When blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer gives the keynote address at EDCUtah’s annual meeting on Nov. 13, he’ll be fresh off a mountain climb in the Peruvian Andes and a 10-day kayaking trip down the Rio Marañón, the Grand Canyon of South America.
After losing his sight to a degenerative eye disease at age 13, Weihenmayer responded by developing a “no barriers” attitude that has led him to the top of Mt. Everest and the Seven Summits–the highest mountain peaks on each continent. “I wanted to climb. I wanted to be in the thick of things,” he says. “My biggest fear wasn’t being blind; it was being shoved to the sidelines and forgotten. I wanted to be relevant.”
It’s that attitude attendees at EDCUtah’s annual meeting can expect when Weihenmayer gives the keynote address. “The ‘no barriers’ mindset is a great tool kit that illuminates the journey,” he explains. “It equips you to tap into the light of the human spirit and know, in the face of life’s barriers, in the face of all hardships, that you can still live the kind of life you want and still climb. But it’s not an easy journey at all. It never is.”
People often want to make some kind of impact in the world, make a difference and live a purposeful life, he says. But as they go through life, they sometimes get knocked down. And everyone deals with challenges differently, he notes. In his book, “The Adversity Advantage,” which was co-authored by Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D., Weihenmayer found that people consistently fall into three categories: quitters, campers and climbers.
“The quitters are self-explanatory,” he says. “Campers are a fascinating group. They are the people that want to climb, but they get somewhere up the mountain and say, ‘good enough.’ Or they lose belief in themselves or meet these catastrophic changes in their lives that they don’t feel equipped to handle. The obstacles in their path are like brick walls, and they get knocked flat. They become campers, stagnate and never recover.”
Climbers, on the other hand, are rare. They are a smaller group of people who have figured out how to grow, evolve and challenge themselves until the day they die, he says.
Overcoming obstacles is what Weihenmayer is all about. While he is in Peru, his team will take 15 military veterans with service-related disabilities on a climb in the Peruvian Andes as part of the Soldiers to Summitsprogram, which helps veterans tackle personal challenges.
“All of these folks are looking to make a change. They may be folks who were climbers, but now they are camping,” he says. “They have been hurt physically or psychologically or both, but they want to transform and step into the next place instead of focusing on the past. Climbing mountains together serves as both a metaphor for life and a training ground for stretching goals, building world-class teams, innovating through adversity and stepping up to lead and serve others.”
EDCUtah’s audience can also learn from Weihenmayer’s metaphor. “How do we keep climbing through life?” he asks. Focusing on the past, he adds, is the sort of thing “that can just kill you.”
Everyone has barriers they want to break through, he notes. “Mine happen to center around blindness, but in some ways that’s not even the case. Being able to break through barriers releases the energy that is in you, but it is not about [making a point], like, ‘I’m blind, but I can still do this.’ To me, that’s immature.”
Building teams you can trust is also critical. “On a mountain, you are physically connected to people. It is a great way to think about your life,” he notes. “Who are you going to rope up with? Who are you going to link your fate to? You can’t get through a glacier with crevasses and pitfalls alone. It doesn’t matter how good you are. If you want to do great things, you have to build teams.”
Trust, he continues, is at the heart of every great team. It is why teams succeed, and without it, teams fail. “Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. It’s super fragile,” Weihenmayer says. “I have been a part of teams that have soared because of that trust, and I have been part of teams that have fallen apart because we couldn’t build that trust.
“You have to link together behind a powerful vision that becomes a glue connecting you and making you better. It makes things possible that wouldn’t be without the team.”
Weihenmayer says it doesn’t matter whether you are big business, small business, government or in education: Reaching out and connecting with the right kind of people is what matters.
Despite his accomplishments, breaking through barriers can be tumultuous. “When I wanted to climb the seven summits and Everest, a lot of people said I would kill myself and my team,” he recalls. “They said, ‘You’re going to bring the whole climbing community on Everest into one big rescue to save the blind guy. You get that sort of thing when you do something big. There will always be people who think you are stupid and crazy, but if you build your rope team with people who share your vision, it makes you stronger and keeps you true to what you are trying to do.”
Weihenmayer says building an organization is an exciting journey. “I rope myself with the right people,” he says. “I don’t know everything. I can’t do everything alone. We are building something really cool. Our motto is, ‘What’s inside of us is stronger than what’s in our way.’ I love that. To me that speaks to the message I want to share.”
- Navy veteran becomes first blind kayaker to paddle length of Grand Canyon (grindtv.com)
- 5 visually impaired people who achieved great things (sightsaversin.wordpress.com)