“Sometimes you look up at a mountain and think, ‘I CAN’T!’…And then you climb it anyway.”–Alison Levine
Alison Levine served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, climbed the highest peak on each continent and skied to both the North and South poles— a feat which only twenty people in the world have achieved. Not bad for someone who was born with a hole in her heart.
Alison is so many things, including being a good personal friend. In this inspiring conversation we discuss lessons learned from surviving extreme environments to coping with all of life’s struggles. We all have our mountains to climb— and while we often have shit weather— we can rise above our circumstances.
I learned so many lessons in this episode. Alison teaches us that complacency can kill you, and that you can be sacred and brave at the same time. You don’t have to let fear stop you, and we can all compensate for our weaknesses (not overcome, but compensate). As Alison put it so wisely, “Failure is one thing that happens to you at one point in time. It doesn’t define you.”
Alison: [00:00:00] So when you’re in a remote extreme environment where you don’t have control over what’s going on around you, um, that can produce a lot of fear and anxiety. And a lot of times fear is crippling to people. So what you have to do is you really have to embrace this mindset that you can be scared. And brave at the same time
Scott: today, it’s my great pleasure to welcome my friend, Alison Levine to the podcast. Where do I even start in describing Alison? She is so many things. She’s an adventurer. She’s an explorer. She’s a mountaineer, a New York times bestselling author, beer muse, filmmaker, storyteller, dog lover, growth enabler.
Allison served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, climbed the highest peak on each continent and skied to both the North and South Poles, a feat which only 20 people in the world have achieved. So these are all her [00:01:00] sort of formal accomplishments, but what I really like about Allison is her as a person, her spirit, her sense of adventure and all the sort of lessons that she can teach us about how we can reach our goals in life and the things we want to do.
not giving up. I mean, in one sense, it’s pretty trite. You know, when we hear over and over again, don’t give up, don’t give up, don’t give up. But Allison really shows us what that means, you know, in action, uh, in practical terms, what it really means to not give up. She was born with a hole in her heart, uh, and she has survived some of the most extreme conditions in the world.
What Allison shows is that you can be scared And brave at the same time, you can still act, uh, in the direction that you most value. Uh, there’s a quote I really like from Allison, uh, which is on her website where she says, Sometimes you look up at a mountain and think, I can’t, and then you climb it anyway.[00:02:00]
I love that so much. Look, she teaches us that everyone has mountains to climb. And the, the real Inspiring thing there is that we can climb them. Uh, we can get started today. So I’m really excited to, to present this interview to you all. I know that you’ll, uh, really enjoy it and find it inspiring. And so without further ado, I bring you Allison.
Allison. So glad that you’re finally on the psychology
Alison: podcast. I’m so glad I’m finally on the psychology podcast too.
Scott: How are you doing? Good. How are you? You know, uh, all things considered in the world, I’m doing pretty good. A lot going on. It’s a lot going on, but, um, I think that, uh, this is a relevant conversation.
You know, the things that you’ve learned, uh, in your life and the things you can teach others, I think, can pertain to, uh, where anyone’s at in their life right now, right? Yeah. [00:03:00] You know, you have this quote, uh, I want to start off with this quote that I love of yours. Um, it says, Because everyone has mountains to climb.
Alison: This is so true. Everybody has mountains to climb, whether it’s, I mean, obviously I like literal mountains, but these figurative mountains in our lives, in our work lives, in our personal lives, there’s always going to be mountains to climb. There’s always going to be challenges. There’s always going to be, you know, something big in front of you that feels intimidating and feels insurmountable.
But if you have the right psychological tools, uh, it’s just. It’s just a mountain. You can climb it. It’s still there. It’s still a mountain, but you can climb it.
Scott: Yeah. Do you feel in some ways or at any point in your life, did you feel like an underdog? I
Alison: definitely have felt like an underdog at times for a number of reasons.
First of all, mountaineering obviously is a sport that’s very heavily male dominated. And as a woman in the sport, especially as someone who’s [00:04:00] pretty small, physically small. So I’m five, four, about 110 pounds. Um, just seeing these tall, you know, six foot four, 200 pound guys blow by me on the trail. And just feeling like, I don’t know, you know, I don’t know if I’m made for this.
I don’t know if this is the right sport for me, but then realizing You don’t have to be the fastest. You don’t have to be the strongest to be successful in the sport. You just have to be the person who is absolutely relentless about putting one foot in front of the other. You just have to be the person that won’t quit.
So you learn to stop comparing yourselves to other people on the mountain and you just. you know, climb in your own style at your own pace. And that’s what builds confidence, right? When you get to the next camp and you get to the next camp and you get to the next camp. And every time you think, I don’t know if I’m going to be fast enough, you realize I don’t, I don’t have to be the fastest.
And then also just, you know, I was born with a hole in my [00:05:00] heart that got bigger as I got older. So I’ve had three cardiac procedures. One, when I was 17, one, when I was 30 and one, when I was 44. And so I. You know, that’s often a little bit scary for me, but I don’t want to let feeling scared about something hold me back from doing the things that I want to do.
Scott: Yes. What a great attitude. You know, I, I think a lot about, um, a victim mentality, you know, and, and I, then I think of it in, in the context of you trying to climb Mount Everest and, you know, what, what, where, where would you be if. Like the slightest sign of bad weather, you’re like, I’m a victim to the weather.
I’m out, you know, uh, never, and
Alison: I’m never coming back. Everything’s working against me. You know that I’m feeling sick from, you know, you, you feel the altitude, obviously when you get high up on a mountain, you feel the altitude sickness, you have a banging headache, you feel sick to your stomach, you lose your appetite.
There’s a lot that goes into that. Um, and you realize that even though it feels. [00:06:00] uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean you can’t keep going. Right. And there’s always these uncontrollable factors that are going to affect your climb and are going to affect your success. And, you know, sometimes you have shit weather and there’s nothing you can do about it, or you control the things that you can control.
And you realize that you have to just accept. The uncontrollable things and sometimes it means you’re going to backtrack a little bit. Sometimes it means you’re going to change the timeline that you had in mind, but it doesn’t mean that you quit and it doesn’t mean that you give up. You
Scott: say in your book, but we can’t control the environment.
All we can control is the way we react to it. Yeah, absolutely. You know, um, now you are a multi faceted human being. You’re very, you’re very complex. You are an adventurer, an explorer, a mountaineer, best selling author, a beer muse, a filmmaker, a storyteller, a dog lover. [00:07:00] Uh, your, your dog, do you want to, do you want to hold your dog up to the camera?
Oh. He left, I know. We have a picture of him in the back. Um, but hopefully
Alison: he’ll come back down here. I think he, I was ignoring him, so he got frustrated. So he left, but hopefully he’ll come back. Now do
Scott: you take him on any expeditions?
Alison: So I do take him on hiking trips in Colorado. So I live in a little town called Morrison in Colorado.
If you know Red Rocks Amphitheater, that’s in Morrison. So he gets to go hiking a bit in Morrison, but, um, any big expeditions, he doesn’t get to come.
Scott: Okay. Well, you’re just looking out for his safety, I guess. Yeah, exactly. Um, so you, you’re no stranger to, uh, surviving extreme environments. I mean, that’s, that’s, that’s kind of your thing.
That’s kind of your thing. Um, but, but what you’ve done is really cool. You’ve applied it to, in, in lots of ways that people might not Think to connect it to, and particularly leadership, right? Right. Um, you argue that [00:08:00] everyone is in a leadership position regardless of age or title or tenure or where we work.
So you read your book, um, , I read it. Um, so can you elaborate a little bit more how everyone is in a leadership position?
Alison: Yeah. So I that. Well, it’s a mistake to leave leadership responsibilities to somebody with a certain title or a certain amount of tenure. Or, you know, you’re thinking about, oh, a leader has a number of people reporting to that person or oversees a budget of a certain size and leadership is not about title or tenure or how many people report to you or a budget.
Leadership is about realizing. That everybody, regardless of title or tenure, has a responsibility to help a team move toward a goal. Right? And everybody also has the responsibility to be looking out for one another. You can’t leave that to one person or a couple of people with certain titles because God forbid what happens, you know, if that person’s not [00:09:00] around, maybe on an expedition, they’re incapacitated or something, or in the business world.
Or, you know, the, the, the person is just not present for whatever reason. The rest of the team needs to be able to carry on and move forward. And so I think everybody needs to embrace this leadership mentality and realize that they have an opportunity to have incredible impact on the people around them and they don’t need a title for that.
Scott: I love that. Um, there are obviously some environments that are, that, that seem more extreme than others. I don’t know, you know, what, what are some of the main lessons you’ve learned from being in extreme environments that you’ve been able to apply to help leaders be at their best?
Alison: Right. So there’s a few of them.
One of them you touched on already, which is about, we can’t control the environment, only the way we react to it. Um, and There’s, there’s a few other ones that I’d like to talk about and one is about managing fear, right? So when you’re in [00:10:00] a remote extreme environment where you don’t have control over what’s going on around you, that can produce a lot of fear and anxiety and a lot of times fear is crippling to people.
So what you have to do is you really have to embrace this mindset that you can be scared And brave at the same time, you can be scared and brave at the same time. And when I really learned about that was going through this area called the Kumbu Icefall on Mount Everest. And if you’re listening, you can Google Kumbu Icefall.
I mean, not right now, because I’m still talking, but when I’m done, you can Google Kumbu Icefall and you can see photos of it. And it is an incredibly frightening part of. climbing Mount Everest. It’s 2000 vertical feet of these big, huge moving ice chunks, and the ice chunks are the size of small buildings.
And what happens is the sun comes up, everything starts to melt. And then these big, huge ice chunks that are the size of small buildings start to shift [00:11:00] around. So you’re in constant danger of being crushed. And then It’s more complicated because you have these big, huge open crevasses, these openings in the glacier, uh, where you could fall hundreds of feet to your death.
So between the big, huge moving ice chunks and the ladders and the crevasses, it’s a super scary part of the mountain, but there’s no way to avoid it. You, you go through it actually several times during the course of your expedition. And that’s when I realized that fear, fear is just a normal human emotion.
Fear is okay. Complacency is what will kill you right on this mountain. Complacency is what puts you at risk. You cannot stand around in the Khumbu Icefall. You need to continue moving even when it’s scary. So that’s why I say you can be scared and brave at the same time. And then another lesson that’s really important is to realize that.
When you’re doing something big, right? When you set a big goal, you’re going to [00:12:00] have a plan, right? You want to have a solid plan. Planning keeps you organized, keeps you on track, keeps you motivated. But when you’re in these environments that are very unpredictable, which is of course the world today, whatever plan you came up with last year, last week, last month, This morning, your plan is outdated.
Your plan is shot already. Your plan is outdated as soon as it’s finished when you’re in these very volatile environments. So yes, it’s important to have a plan, but you can’t be hell bent on sticking to that plan no matter what. You want to be much more focused on executing based on what is going on at the time.
Scott: I love that. You know, let’s, let’s, let’s, let’s unpack on anxiety a little bit more, you know? So fear, fear maybe is a little bit different than anxiety. Um, well. Fear sounds, feels like extreme anxiety, but also fear is, is a very psychological thing. [00:13:00] It’s very like, uh, my soul is anxiety, but, but with fear, you’re really expecting bad shit to happen.
Now, what do you, it’s like, um, what do you do in situations? Where it really is not looking good, you know, and, and I’m sure you’ve been in situations where all the signs are Pointing in a negative direction. Now, have you ever had a panic
Alison: attack? I have never had a panic attack, but I have known people, I’ve been on the mountain with people that have had panic attacks.
So that’s difficult to manage, obviously. Yeah, what do you do? Yeah. Well, what I did with this person is this was a person that had been incredibly strong throughout the entire expedition on Everest, had An incredibly intelligent person with, I think, three degrees from Ivy League institutions, a [00:14:00] military background, six foot three, super strong physically, and this person had a panic attack and decided that he was going to turn around and go down.
He’d never had a panic attack before, and he just said, I had a panic attack in my tent. This has never happened to me before. My heart was racing. My fingers and toes were tingling. I think I should go down. And. Everybody was pretty silent, you know, all of us that were sharing this camp, everyone was pretty silent.
And I thought, I don’t want this guy to throw in the towel. He’s been such an incredible, uh, source of inspiration for people on the mountain. He’s been incredibly physically strong and psychologically strong up until this point. Now he seems to be having trouble, right? Seems to be struggling with anxiety and this was new to him.
And so everyone was really quiet. And then finally I said, you. Are not going down. I said, you are not going down. I do not want you to turn back because if you turn back, let me tell you that the [00:15:00] summit is not going to mean as much to me to be up there without you. And I don’t think it’s going to mean as much to anybody else around us if you’re not there too.
So tell us what we have to do. What do we have to do to make you feel more comfortable about going up this mountain? And he said, Allison, I appreciate your sentiments, but I’m the one, you know, it’s my life, I’m the one that’s in danger. So I really need to think about this for a while. And I said, absolutely think about it, but just know we’re, we’re here to help you.
I think I speak for everybody in this tent right now. Everyone in this mess tent. When I say we want you to be with us and we want to help. So 10 minutes go by. And then he says, you know what? I’ll go. I’ll go. And everybody cheered. Everybody was so happy that he was willing to continue going because everybody really loved this guy.
But what was interesting is that when we walked out of the tent after dinner, people said, I’m so glad you said something because I didn’t want [00:16:00] him to turn around either. I didn’t want to quit either. And I thought, why did you guys say something? But this is what was so interesting is everybody assumed.
That he knew that they didn’t want him to quit. Everybody assumed he knew how much people admired him and wanted him to be, you know, wanted to be on the mountain with him, but nobody said it. And what was interesting is he made it to the summit of Everest a couple of weeks later, sent me the loveliest note and he said, thank you.
So much for that pep talk at camp too, because that is what made me decide to keep going. And it was such a great lesson for me because I learned that a few kind words of support can completely change the outcome of a situation. I would argue could completely change somebody’s life and do not make the mistake of thinking that because somebody is traditionally a strong performer that they don’t [00:17:00] need to be told how important they are to you.
And I realized that from that experience on the trip. And I thought, wow, I can’t believe just a few words from me made the difference for him because I just assumed he knew, he knew we didn’t want him to quit. He knew we wanted him to keep going up with us, but no one else said it. And so it really, I think about that all the time now, say, say the thing, right?
Say the thing to make somebody feel valued. Say the thing to make somebody feel important. Say the thing makes somebody understand how much you care about them because those words Those spoken words can make a difference.
Scott: Oh, wow. And I like the words, the specific words you used with him. I mean, that’s really, really, uh, it would have probably impacted me too.
So, um, you’re very, very, you’re very thoughtful with your words. You, [00:18:00] you know, you served as the team captain of the first American women’s Everest expedition in 2002. Now, what I thought. found really interesting about that situation is that your team came within just a couple hundred feet of the top of the mountain when you were forced to turn back because of deteriorating weather conditions.
And that was your first experience and you didn’t give up. You know, how easily would that have been to say, I was close enough.
Alison: Well, I mean, the interesting thing is, yeah, we got what it’s basically you’re on that mountain for. two months and you miss it by what feels like much, you know, 29, 000 foot mountain, and you miss it by 270 feet in bad weather.
But, you know, if, if you do the right thing and you make smart decisions, you can always go back and try again. But if you. do something dumb up there, you may not [00:19:00] have the opportunity to go back and try it again. And although 270 feet sounds like a short distance, and it is in the grand scheme of things, that distance would have taken us several hours because When you’re at 28, 000 feet, you’re moving very slowly.
You’re taking multiple breaths for every step. And once the weather started coming in, we did not feel like we had an, you know, enough time left of a decent weather window to keep going for the summit. So that’s where we turned around. And it was heartbreaking to turn around at the time because we were the first American women’s Everest expedition.
And we felt all this pressure to get to the top, right? We had A big fan base following us. We had tons of media coverage, Ford Motor Company sponsored the trip, you know, they paid for everything and we just wanted to make everybody proud. And then we didn’t make it and it was, it was hard because it was such a high profile failure with so [00:20:00] much media coverage when we didn’t make it.
And then I was the butt of Jay Leno’s opening monologue joke. And of course that didn’t feel good. And I really internalized this failure because. I like to be the person that comes through for people. I am the person, my, my mantra in my book, I talk about having a personal mantra, a phrase that describes who you are at your core.
My mantra is count on me. When I say I’m going to do something, I get it done. When I say I’m going to show up, I show up. You know, when I say I’m going to deliver, I deliver. And then We didn’t make it, of course, because of weather, something out of our control, but it took me eight years to get up the guts to go back again because I internalized this failure for so long and felt like I disappointed so many people.
And what if I go back and I don’t make it again? What will that feel like? And the media scrutiny and the [00:21:00] opening monologue jokes from guys like Jay Leno. Then I realized that. Failure is just one thing that happens to you at one point in time. That’s all it is. That’s what failure is. It’s one thing that happens to you at one point in time, and it doesn’t define you.
And um, I’m going to quote the great philosopher. Pitbull, who said, I do not know the word lose. I only know the word learn, right? So that’s how we have to look at our failures, even very public, high profile failures. And I got up the guts to go back to the mountain eight years later and made it to the summit.
And then. Standing on the summit, I didn’t really feel like it was this big, life changing, earth shattering moment for me. And, by the way, that summit, when I reached the top in 2010, was the completion of what’s known as the Adventure [00:22:00] Grand Slam, which is climbing the seven summits. That’s the highest peak in each continent, and then skiing to both the North and the South Pole.
And at the time, there were only a couple people in the world that had completed it. But I still, when I reached the summit, didn’t feel like it was this life changing moment by any means, because I put it in perspective and I thought, okay, This mountain that I’m on top of, this is just a pile of rock and ice, right?
And a pile of, standing on top of a pile of rock and ice doesn’t really change the world, right? What changes the world is human interaction. And so that’s really what I thought about was like the amazing, like human experiences that I had along the way and watching people overcome their fears, their doubt.
And helping other people overcome their fears and their doubt. And that’s really what I felt was valuable about the trip. It wasn’t standing on the summit of the mountain.
Scott: But with [00:23:00] that said, what does it feel like to stand on the summit of the mountain? Can you actually like talk, walk me through it a little bit?
Like, let’s say you get up there and you’re like, I’m here. What’s going through your head?
Alison: So, you know, this is going to sound like a dis, this is going to be a super disappointing answer, but what was. What was going through my head was, now I need to get down safely. So the, a little interesting statistic about Mount Everest is that the majority of the deaths that occur on the mountain occur after people have reached the summit.
When they’re on their way down, people are so focused on getting to the top of the mountain that they forget that the top of the mountain is only the halfway point. You have to be able to get yourself back down. And what happens is people use everything they’ve got in them to get themselves to the top.
And they don’t have [00:24:00] enough gas left in the tank to get themselves back down. So as soon as I got to the summit, I thought, this is great mission accomplished. But the most important thing is getting down safely. So I think I spent maybe 30 minutes up there because I also wanted to wait for the guy I was talking about that had the anxiety attack.
He was about 30 minutes behind me and I really wanted to be up there to just hug him and high five him when he got to the top. Did you? Did you? Yes. So that’s why I waited up there for 30 minutes. But typically I don’t think I would have even stayed up there for that
Scott: long. That’s, I mean, that’s exciting.
It’s to, to, to reach something. And then do you go faster down the mountain than, than, than coming up? Like, is it a faster process?
Alison: You go much faster going down. Because you’re losing elevation, right? And when you go higher on the mountain and there’s less atmospheric pressure, you feel more altitude sickness.
You’re taking more and more breaths for every step and you’re going slower and slower. [00:25:00] That’s the hard part is as you make progress on the mountain, you feel worse and worse and worse. But as you go down the mountain and you’re losing elevation, you feel stronger and better with every step as you. Get lower on the
No. Okay. How high is Mount Everest? How many
Alison: feet? 29, 035 feet.
Scott: Okay. That’s incredible. So I was
Alison: when you’re on an airplane and you’re like, we’re currently cruising at 28, 000 feet. I’m like, Oh, I’ve been higher than this. That’s
Scott: incredible. You know, I was recently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is 7, 000 feet.
And my, I was, my oxygen levels were, were low. And I had a, I was feeling dizzy and I got headache and nausea. Um, so I’m just trying to imagine more than 7, 000 feet. Wow. Now, do you have like a, do you have a, uh, one of those things you put in your fingers that says what you’re a pulse
Alison: oximeter? Yes. Yes. Yeah.
So, um, and that carry that with [00:26:00] you everywhere you go, your oxygen saturation and it’s, you know, it gets lower as you get higher. Yeah.
Scott: I mean, what, what, what’s the lowest your oxygen has been.
Alison: Oh, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know because typically I’ve only used them at base camp to make sure that I’m recovering okay and that my O, we call them like O2 sats, oxygen saturations, O2 sats are, um, not too low.
But. Um, I’ve seen people where at, you know, so you’re at base camp and I think my oxygen saturations are like in the eighties when I’m at base camp. But I’ve seen people where it dropped to the sixties when they’re at base camp and that’s not good. You’re in trouble there.
Scott: Yeah. That doesn’t sound good.
Um, well, how were you chosen as the team captain?
Alison: Just bad luck. Um, no, I had been. I started climbing in 1998, uh, about 18 months after my second [00:27:00] heart surgery. And back in the late nineties, there weren’t that many women in the sport. And so you would meet people and kind of stay in touch with them, or they would have friends of friends that would Get in touch for advice or to borrow gear and equipment and things like that.
And so I just got a phone call from some women in, uh, 2001. I got a phone call from some women who wanted to pull this team together, asking me if I wanted to serve as the team captain for the first American women’s Everest expedition. And When I first got that phone call, I actually said no, uh, just because even though I had climbed the highest peak on six continents and had done a lot of other climbing in between, I still really felt like I’m not going to be good enough.
I’m not going to be fast enough. I’m not going to be strong enough. Just all this doubt crept into my mind. Then I [00:28:00] realized, okay, hang on, there’s only going to be one first American women’s Everest expedition. And if I don’t step up to the plate to be the team captain, somebody else is going to do it.
Somebody else is going to be living my dream adventure. So I ended up calling them back and agreeing to serve as the team captain. And even at the time, I still really didn’t know if I had what it was going to take to get up the mountain. But I knew if I didn’t step up to the plate and try That, that I would never find out.
And I think there’s just, there’s times in your life where you just have to step up even if you feel like you aren’t ready, right? You step up. You don’t have to feel totally ready, but just step up. Take the chance, push yourself outside of your comfort zone, because that’s where you learn really about what you’re made of when you get outside of your comfort zone.
Now, were you nervous? I was nervous the whole time. The whole [00:29:00] time. I was never not nervous. And by the way, it doesn’t help me at all when I, when I would get to a sketchy part of the mountain, Going back to the Khumbu Icefall with all the moving ice chunks and the ladders and the open crevasses. When I would get to that, I would be scared every single time.
And by the way, we went through that Khumbu Icefall eight times. When somebody says to me, Don’t be scared. That doesn’t help me at all. It doesn’t help me at all. Don’t be scared. I’m thinking, Oh, okay. Thanks for that. Now I’m not scared anymore. No, it makes me, sometimes it makes me feel even more anxiety about it, but that’s when I had to really go back to embracing that mindset.
You can be scared and brave at the same time. Right? And if I let fear stop me from moving forward, every time I felt it, I would never get up any mountain.
Scott: That’s a metaphor for life.[00:30:00]
Are you familiar with Alex
Alison: Hanold? Yes, very. Have you ever met him? I haven’t met him, but I mean, so first of all, I, you know, watched the film and I was like the whole time. And then I actually saw him on a webinar and I was so impressed with him on this webinar. He, not only just for his climbing things, but he just was on the, you know, he, in the movie, you can tell like he seems a little bit like.
You know, out there, like a little bit detached, I got to tell you on this webinar, he was the most like charming, engaging person, you know, charismatic and everything. And so I’m, you know, I’m impressed with his accomplishments and what he’s done and who he seems to be as a person, although I’ve never met him, but I will say like his stuff still scares the living shit out of me.
Scott: You should try. What does NFW mean?[00:31:00]
Okay. You’re not gonna be doing free soul climbing anytime soon. No, but you know what you do Scares the Behe. Behe about a lot of people. Of by, by. A lot of people probably listening to this podcast right now. So, um, it’s all, it’s all relative. Um, you know, I’m trying to understand what you, how you, you skied into the North Pole and you skied into the South Pole.
Is that what you did? I mean, what does that mean exactly? Yeah,
Alison: so 600 miles. Um, Antarctica, so to the South Pole is 600 miles on skis, hauling a 150 pound sled that was harnessed to my waist with all my gear and supplies harnessed to my waist. At one time? So that was also, pardon?
Scott: Like with no break, well, did you stay at a hotel
It took us almost two months to complete the journey. And I will tell you that, that, that journey to the South Pole, 600 miles across Antarctica was the expedition where I learned the most [00:32:00] about. Leadership the most about teamwork and I just figured, um, yeah, I’ve been, you know, I, I did this in 2008 and so I’d been to Everest the first time the first, I had my first failed attempt, but it was still climbing Everest, you know, to get to within 270 feet is fricking hard.
It’s really hard. You get beat up. You got, you have to use everything you have in you. So I thought, okay, scan to the South Pole. That’s not going to be nearly as tough. And it’s. You know, you don’t, you’re not dealing with a lot of elevation. The South Pole is at about almost 10, 000 feet of elevation, but that’s nothing.
And I thought, okay, I’m used to cold environments. I’m used to feeling exhausted. No problem. I can do this. Well, let me tell you that within the first few days of this expedition, I was falling way behind my teammates. I was with four other people, all from different countries. And I thought, okay, what’s going on?
Why am I so much slower than everybody else? I trained as hard as I could possibly train. I mean, nobody trained [00:33:00] harder than I did. I was pretty sure of that. I did everything I was supposed to do. I studied the route. I studied people who had done this before I trained. I. did everything. And then I was the slowest person on the team.
And I thought, this is weird. Maybe I just need to get used to the environment, right? Antarctica, coldest, windiest place on earth. So I thought maybe it’s just the extreme cold, coldest temperatures ever recorded were recorded. I think like 128 degrees below zero, just need to get used to the cold. And then I’ll be faster.
Then I’ll be able to keep up with my team. Nope. As the days went on, I didn’t get. I didn’t get any better. I didn’t get any stronger. I didn’t get any faster. And I thought, how, how can this be? I trained, you know, I trained, I did everything I was supposed to do. Well, basically the law of physics dictates that my teammates who are 6 foot 4, 230 pounds, right?
A foot taller than me and [00:34:00] more than twice my weight. They can drag 150 pounds sled a lot more quickly and a lot more efficiently than somebody who is my size, right? Five foot four, 110 pounds. Even the next smallest person on the team had 50 pounds on me and no amount of willpower, desire, focus was going to change the fact that I just could not be as physically strong As my teammates and that was really hard for me because now I’m feeling like the person that’s the weak link on the team, holding us back.
Right. And I talked about my mantra count on me, right? I’m the person that shows up that wants to be the MVP, that wants to contribute, that wants to be a strong performer. And I. I couldn’t be, and it just felt soul crushing to me that I was the person that was holding my team up. And then my teammates ended up having to take [00:35:00] weight out of my sled.
My taller, stronger teammates had to offload some of my weight and make their sleds heavier to lighten my load. And it really changed the way that I looked at weak people on my teams, whether it had been on a mountain or had been in, in the business world. Right. When I had somebody weak on my team, I would just think, Oh, why am I stuck with this person?
You know, don’t they realize like They’re never going to be able to be, to handle this, you know, and I would just wish that they would quit or transfer to another department or get trapped under something heavy, just anything to get this person off my team. Cause I’m just thinking we would be so much better.
We’d be so much more efficient. We’d be so much more productive if I just wasn’t stuck with this weak person. And then. I became that person and it felt so crushing to me. And I realized that some [00:36:00] people have weaknesses, like we like to pretend you can always overcome your weaknesses. We say that all the time.
You can always overcome your weaknesses. There are some weaknesses that we will never overcome, but we can always. compensate for those weaknesses, not necessarily overcome, but compensate. And so as soon as those guys took the weight out of my sled, I start thinking, okay, what am I going to do to pay these guys back?
Right? They’re sacrificing for me. They’re taking more weight in their sled so that I can move faster. What am I going to do to help them? Well, at the end of the day, after you ski for 12 to 15 hours, Then you have to make, set up camp, and you pitch your tent, and after you pitch your tent, you have to build a snow barricade around it to protect it from the elements.
Because again, coldest, windiest place on earth. The wind can easily destroy your tent. So you build a snow barricade to protect your tent from the elements. What I noticed was these tall [00:37:00] guys. Trying to use the snow shovel, right, to shovel the snow to build the snow barricade. They’re wrenching their backs and they’re super uncomfortable trying to shovel the snow to build the barricade.
Well, at five foot four, I am closer to the ground. I can use a short snow shovel easily than these tall guys. So I became the designated snow shoveler and the next night after they took the weight out of my sled, I said, Hey, you guys like pass the shovel over here. I’m going to, I’ll make the snow barricade around your tent.
And our team leader, Eric said, wait, what you’re going to do what? And I said, yeah, I’m going to, I’m going to make the barricade around your tent. Like I’ll shove the snow around your tent. And he said, I’m sorry, what, why do you want to do that? And I said, because I just, I love to shovel snow. He said, you love to shovel snow.
And I said, yes, I grew up in Phoenix and I never got to do that. So shoveling snow is a treat for me. So as often as I could, I shoveled the snow around their tent [00:38:00] to make the barricade. And it was just a great lesson to me about really focusing on our strengths and If we are so concerned, you know, or so if we’re so focused on comparing ourselves to other people in areas where they are strong, we may never uncover the areas where we can truly shine because everybody has a gift.
Everybody has a gift, right? We all have an area where we shine, where we add value. We all have a superpower, but it might be very different. Then the superpowers of the people around you. So focus on what you can do to add value and don’t worry. about if it’s not the same as the people around you.
Scott: Yes, and I, I feel like another lesson, there’s a certain humility that you had as well, uh, in recognizing that you had, um, uh, some things that were holding you back.
And I was wondering how you reconcile that with your, uh, notion that, uh, leaders, they shouldn’t leave their ego at the door. That, like, [00:39:00] you hate that expression, leave your ego at the door. So how do you reconcile the importance of humility with, uh, also, This, uh, the reason why you hate believe your ego at the door.
Alison: So I, I actually came to that thinking after a discussion with coach K Mike Krzyzewski, who wrote the forward from my book. So for people who are not familiar with coach K. Mike Krzyzewski. He’s the former men’s head basketball coach at Duke University, and he’s the winningest coach in the history of Division One college basketball.
And I was fortunate enough to serve on the board of the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics for a number of years. And I, I remember this one breakfast that our board had with coach K when the U. S. national team had just come back from winning a gold medal because not only was coach K the coach of at Duke, he was the coach of the U.
S. national basketball team, right? Our U. S. men’s Olympic team, they won several gold medals. So we’re at this breakfast where he’s talking [00:40:00] about what he looks for when he’s recruiting a team. Cause I thought, how do you, how do you figure that out? Right? You have this big talent pool. To pull from, how do you know who you want to put on the court?
And he really surprised me with his answer. Cause he said that when he’s recruiting a team, what he looks for is ego. And I thought, right. Cause leave your ego at the door, right? I get it. You weed those guys out. We don’t want them. And he said, no, you want ego. And I thought, no, that doesn’t make any sense.
That goes against everything I’ve read in every management, every leadership book. And then he went on to explain it and it did make sense. And he said, when he’s recruiting a team, there’s two kinds of ego that he looks for. The first is what he calls performance ego. He said, I want people who are good, And who know that they’re good.
He said, I don’t want LeBron James to come onto the court and be a wuss. I need him to be LeBron James with all the confidence that goes with him. And I thought, okay, that actually [00:41:00] does make sense because I definitely do not want to be climbing Mount Everest with a bunch of teammates who are up there.
You know, they get to the mountain and they’re like, Oh, I don’t really know about this. You know, it looks. It looks pretty high now that we’re up close, you know, you want people who are thinking I’ve got this, right? I’ve got this. So that’s. What coach K calls performance ego. And then the second kind of ego that he talks about that he looks for is what he calls team ego.
He said, I want people on my team who are going to be proud to be a part of something that collectively feels more important than the individuals alone, right? The name on the front of the uniform team USA is more important than the name on the back of the uniform. And that made sense to me too, because I wanted women.
We’re going to be proud to be a part of the first American women’s Everest expedition, where our country’s flag on their sleeve and, and being confident in your abilities and feeling like I’m good. And I know [00:42:00] that I’m good. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having that mindset. I, but I think that also doesn’t give you.
The right to be arrogant or to treat other people poorly or to look down on other people or diminish their skills and their contributions. I think having that sense of performance ego and team ego just means you’re good and you know that you’re good and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Scott: success be a problem?
Alison: Well, I think sometimes when we achieve success, especially if we achieve it easily, and when, before I went to Everest, I had summited every mountain I’d ever been to on my first attempt. And I think that success can be a problem because When we succeed at things, especially when we, there’s not a lot of struggle involved, then we tend to just, you know, go on to the next one and go on to the next one and think, okay, everything’s great.
I’m good at this. I’m good at this. And we don’t take the time for self [00:43:00] reflection. And sometimes we achieve things because of luck. Sometimes we achieve things because we were right place, right time. And. There’s a lot of reasons why people achieve success, but if you just say, okay, I did this. So I’m going to be good at this.
I’m going to be good at this. I’m going to be good at this. And you just automatically think, assume you’re going to achieve success in the future because you’re relying on your past track record of success. I think that that is a mistake. And I think that it is always so important to take the time and reflect.
on the experience and think about the struggle instead of like, Oh yeah, I got to the top of that mountain next. Oh yeah. I was so strong. I got to the top of that one next reflect on the challenges, reflect on the struggle. And I think that’s what makes you better. And when you just assume that because you’ve had success in the past, that that [00:44:00] will bring you success in the future.
I think that that is a terrible mindset to have because That’s sort of the mindset that I had going into this South Pole expedition, right? I’ve been to the summit of all these mountains. I’ve achieved so much success. I’m going to be fine on this. No, that I wasn’t fine on that one. And so I think it’s so important to reflect, I mean, when, when something goes wrong, we tend to take the time and reflect, but I think we also need to just, you know, not, not make the assumption that because we’ve had success on X amount of things in the past, that that’s going to lead to.
Success on X amount of things in the future. It’s so important to really reflect on the entire experience and pick it apart. And even though sometimes you have success, but there are still things that were not done as well as they could have been done. There were still things that were not necessarily done properly, but we’re just like, Oh, check success next.
No, [00:45:00] think about, break it all down and think about, you still have to think about what could have been done even though you achieve success. What could you have done better? And I think sometimes just success can lead us to almost become complacent in
Scott: life. Yeah. And you’ve talked earlier about how complacency is not good, especially when you’re on the edge of a mountain glacier.
Um, so, uh, the, the kind of a reverse of what you’re just talking about is, is actually my favorite chapter in your whole book on embracing failure. Um, you talk about owning your failure, um, and then coming back with a vengeance. Oh my God. I love that. I love that. Can you talk a little about that?
Alison: Well, I’ve definitely had expeditions where, where I’ve, I’ve made it to the summit, but through luck and perseverance where I could have done things better, or I’ve made it to the summit and had a harrowing experience coming [00:46:00] down.
And, you know, in the book I talk about how, you know, thinking that I was prepared with all of the gear and equipment that I needed, a spare bulb for my headlamp, but what I didn’t count on was my headlamp. Bulb actually burning out and not having a spare bulb and having to descend. Uh, a very treacherous mountain in the dark by myself where I couldn’t see a thing.
And I’m literally on my butt with my, you know, my feet in front of me, my hands behind me trying to feel the, the ledge of this mountain to make sure I didn’t fall off the side of it. And I actually ripped the whole butt out of my, the whole ass out of my Gore Tex pants on these rocks. And, um, just funny side note.
I remember. I was a student at the time. I had no money and I bought the pants, these North Face pants at a secondhand store. And I went to the North Face store in San Francisco and tried to return them because they say they have a lifetime warranty on their, Here in clothing, but it’s only for, you know, [00:47:00] manufacturers defects.
So I go in there and the whole ass is ripped out of the back of my pants. They’re covered in mud and dirt and I go into the North Face and I said, um, Hey, I have a return. Um, I’m wondering if I could exchange these pants, you know, get, I know you have a lifetime warranty. So these pants have a hole in them.
I was wondering if I could just get a new pair. And the guy looks at my pants and he just starts laughing because the whole ass is ripped out of him. And he said, um, we have a warranty for manufacturer’s defect, but this looks like a man made defect. And I said, Nope, not a man made defect. And he said, come on.
And I said, it was woman made. And he just started laughing. And he said, I’ll give you a new pair of pants if we can keep these because we’re going to hang them up in the office. And I was like, Oh, that’s a good deal. But, but really, I mean, going back to the, the failure, right, that was, I was lucky to make it down from that mountain.
And, and, and you would maybe call it success because I did some, and I did make it down, but I considered it a [00:48:00] failure because of the risk, the, the unnecessary risk that was involved because of my poor planning. And I had to really embrace that and realize like I could have easily have lost my life because I didn’t have a spare light.
And so thinking like that really hit me hard when I got back down, like I couldn’t. For whatever reason, I couldn’t unpack my duffel bag for about two weeks. I just had it in my living room and I just stared at it and I stared at it and I couldn’t touch it because I just kept thinking about the fact that I could have been dead on this mountain because I wasn’t prepared because of my own failure.
And so it’s so important to really think about that and what are you going to learn from that? Right? You’ve got to, you’ve got to learn from these failures. You’ve got to do what you can to mitigate risk going forward. So I think that just you, you learn to embrace these failures and learn as much as you can from them.
And then you [00:49:00] also don’t let them stop you from doing the things that you want to do in the future. Um,
Scott: and I just want to end by, uh, one of these principles you talk about, you say, you’re not special. Um, why is it important to, uh, to remember that?
Alison: I think part of the reason important to remember it is first of all, to have a sense of humility, right?
You’re, I always think I’m, especially if I’m on stage giving a speech, what I’m thinking of is I’m the least important person in this room right now. I am the least important person in this room and our most important, the most valuable asset that anybody has is their time. And when someone’s giving you their time, like to me, that’s very humbling.
And even right now, people that are going to listen to this podcast, Oh my gosh, you just took time out of your busy, important life to listen to us have [00:50:00] this conversation. That to me is very humbling and makes me feel so honored for every single person that’s listening. I feel honored that you’re listening to me because you could be doing anything you want with your time, but you’re listening to us.
have this conversation. And to me, that’s, that’s very powerful. Um, but also you’re not special to me goes back to, um, a victim mentality. I mean, you and I’ve talked about this quite a bit that I think is so pervasive these days. About everybody feeling like they are special and they need special treatment and that they, you know, feel, maybe feel unsafe because somebody with different political views is on their campus.
So they feel like this is somehow a violation of who they are. And it’s just, you’re not special just goes back to this victim mentality of like, understand that. You need to [00:51:00] be a contributing. productive member of society. That’s how you leave a legacy during your lifetime. You be a compassionate, contributing, productive member of society that wants to have a positive impact on the people around you.
And so for me, whenever I feel, when I start to feel sorry for myself or something like, Oh, this, this, I got a raw deal with this, or this isn’t fair, or I’m not being treated fairly. You know, I think about my, my cousin. He was actually my mom’s cousin who was a Holocaust survivor. His name was Jack Terry.
He passed away last year, unfortunately. Um, on his own terms, chose, uh, he, he didn’t, this wasn’t in the U. S., but he chose to do physician assisted suicide. Um, Because he, his body was becoming very, very weak and he couldn’t take care of himself and he couldn’t do the things that he loved doing that made him feel alive.
So he chose to end his life. And I talked to him on the phone the night before he had the procedure done. He wasn’t American by the way, but. [00:52:00] Um, but he was a Holocaust survivor and he was in concentration camps from age nine until 15. He watched his entire family get murdered, was fought by the Nazis. His parents were murdered, his brother, his sisters, and he survived.
He managed to survive six years under, you know, under Nazi rule in these concentration camps. Uh, in April 1945, when the Uh, 90th Infantry Division came to liberate the Flossenburg camp, which is where he was. That was, he’d been to three different camps and Flossenburg was the end of the line for him. It was the last one.
These soldiers were shocked to see this young 15 year old boy staring through the gates of the Flossenburg prison because the Nazis, when they heard the Americans were coming, marched all the remaining prisoners to their death. And the only ones that remained were the ones in the [00:53:00] typhoid ward because the Nazis figured that they were going to die anyway.
Well, my cousin Jack survived because some other prisoners had the idea to hide him in a tunnel that was beneath the barracks. So they hid him in this tunnel. He survived. So he survived and the Americans come to liberate the camp. And there’s Jack Terry looking through the The gates, but he had no family.
He didn’t speak English. You know, he grew up in a small village in Poland. He had no money. He had no belongings. He had nothing. He had nothing like truly had been traumatized and had nothing. And these soldiers took him back to their battalion and thank God for this Colonel Lewis Leland. Who took Jack back to his battalion and he handed eventually, like after spending a couple of weeks with him, handed him off to one of his sergeants and said, get this kid to the U.
S. I don’t care how you do it or what you have to do, but you get him to the U. S. And you make [00:54:00] sure that he finds a family. And so they got him to the U. S. He was adopted by the Terry family. His name was Jakob Zabmacher when he was in Poland. But once he came to us, he became Jack Terry and this guy that just gets like yeah.
Dropped into this new family. Oh, here’s your new family in New York. Good luck. This guy went on to become a stellar student in high school, even though he, you know, barely spoke English, got a scholarship to college, ended up serving in the United States army, became an officer in the U S army because he wanted to give.
To the American army because he was always so grateful to them. After serving in the U S army as an officer, he went on to medical school and became a psychiatrist because he wanted to help people who had been through incredibly traumatic experience. So he focused on trauma and helping people overcome trauma.
And he also became an elite athlete where at one point he held the U S record for distance running for his age group in the country. [00:55:00] So this is a guy. that experienced what you and I know as post traumatic growth. And I just thought, I cannot ever feel Like, I, I cannot have a victim mentality because I think about people like Jack Terry and that’s what I want people to think about when you think, Oh, the cards are stacked against me and I, I have it so hard and everything is so difficult and it’s, it’s traumatic to listen to somebody with different views.
You know, this just makes me want to lose my shit. Excuse my language, but like listening to somebody with different views should not traumatize you. You don’t have to agree with them, but it should not traumatize you. Trauma, being traumatized when you watch your family being murdered, you get thrown in a concentration camp, right?
And losing everything like that’s traumatizing. So. For me, hearing stories about people like Jack Terry helped me realize that I can find the strength in me to overcome whatever it [00:56:00] is that I’m facing. Because if he can get through everything he went through, like I can get through what I’m going through.
Tough situation at work, tough situ you know, personal situation, uh, you know, whatever it is. It’s even just, I mean Thinking about all the horrible things that are going on in the world at any given time, right? And just injustices that we hear about and that we see unfolding on TV. We can get through these, like we can rise above our circumstances and people like the human spirit is so Unbelievably strong.
And I think that when we hear about stories like, you know, people like Jack Terry or other people that have been through traumatic things and have grown from them, like that should give us hope that we too can grow from whatever type of experience feels traumatizing to us.
Scott: That’s [00:57:00] so powerful. What a powerful way to end.
Um, I’m so glad we finally got this podcast And I, you know, I’m going to pull Schwarzenegger here and say, I really appreciate you and your amazing tenacity and, um, hearts. Um, you really get emotional when you talk about a lot of this stuff. So who says you can’t be strong as fuck and be emotional and be emotional as well.
I just want to
Alison: say thank you for, well, not only just for having the honor of having me on your podcast, but thank you for what you do with this podcast, because I know that you’re helping. So many people with so many fabulous topics and you have so many interesting guests. And again, I’m humbled to be included in this, um, but what you’re doing is really making a difference.
And also, um, guess who just came back? Tanker came back! Yay!
Scott: There’s Tanker! I’m going to screenshot that. Yeah, there’s Tinker. Yay! Um, bye Allison and Tanker. Thanks for being on the psychology [00:58:00] podcast.
Alison: Thank you. I’ll see you in the next video.