IN THE NEWS

NYT: Overcoming Shyness to Inspire a Seatmate

By Alison Levine Jan 13, 2014

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Alison Levine, a mountaineer and leadership expert, enroute to Nepal in 2010

OTHER than a couple of trips to Mexico, one of which involved sneaking a drive from Phoenix into Tijuana with my best friend when we were teenagers, I never really traveled out of the country until I was well into my 20s. Now, as a leadership consultant, author and someone who climbs mountains, I’m always flying. I try to put up with all of the hassles without making too much of a fuss.

I think some of that patience comes from being a mountaineer and explorer. I was team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. I’ve climbed the highest peak on all seven continents. I’ve done the Adventure Grand Slam, which involves skiing to both the North and South Poles. Five years ago, I completed a 600-mile journey from west Antarctica to the South Pole on skis while hauling about 150 pounds of gear. So how can I get cranky about having to throw a carry-on in a crowded overhead bin, or even waiting a couple of hours for a delayed flight? You have to keep things in perspective.

Part of my job as a leadership consultant involves speaking at corporate events. On occasion, I have to attend a company’s cocktail reception. That’s tough for me because, believe it or not, I’m very introverted, and I’m not good at small talk. I even used to hide in bathrooms so I wouldn’t have to talk to people. When I give a speech or teach, I’m perfectly comfortable, and people enjoy themselves. But that’s a totally different experience. I never used to talk to seatmates, not because I’m unfriendly, but rather because it was difficult for me.

But that all changed.

On a flight from Salt Lake City a few years ago I was sitting next to a young man and noticed he was holding a book, “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills,” which is the bible of mountaineering. I was curious, so I asked him why he was reading the book since I knew a fair amount about the sport. I didn’t reveal my own background.

He told me about his plans to climb Mount McKinley in Alaska, which is one of my favorite mountains. He said he didn’t know if he would ever actually do it, but climbing it was a dream of his.

I urged him to make the climb and confessed that I know Mount McKinley well and had climbed it back in 2000. His eyes grew really wide, and he peppered me with a million questions. For the first time, I was actually comfortable speaking with a stranger. This man was able to draw me out of my shell, and we wound up talking the entire flight. By the time we landed, we were still engrossed in conversation.

He reminded me of myself when I was first getting into the sport and was hungry for information. I thought about all of the elite mountaineers I had met who gave me guidance. What if they had run to hide in a bathroom and I never had the opportunity to pick their brains and learn from them?

A large part of who we are has to do with the people who have influenced us. I made this young man promise that he would give Mount McKinley a try and it was a great reminder that some of the best moments of learning come at random times.

I’m still not exactly the most talkative person on planes by a long shot, but I try. I’m not hiding out at corporate events, either. If we don’t open up and offer the best of ourselves to others, even when they are strangers, we may miss out on sharing information that changes people’s lives, including our own.

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Q. and A.

Q. How often do you fly for business?

A. I’m usually on planes five days a week. Sometimes more. These are all one-day trips, so it can get crazy. Last October, I flew 28 times.

Q. What’s your least favorite airport?

A. Orlando. The T.S.A. lines move too slowly because people don’t realize that unless they take off the Mickey Mouse ears before going through security, they’re going to have to be rescreened.

Q. Of all the places you’ve been, what’s the best?

A. Antarctica. It’s the only place where I have been totally disconnected from society. Even now, if you go to Mount Everest, you can get a Wi-Fi signal. But when you’re in Antarctica, you’re cut off from civilization and have to rely on yourself. It’s pretty amazing.

Q. What’s your secret airport vice?

A. I purposely book connections through O’Hare so I can get some Vosges Haut-Chocolat — which is ridiculous, since I can order it online. I easily spend $100 on the stuff when I’m at O’Hare. And I am at O’Hare a lot.