Alison Levine has climbed many mountains in her life, from war-torn peaks in Uganda to Wall Street's rocky terrain. Through her many challenges, she has learned how to use each journey - whether it ended in success or failure - to improve her next attempt to the top.
"A lot of lessons that I learned in the mountains really helped me in the business world. And on the flip side, a lot of the lessons I learned sitting at my desk really helped me stay alive in some sketchy situations in the peaks," Levine told a room full of benefits professionals at EBN's 25th annual Benefits Forum & Expo in Phoenix.
Levine - the team captain of the first American women's Everest expedition, a former investment professional at Goldman Sachs & Co., and currently an adjunct professor at U.S. Military Academy at West Point - detailed how physically exhausting and emotionally frustrating a two-month excursion up the tallest mountain on Earth compares to the corporate world.
For the human body to acclimate to the extreme altitude of Mount Everest, climbers need to hike up to mid-level camps, and then descend back to the base camp twice so their bodies can better handle the foreign environment.
"Even though you are going completely backwards, you are still making progress because you are helping your body climatize," Levine said. "We always think that progress has to happen in one direction - that's not always the case. Sometimes you have to go backwards for a bit in order to mentally get to where you want to be."
Onward and upward
Going backwards, she added, is not the critical mistake; not moving is - a lesson Levine learned all too well while walking over deep chasms on rickety ladders and navigating bus-sized blocks of ice that move four feet on average every day.
"Fear is okay as a normal human emotion; complacency is what will kill you," she said. "You can't afford to stand still when the environment around you is shifting and changing very rapidly."
In a corporate workplace, the same is true: Trepidation facing office challenges can trigger employees to complete great work on deadline, but paralysis will get them nowhere.
Fear is good tool because it keeps you alert, Levine said, "but you must be able to move as things around you are shifting."
Thinking through risks
Levine remembered one unfortunate climber from a nearby team who fell to his death. In the face of this tragedy, Levine and her team doubted whether they could reach the peak, and whether they should even continue to try. The women were reminded that no matter how prepared or skilled you are, things can go wrong. They didn't know if this event would destroy the team or make them stronger.
"There are always risks in business and in life," Levine said, advising benefits professionals to mitigate those risks by studying the success stories and missteps of those who preceded them.
The next day, her team continued up the slope and reached the high camp where, at 26,000 feet above sea level, life can't survive. The human body starts to deteriorate and each step requires five to 10 deep breaths.
Levine set small and incremental goals for herself to combat her deep anxiety that she could walk no further. These small accomplishments built up her confidence to accomplish the next goals.
However, after all her team's tribulations on the journey, severe weather forced the women to turn back when they were just a few hundred feet from the summit.
Eight years later, Levine made the climb a second time to honor a friend who had passed away, and whose drive and passion had always inspired her.
But on that journey in 2010, Levine faced the same storm situation as she approached the final stage to the top. She pressed on despite the zero visibility, thick snow and heavy winds to reach the summit.
At the peak, Levine had finally accomplished an Adventurers Grand Slam, a rare accolade for a handful of explorers who have climbed the highest peaks on each continent and skied to both the North and South poles.
Levine is often asked how she felt at this moment, after fighting the storm and finally sitting atop the highest mountain in the world eight years after her initial attempt.
"Honestly, it just wasn't that big of deal," she said. "It's not about standing up there, it's about the journey, the lessons you learned along the way, and what you're going to do to be better going forward."
Learn from failure
After learning from the harsh realities of her first trek, she knew what it took to continue the climb in dangerous conditions.
"The only reason I made it up in 2010 when others turned around is because I had that failure in 2002," Levine said. "I think failure can be such a valuable learning experience."
Failure builds innovation and creates progress, believes Levine. And by giving yourself and others room to fail, she added, you encourage people to take educated risks, which can lead to epic payoffs.
"As long as you come back better the next time around, I think it's a pretty worthwhile experience," she said.
When uncertainties and mishaps arise in the business world, as with the natural one, Levine reminded attendees that, "you need to be able to weather the storms if you are ever going to have the opportunity to enjoy this kind of view."
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