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What One Woman Learned From Climbing The World’s 7 Highest Peaks

NOV 25, 2015

By Natalie Burg

Alison Levine knows adventure. The 49-year-old polar explorer, mountaineer and businesswoman has completed the Adventure Grand Slam, an accomplishment that includes climbing to the highest point on every continent and venturing to the North and South Poles. She has faced failure and set records—all while enduring three heart surgeries and a rare condition that makes her more susceptible to frostbite.

In the meantime, she has also built an impressive business career. She has worked in the health care, technology and finance fields, including a stint at Goldman Sachs and serving as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy finance director in his campaign for governor of California.

Her professional success is due in part to lessons she learned in the face of intense physical and mental challenges in extreme and remote situations. “A lot of the lessons I learned in the mountains helped me in business,” said Levine, author of the New York Times bestseller On the Edge: Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments. “But, on the flip side, a lot of the lessons I learned in business helped me in the mountains.”

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Levine shares four lessons she has learned from her extreme adventures, and explains how she has effectively applied them to her professional life.

1. Fear is good — it’s complacency that will kill you.

The Khumbu Icefall is one of the most dangerous areas on the route to Mount Everest. It’s made up of large towers of ice, which are known to collapse suddenly, and deep crevasses that can open just as quickly. The path is always at risk of shifting below climbers’ feet.

“You’re in constant danger of being crushed,” said Levine. “It is a super, super scary part of the mountain. If you’re not able to act and react quickly, that’s what’s going to kill you.”

Sound like anything you’ve encountered in your career? Levine draws comparisons between the importance of staying alert and responsive on the Khumbu Icefall and in business—and the consequences of complacency.

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“There are so many stories of companies who were out in front and became complacent,” said Levine. “BlackBerry is one of them. They were the leader in the handheld device market for so long, but then came apps and touch screens and things they weren’t able to accommodate.”

Those innovations in the mobile device market became the equivalent of the shifting ice of the Khumbu Icefall for BlackBerry, said Levine, who believes the company should have been more fearful.

“Fear is what prevents me from becoming complacent,” she said. “Fear is actually a useful tool. You have to be able to act and react quickly when you’re in environments that are constantly shifting and changing.”

2. Everyone on the team must be a leader.

Not only is leadership critically important when navigating extreme environments, said Levine, but also everyone on every team needs to be a leader. You may have seen this first-hand if you have ever tried mountain climbing—or if you’ve seen the new movie Everest, which chronicles a real event from 1996.

“Two of the world’s best, most experienced climbers were killed at that time,” said Levine. “One thing that led to people dying was that once the leaders were gone, nobody knew what to do. If you leave leadership to one person, that can be very dangerous.”

In business, as well as in extreme environments, everyone must empower themselves to be leaders—and to support their entire team, said Levine.

“Leadership has nothing to do with title or tenure or how many people report to you,” she said, “Leadership is about realizing that every single member has an equal responsibility to move the team toward a goal.”

3. Networking is everything.

In the mountains, your very survival can depend on your network. It’s not uncommon, she said, for people on the mountain to walk right past someone who is in need of help—dying even, in the extreme conditions—and not even realize it. Without a reason to stop and ask, climbers often assume someone on the side of the trail is just resting.

“One thing that always works in people’s favor is when they happen to know the people who are walking past when they’re struggling,” said Levine. People who know you are likely to stop to see if you need help, and even take on personal risk to assist you: “I tell people to put the effort into networking—you never know when it’s going to pay off.”

Similarly, when you’re challenged in your career or with a professional project, the person who will notice and stop to offer help is more likely to be someone you’ve made a meaningful connection with.

4. Keep adventuring—and be relentless.

For many people, completing the Adventurers Grand Slam while also having a high-powered business career would be enough accomplishments for a lifetime. Not for Levine. She’s preparing for two new adventures: She’s heading to Antarctica for the third time to do a first ascent of an unclimbed peak, and she’s the executive producer of a documentary film about the first Nepali woman to climb Mount Everest.

“I’m probably more excited about [the movie] than I am about anything else in my life,” she said. “It’s such an important story to tell.”

She also feels anxious because film making is uncharted territory for her. Fortunately, the lessons Levine has learned in other uncharted territories will help her deal with anything that comes her way.

“There are times when you’re just going to feel defeated and exhausted, and you may feel like you can’t keep going,” she said. “But what I’ve learned is you don’t have to be the best, strongest, fastest climber to get to the top of the mountain. You just have to be relentless about putting one foot in front of the other.”

A former downtown development professional, Natalie Burg is a freelancer who writes about growth, entrepreneurialism and innovation.

This article is not an endorsement or advice, and was written to promote awareness and is for educational purposes only