost to 22,000 feet, but the summit we were going for was 23. And I realized there was a lot of struggle. And the kids were struggling, and we were trying to figure out, what was our goal?
A summit is different for everyone. For me it might be standing on top of a summit of a mountain. But for these kids, their summits were all over the map. And that’s kind of the beauty of it, and eventually we found a summit that was meaningful to everyone. We trekked up to this amazing ice palace. It was like a giant palace of ice where the glacier had retreated and it left these amazing canyons and corridors of ice. And the kids climbed all over the ice, and we had the most amazing day, and it was the most tactile experience for these blind kids.
Weihenmayer talks about the meaning and motivation of his work with youth and people with disabilities.
It might come back to that adversity thing again. Because when I went blind, I remember sitting in the cafeteria as a freshman right after I had gone blind and listening to the excitement, all the adventure. All the food fights, all the laughter going by that I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t want blindness to be the reason I couldn’t take part in that kind of stuff, like I wouldn’t be in the thick of things. And I think in a way that was my biggest fear. That I would be swept to the sidelines and my life would be meaningless.
And I think in a way when you confront that sort of potential future, in a way there’s a tipping point where the pain of doing nothing outweighs the pain that it might take to make a change in your life. So I really worked hard to find stuff that made me fulfilled in life, and to work really hard to have friends. You know, worked toward the things that were important. And so for me I can relate so candidly to that fear of sitting in a dark room listening to life go by. And I think for me that’s important in my mission to take people that might traditionally be on the sidelines and get them into the thick of things, and get them experiencing life to the fullest. And so for me, that’s where my work takes me, and it’s fulfilling for me in that way.
Asked what kind of legacy he wants to leave behind, Weihenmayer describes it as one of previously unimagined possibilities and shattered barriers.
I would say though, just take a blind guy climbing Mount Everest. This is something that most people would not ever have imagined possible before it happened, and so there is a sort of legacy that’s created there in that it takes people’s ideas of what’s possible and it just drives them – it maybe kind of explodes them. And so when people have to rebuild their perceptions of what’s possible, it’s a bigger picture. It’s a more open – it’s more full of possibilities. So in a way I think that’s a good legacy.
And also I think I can directly affect people’s lives through some of the fun programs that I’m doing in my life. Not only this program where I take blind kids climbing, through an organization called Global Explorers, but I run a non-profit called No Barriers, where we bring together all sorts of new ideas and new technologies and all sorts of pioneers, many of whom have disabilities, and we show people who have challenges all these ideas and all these technologies that have the potential to shatter barriers in their lives and living more actively and more fully in their lives.
We bring in the latest prosthetic legs that people might be able to tap into that enable them to run and climb. We bring in mountain bikes for paraplegics. These people are getting off road, something that they’ve never been able to do before, onto a trail. We bring in talking GPS systems and show blind people how they can use this talking GPS to navigate, not only through cities, but through the outdoors. They can actually kayak, and hike independently. So we kind of do things that shatter barriers in life, and that to me is really gratifying.
Thank you for listening to Curt Rosengren’s M.A.P. Maker Podcast. If you’d like to know more about Erik Weihenmayer, you can find him at www.touchthetop.com. And if you’d like to know more about how I can help you discover work that energizes and inspires you, please visit me online at www.passioncatalyst.com.