You don’t have to be the best, fastest, strongest person out there on the route everyday. I used to stress out about not being the fastest, strongest climber on an expedition. But what I learned is that it’s not always the fastest/strongest climber who gets to the top of the mountain — rather, it is the climber who is willing to withstand discomfort and who is absolutely relentless about putting one foot in front of the other. If you try to be the fastest and the strongest 100% of the time, you are going to burn out. Pace yourself, and then be relentless.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Levine.
Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer who has climbed the highest peak on every continent, skied to both the North and South Poles, and served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. She’s currently on the faculty of the Thayer Leadership Group at West Point and is one of the country’s most in-demand speakers on the topic of leadership and resilience. She is the author of the NY Times bestseller, ON THE EDGE: Leadership Lessons from Mt. Everest and Other Extreme Environments.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Love to. I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and when I was a kid I was absolutely convinced that I wanted to be an air-conditioning repairwoman when I was older because there would be high demand and job-security due to the extreme high summer temperatures. I was also obsessed with the stories of the early Arctic and Antarctic explorers and the early mountaineers. I LOVED reading stories and watching films about these adventurers — because it felt like an escape from that oppressive summer heat. But I never actually thought I would ever go to any of those places because I was born with a hole in my heart which presented some health challenges. I had my first heart surgery when I was 17 years old, but that one was not successful. I had my second procedure when I was 30, and that one worked! Well, about 18 months later this light bulb went on in my head and I thought, “If I want to know what it’s like to be Reinhold Messner and ski 600 miles across Antarctica to the South Pole, then I should go try it instead of just reading books about it. If I want to know what it’s like to be these explorers going to these remote mountain ranges, then I should go to the mountains instead of just watching documentaries about them…and if these other guys can go do this stuff, WHY CAN’T I?” So I climbed my first mountain at age 32, and I have not stopped since (and I am now 55). You are never too told to start living your dreams.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was first asked to serve as the team captain of the America Women’s Everest Expedition back in 2001, I initially said, “NO.” I was worried that I was not going to be good enough, fast enough, or strong enough. I was afraid I would fail. But then I realized that there was only going to be one “first American Women’s Everest Expedition,” and if I didn’t step up to the plate to be the team captain, someone else was going to do it and that person was going to be living MY dream adventure! So I ended up changing my mind and saying “yes” to the opportunity; and it was life-changing for me. My experience on that trip is what led to me getting an adjunct professorship at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and also launched my speaking career. I now deliver 100 keynote speeches a year and have been getting booked at this rate for over a decade, and I absolutely LOVE IT! So the lesson here is that there are going to be times in your life when you just need to STEP UP…even if you feel like you’re not ready. Saying “YES” to something that scares you could completely change the trajectory of your life. It did for me.
What do you think makes your brand stand out? Can you share a story?
The reason I am one of the most in-demand leadership speakers in the country is not just because my story about grit and determination resonates with audiences; it is because I am relatable.
Coming across as human, relatable and vulnerable is more important to me than coming off as some kind of superwoman. I remember when I worked in corporate America and went to conferences and listened to keynote speakers who had accomplished amazing things — Olympic medalists, record-setting professional athletes, etc. They would talk about how disciplined they were, how much they were willing to sacrifice to achieve their goals, how focused they were on being the best ever since they were four years old, etc…and I would just sit there thinking, “Well, good for you that you are this super-driven overachiever and that all of your sacrifices all paid off…but I am just trying to balance work, life, friends and hobbies. And I don’t want to short-change any of these things. What can you tell me about just leading a happy life? What can you tell me about how to be a positive influence on the people around me?”
Bottom line: I am not an elite athlete. I am just a regular person with a passion for the mountains and for helping people lead their best lives. I feel incredibly fortunate that I get to take the stage on a regular basis and relay some stories that will inspire people to just push a little harder, go a little further, and believe they can achieve more than they ever thought possible.
But I am not superhuman. I am not gifted in any area other than having a sense of determination and resilience that can carry me through life’s most difficult moments. I am an average, everyday person who believes that I can achieve extraordinary things by just putting one foot in front of the other. That’s the secret to my success. That’s how you get to the top of a mountain; be it literal or figurative. And that is a message that people can relate to.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
In 2008 I became the first American to ski the Messner Route across Antarctica to the South Pole. I was part of a five-person international expedition, and to reach the South Pole we had to ski for 600 miles across the coldest, windiest place on earth. Oh, and we each had to drag 150lbs of gear and supplies in a sled harnessed to our waist. At just under 5’4” tall and 112 lbs, I was the smallest person on the team and this sled-dragging was no easy feat. At times it felt impossible. And the only reason I was able to complete this journey was because of our incredible Australian team leader, Eric Philips. He saw that I was struggling with the weight in my sled (as I was the only team member whose sled outweighed them), and he and another one of my teammates, George Zwender, took some of my gear and carried it for me so that I could ski faster without over-exerting myself. But they did it in a very sneaky fashion (it’s a long story…and I wrote an entire chapter about this in my book, and it seems to be everyone’s favorite chapter) and in the process sent me a very strong message that they wanted me to succeed. They sacrificed on my behalf, and I will never forget it. I am not sure I would have successfully reached the South Pole without them.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience?
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people? Resilience is the ability to get back up no matter how many times you get knocked down, and to keep moving no matter how much pain you are feeling. Resilient people can withstand pain and discomfort and compartmentalize it and use it to propel themselves forward instead of letting these things stop them in their tracks.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience? Courage and resilience are both necessary traits when it comes to achieving a goal that feels like it’s going to be a ridiculous, hairy stretch. Courage is what gets us to go forward. Resilience is what keeps us moving forward even when taking one more step feels like “too much.” Resilience is what gets us to take that next step. And then one more. And then one more after that…
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I think of swimmer, Diana Nyad, who became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. She made four unsuccessful attempts before finally succeeding on her fifth try. She was 28 years old when she first tried to do this, and finally succeeded at age 64. Talk about determination!!! She never gave up on her dream.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I was told by several people that someone like me could not climb Mt Everest. People said that I would not be strong enough because of my health issues. I had a history of cardiac problems and also suffer from a neurological condition called Raynaud’s disease which causes the arteries in my fingers and toes to collapse in cold weather — leaving me at extreme risk of frostbite. And the fact that I am physically small did not work in my favor either. But when someone tells me that I can’t do something, my first inclination is to try to prove them wrong. I won’t lie; I get a lot of satisfaction out of making the naysayers eat their words.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
When I was on Everest in 2002, my team came to within 270 feet of the summit — but we were forced to turn back because of bad weather. Because we were the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, we got a ton of media coverage which started a few weeks before we left for Nepal and continued throughout the expedition…and then of course we didn’t make it. I returned home and had to face all of the media scrutiny. And it just felt like such a gut punch every time I had to do a media interview and talk about this high-profile failure. We were even the butt of Jay Leno’s opening monologue joke (OUCH). It was brutal. I felt like I let everyone down — myself, my team, our sponsor (Ford Motor Company), and our fans/followers. Thank God there was no social media back then or I would have been beating myself up even harder. I internalized this disappointment for a long time and questioned my future in the sport. But eight years later, I finally got over my self-doubt and decided to go back to Everest again. And this time I was climbing in honor of a dear friend who had passed away unexpectedly in late 2009. Her name was Meg Berte Owen and she was the most determined and resilient person I knew, and the way she lived her life inspired me to go back to the mountain and give it another shot. On May 24th, 2010, I stood on top of Mt. Everest and completed the Adventure Grand Slam — which is climbing the Seven Summits (highest peak on each continent) and skiing to both the North and South Poles. I was one of only a few people in the world who had completed the Grand Slam at the time. I held up at shirt with Meg’s name on it when I reached the top. I felt like she was with me the entire time.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I grew up in a very tough love family where my parents would not tolerate whining, crying or complaining. My mom would often say, “I didn’t get the nurture gene.” This was an understatement of tremendous magnitude. I was expected to tough things out and just power through difficult situations. When faced with a challenge, I was told to “figure it out.” This type of upbringing made me incredibly independent and self-reliant and gave me the confidence to know that I could get myself through the toughest of times.
I can get past pain and discomfort. I did it as a kid, so I knew I could do it in the mountains. And while it is of course beneficial to be surrounded by leaders or teammates who will support and encourage you, there will be times when you are alone and you are faced with challenges, so have to pay attention to that inner voice that tells you that you can keep going. Everyone has that voice; you just have to dig down deep enough to hear it.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Remember that you can be scared — AND BRAVE — at the same time. Crossing the Khumbu Icefall on Mt Everest is hands down the scariest thing I have ever done. You have to make your way through 2000 vertical feet of these massive ice blocks that could fall on you and kill you at any moment. You have to cross crevasses on rickety aluminum ladders where you could fall hundreds of feet to your death. But you cannot let fear paralyze you. You keep moving, regardless of the fear.
- Do not ever be afraid to fail. If you are afraid to fail, you will always be afraid to take big risks. And a lack of failure-tolerance stifles progress and innovation. Remember that failure is simply one thing that happens to you at one point in time. It does not/will not define you. If it were not for my 2002 “failure” on Everest I would never have made it to the summit in 2010.
- Learn to redefine progress. Ever feel like you are moving in the wrong direction? Well, you feel like this a lot on Mt. Everest because you spend a lot of time climbing DOWN the mountain as you acclimatize. During the first six weeks of the expedition you spend a lot of time climbing up to higher camps and then going all the back down to base camp to rest for a few days before you can go up the mountain again and go even higher — you have to do this in order to get your body used to the altitude. And while you are definitely climbing in the opposite direction from the summit, you are still making progress because you are building strength and are helping your body acclimatize. Progress can happen in a lot of different directions.
- Do not underestimate the power of a positive mindset. Attitude can make you (and your team) or break you when the sh*t hits the fan, and optimism can bring hope when people feel lost in a dark or chaotic situation. Research shows that positive thinking is good for your health and can actually increase your life expectancy, reduce stress, and boost your immune system. One of my expedition leaders once told me that there were days where he thought I was the strongest person on the team because of my unwavering enthusiasm, positive attitude, and sense of humor. He explained that these things lifted the team up during the toughest of times when things felt bleak. You know that saying that “enthusiasm is contagious?” Well, it’s true, and there is science to back this up.
- You don’t have to be the best, fastest, strongest person out there on the route everyday. I used to stress out about not being the fastest, strongest climber on an expedition. But what I learned is that it’s not always the fastest/strongest climber who gets to the top of the mountain — rather, it is the climber who is willing to withstand discomfort and who is absolutely relentless about putting one foot in front of the other. If you try to be the fastest and the strongest 100% of the time, you are going to burn out. Pace yourself, and then be relentless.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could change the world in any way, I would want to cure loneliness. When people feel lonely, they usually also feel hopeless. And hopelessness and loneliness are the root of so much mental anguish. Hopelessness is often why people die by suicide. I want people to understand that a few kind words of support can completely change the outcome of a situation; or could even change someone’s life. I would love to start a movement where everyone reaches out to someone who might be struggling and shares some support/encouragement and reminds that person that they are loved and they are important to this world. We should do this every day and make it a habit like brushing our teeth or exercising.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
There are many people whom I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with. Martha Stewart would be one of my picks. I know she might be turned off by how messy my tent typically is, how much I love freeze-dried food, and how we don’t shower and wear the same smelly clothing day after day on an expedition, but I think we would have a fabulous conversation. I am a superfan because of her business acumen and her resilience. That woman has reinvented herself many times over, and even after a stint in jail, she was able to resurrect her brand and image. And now, at age 80, she is still relevant across multiple generations, and not many people can make that claim. She isn’t afraid to take risks and deliver the unexpected. Hell, she has even collaborated with Snoop Dogg…who saw that coming?
How can our readers further follow your work online? My website:
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!