Commencement 2011: Erik Weihenmayer
Posted: May 22, 2011
May 22, 2011
Thank you, everyone. Thank you, President Bravman. I know that was a really nice introduction and lots of prestigious things and accomplishments, but I think most people are just excited about the dog today. My dog here to my left, Uri.
I was earlier out in the crowd and somebody said, "That's the most amazing dog I've ever seen, man's best friend, what a noble creature." Then I was walking up the aisle and I think I heard him say, "Oh, by the way, that's our speaker, he climbed Mount Everest blind."
I'm used to taking a back seat to the dog.
It's been such a pleasure to be able to climb mountains around the world, to do the Seven Summits, to adventure as a blind person. Obviously there is a physical dimension to what I do, but I think more interesting than the physical piece has been the mental journey. It's been a journey to understand how people, how teams, how cultures here in the United States and around the world, to see how we confront uncertainty, to see how we confront change, whether we're able to grow and evolve to a certain degree of success, but then make a decision to camp out on the side of the mountain and ultimately stagnate or whether we figure out a way to challenge ourselves until the day we die.
To see how people deal with adversity, whether it crushes us, as it does so many people or whether we figure out a way to flourish in the face of it. How we deal with uncertainty — you're leaving Bucknell, many of you, and you have a road map to create ahead, there's lots of uncertainty as you go forward.
No road map
A blind person, a blind climber in particular, also there's a lot of uncertainty. I feel like I'm in that same boat, there's no road map, there's no defined, clear road map for a blind climber. The word 'blind' and 'climber', they don't even go together.
It's like being a Jamaican bobsledder and there's a lot of uncertainty as I decided that I would try to climb the Seven Summits, the tallest mountain in every continent. My first of the seven was actually Mount McKinley, Denali, 'the Great One,' 'the High One' in the Inuit language.
We flew planes onto the glacier at 7,000 feet and, 19 days later, we crossed this narrow summit ridge towards the summit. It was 4:30 in the afternoon when I stood on top. It turned out to be Helen Keller's birthday. And we were all worried about getting down, you know, 90 percent of accidents happen on the way down when you've lost your focus.
But we were also exhilarated because we had timed it so well. We had radioed down to a small airstrip near the mountain, and now that we were near the top, my Dad and my two brothers and my wife, they were circling above us watching us take our last steps. We all had these red suits on. We looked identical to each other. We were waving our ski poles at the plane, we're cheering and I said to my buddy, Jeff: I said, "Jeff, do you think they'll know I made it? He said: "Oh yeah, they'll know — you're the only one waving your ski poles in the opposite direction."
It's good to have friends, as you know.
I did make it down safely and I lay outside my igloo that we had built up there. As cold as it was, as tired as I was, I lay on my belly in the snow, and I've never done something so physically demanding, so mentally demanding, something that had asked so much out of myself.
Half of me knew I wasn't cut out for this life. I wasn't tough enough, I wasn't resilient enough. This was the last thing a blind person is supposed to be doing with his life. But the other half of me didn't care; the other half of me wanted to figure out how to climb forever.
I climbed into the igloo and Chris Morris, who was our team leader, he'd cooked up a big pot of celebratory freeze-dried spaghetti, which I immediately gave back to the mountain gods. I threw up right in the entranceway and everyone had to crawl through it to get out.
Chris is from Alaska and he's got these great philosophies, these great witticisms about life. You know you're sitting out in this terrible storm; it's blowing, it's hammering in your face, you're miserable. Chris will look up with a big smile on his face and he'll say something like: "Sure is cold out here, but at least it's windy." Or he'll say, "We sure have been climbing a long way, but at least we're lost." On the top of Aconcagua, 23,000 feet, I got to the summit behind Chris and he gave me a hug and he said: "Big E, you may be blind, but you sure are slow." I wasn't expecting that, but I said: "You know, Chris, you're not so nice, but at least you're stupid."
I love positive pessimisms; you know you can use them anytime, anyplace, to say, "Hey, we're facing a tough road ahead but we'll get through this together." As graduates, you could say, "Hey, there's not a lot of jobs out there but at least I have a 2.1 gpa." Or when you buy your first house, "You know honey, we may have to move into a smaller house than we wanted to but at least my mother-in-law's coming to live with us."
But back in the igloo, I said, "Chris, I am so sorry. I didn't mean to throw up and ruin the entrance of the igloo." And he did something so nice-he slapped me on the back as hard as he possibly could, and he said: "Big E., anyone who stands on the top of North America, I'll crawl through his puke any day."
And he did, he crawled right through; I was touched.
I've had such a good time in the mountains, climbing to the tops of mountains and coming down with friends around me. Climbing and summiting a mountain is very much a goal. It's linear, it's tangible, it's reachable. I love goals. I know all of you have multitudes and multitudes of goals that will keep you very busy that are very important.
Visions and goals
But in my life, and I imagine in yours too, what's been more important than any one goal, is what I would call a vision. I see a vision maybe a little differently than others, it's more of an internal vision. A vision of how we see ourselves living our lives and serving other people and impacting the world-what kind of legacy we want to leave behind us. I think sometimes we can focus on these long lists of goals, they can become isolated and fragmented and go unfulfilled, or maybe even lead us in directions that we didn't want to go to in the first place.
When I think we need to continually reconnect with that unifying vision that takes those goals and binds them together and gives them purpose and power. I think first has to come a vision and it's one thing as you know, to create a vision, it's another thing entirely to believe in it so strongly that you're able to summon up the focus and the courage and the discipline to live within its framework.
At Bucknell, your vision is powerful; perhaps your vision is to serve people-your community, your family, your university, the world around you. But how do your goals, day after day after day, align to bring you closer to that vision?
Perhaps your vision is to flourish through a sense of innovation; how do your goals achieve it?
If your vision is to not just slip into the status quo, but to find ways of blasting through people's expectations so hard you shatter them into a million pieces-how do your goals do it?
If your vision is not just to respond and react to life's changes and challenges but to lead - how do you take those goals and wrap them around that vision and make it real?
I think, as you leave Bucknell, it's a very important time to begin to formulate the vision that will sustain you along your journey. Like an internal compass, it guides us through good weather and-most importantly-through bad weather. And it tells you where you're going and why it's so important you get there.
Swept to the sidelines
When I went blind just before my freshman year in high school, I wasn't thinking about a vision. I was just thinking about surviving. Blindness was like a storm that had descended upon me with such force, such viciousness, I thought I'd be crushed by it. I remember sitting in the cafeteria listening to all the laughter, all the jokes, all the food fights passing me by that I wanted to be a part of, and I wasn't afraid to go blind. What I was afraid of was that I would be swept to the sidelines, that I'd be forgotten, that my life would be meaningless, for nothing.
I could still see just a tiny bit out of my right eye at that time. If I got real close to the TV set, I could watch television. I had my face pressed up against the screen one day, watching this show, back in the '80s called "That's Incredible." They were featuring a guy named Terry Fox. Terry was a Canadian, he'd lost a leg to cancer and he was still in the hospital when he decided that he was going to run across Canada, thousands of miles.
Now I'll tell you, this is not the typical decision that a person in his situation was supposed to make. Most people would have just dug in their heels and focused on surviving. Instead, Terry did the exact opposite; he decided to attack. The miles took a terrible toll on his body, on his stump. The look on his face was an absolute contradiction-full of exhaustion, yet at the same time, full of exultation. And I thought to myself, there's something inside of us that I can only describe, at the time, as a light-a light that seemed to have the ability to feed on frustration, on setbacks, on failures, to use those things as fuel. The greater the challenge, the brighter that light burned. That light seemed to make us more focused, more driven, more creative. I wondered if it could even transcend our own limitations and give our lives power.
It was by staring into Terry's face with my one eye pressed up against the screen that I first wondered, "How do you turn into the storm of life and emerge on the other side, not just unscathed, not just damaged as little as possible, but actually stronger and better?"
It was a few months after that that I got this newsletter in Braille of a group taking blind kids rock climbing. And I ran my hand up the wall of my room and I thought, "Who would be crazy enough to take a blind kid rock climbing?"
So I signed up. I was tired of building walls around myself, I wanted to attack, like Terry. And I found through trial and error that I could do a pull-up, I could scan my hand across the face, and just before I was ready to lose strength in my forearms and fingers and felt like I had to fall, I'd dig my fingers into a little crack or pocket, just enough to keep me stuck to the face a few seconds longer so I could do another pull-up, scan my other hand across the face. I left a lot of blood and skin on the face, but I got to the top and I'll never forget; it was so exhilarating, so vibrant, it was almost painful. Like a rebirth — the texture of the rocks under my hands and the patterns of hot and cold as the sun touched the rock. The sound of space — when I got up high I could hear sound vibrations moving infinitely through space. It was beautiful, but as beautiful as it was, it was also scary.
Reaching into darkness
And there's one thing that hasn't changed much since that very first time I went rock climbing 25 years ago, and that's the reach. I don't care if we're blind or sighted, I think in a way we're all reaching into darkness. We're hoping, we're predicting, we're praying, we're calculating. All our metrics, all our measurements, all our algorithms, the data leads us to believe that we're going to find what we're looking for, but we understand there's no guarantee. It's that moment when we've committed ourselves to the reach, our minds, our bodies, we know it's almost impossible to turn back. I think those fears, they're overwhelming — the fear of flopping on our face, of making a bad decision that leads us astray. The fear that we're not as good at something as we wanted to be or the fear, for some of us older folks, that we've climbed as high as we can go, there's nowhere else to go but down. I think all those fears conspire against us and they paralyze us.
I think there's a big difference between most people and pioneers, because pioneers understand that life is an ongoing, never-ending process of reaching out into the darkness when we don't know exactly what we'll find. We're constantly reaching towards immense possibilities. They're always unseen, yet they're sensed. While so many others allow that darkness to paralyze them.
Well, I reached out that day; I know you reach out every day and you're about to make some big reaches in your life. Those reaches lead us to some great adventures around the world. I will say this, though. I don't see myself as some crazy blind guy, like a blind Evel Knievel just getting shot across the Grand Canyon in a rocket ship or something. I'm very methodical; I see myself more, maybe as you do, as an innovator, as a problem solver. I love looking at things that maybe others see as impossible or improbable and then figuring out a way forward.
I'm motivated in a similar way as the pioneers of the past, like Sir Edmund Hillary, like Tenzing Norgay, by a sense of what's possible. I think it's important to see ourselves as modern-day pioneers. I don't think that means that you're climbing necessarily a scary mountain. What it means is that we're motivated from within, by that internal vision rather than from external factors.
It means we're motivated by a sense of discovery. When you define the word discovery, it means to unveil. I think a lot of the world and its potential are veiled by darkness.
Here's the trouble, though. I think, as a pioneer, when you embrace that mindset, and you reach out, farther and farther up the mountain, maybe farther than anyone's ever gone before, and you've tried to be great — the farther you reach, the more adversity you bring into your life.
In fact, it's like you're asking for it. Who wants that? In fact, I think the farther you reach, the more adversity you bring in. There's a correlation between adversity and greatness; the two go hand-in-hand, there's no way to separate them.
Maybe what kept our species surviving for so many thousands of years was this ability to move away from discomfort, away from uncertainty, to find nice, safe, familiar niches and settle in.
That doesn't work anymore in the modern world. I think, in order to achieve greatness, we've got to square off with adversity, those small adversities that wear us down, that make us ask ourselves, "Hey, I'm treading water but I'm still drowning." Right up to the most complex issues that face us as human beings on the horizon ready to bear down on us.
I think we've got to square off with them and walk into the storm.
The best example I ever saw on a personal level, a person able to do this is my friend Mark Wellman. Mark Wellman, when he was 21 years old, fell down a peak in the Sierra Nevadas, and he became paralyzed from the waist down. Mark decided that he was going to learn to climb again. He went out and he developed this new pioneering system — no one had ever seen anything like it.
His partner goes up the rock face and anchors the rope and then Mark has a pull-up bar that he invented that locks onto the rope with an ascender. He slides it up the rope, it locks off, he pulls himself up on a pulley system. He pushes the bar up, he pulls himself up, he pushes the bar up. He only gets about six inches up with each pull-up.
He climbed El Capitan — 3,300-feet of overhanging granite. They estimated he did over 7,000 pull-ups in seven days.
I've met a lot of people like Mark over the years. I call these people alchemists. You know, they can take the lead that life piles on top of them and they'll figure out a way to transform it into gold.
With an alchemist, they don't just do the traditional things that you hear about. They don't just deal well with adversity, they don't avoid it, they don't even overcome it as you hear so often.
These alchemists have figured out how to do something radically different. They've figured out how to seize hold of that storm of adversity that seems to swirl around us to harness its energy and use that energy to propel themselves forward to places that they never would have gone to in any other way.
With an alchemist you can throw them in the midst of a fierce competitive, uncertain environment, you can strip away their resources, you can throw roadblocks in front of them, and they'll still find a way to win. And I'd argue that they don't find a way to win despite adversity, they find a way to win because of it. I think if we want to learn, if we want to grow, if we want to strengthen great teams around us, if we want to innovate, if we want to create a whole new paradigm that the world follows, I think the way we harness those challenges in our lives is our greatest advantage.
Imagine while the world is digging in its heels and focused on surviving, you're out there using the energy behind this momentous occasion to drive forward, to make ground, to make an impact.
Pathway to greatness
What if adversity weren't the enemy? What if, instead, it were the pathway to greatness?
There are a lot of adversities that are all around us. You're entering a pretty tough economy, and people's confidences have been beaten down over the years. There's lots of hype that America isn't what it used to be. And beyond all that, there are global challenges, like an overcrowded planet and poverty and natural disasters and climate change and over-reliance on fossil fuels and a clash of religions and cultures that compete around the world.
Lots of adversity. But look at the pool of talent in this stadium, in this area. Look at this pool of talent. You are the alchemists; you are the world's best hope for alchemy.
But I don't think it's enough to just harness adversity and push through and say, "Look at me, look at me on top." I think leadership is about pushing the envelope but I also think it's equally about helping others to reach their own summit.
For me, that opportunity came when I teamed up again with Mark Wellman to start this organization No Barriers. We were so impressed by the innovative ways that each of us climbed mountains that we decided that it was time to show others how to change their approach and their mindset to adversity.
We bring together this amazing community of pioneers, most of them have disabilities who have pushed the envelope in science and technology and engineering and art and music. We bring them together with the aim of helping others with challenges, that's most of us, find new ideas, new approaches, new technologies, to shatter the personal barriers in our lives and be more adventurous.
We show new prosthetic legs that are enabling amputees to sometimes walk for the first time; new mountain bikes for paraplegics to get off the pavement for the very first time; new climbing systems and kayaking systems for triple and quadruple amputees to get out and adventure in the wilderness.
Most importantly we teach that mindset, that we all have the tools, we all have the mindset to attack our challenges head-on and live the life that we envisioned.
In that No Barriers spirit, as the 10th year anniversary of my Mount Everest climb approaches on Tuesday, we as a team decided that we wanted to celebrate and give back to America's heroes.
We organized, last summer, a team of injured soldiers, soldiers who had been hurt in Afghanistan and Iraq. We had a team of 10 soldiers, we took them back to Colorado and trained them and taught them everything they needed to know about climbing.
On this team we had some extraordinary people. Nicolette, who had been injured in Iraq and was in a wheelchair for three and a half years as she learned to walk again. Dan, a Marine, who is big and tough and could bite you in half but, because of PTSD, has trouble walking through a grocery store. And Matt, who was part of Elite Force when a helicopter crashed and he was sucked into the rotor of his helicopter, he lost his leg. His other foot has severe nerve damage, every step is painful. And, close to my heart, Steve, who was in an armored vehicle - shrapnel went through his brain and blinded him instantly.
On this summit day, this Himalayan giant mountain next to Mount Everest; it was a hard day. We were pushing up steep rock and steep ice and steep snow and, at one point, Steve started wearing down and struggling. He said, "I feel like I'm out of my element. I feel like I need to go down."
My friend, Jeff, he just seems to know exactly how hard to push people and know what to say. He said, "Steve, this just isn't about you. This is about all those injured soldiers, all the soldiers who are yet to be injured, all your fallen comrades; this is about them. Knuckle down and get this job done."
And that was what Steve needed to hear because, three hours later, Steve and the rest of the soldiers in my Everest team; we stood at 20,100 feet together.
I've been on higher mountains, I've been on harder mountains but, standing on top with these heroes was the proudest moment of my life.
Leadership is contagious
I think leadership, you'll find, is contagious. You pass it from body to body, from life to life. And we give the people around us great courage to do great things.
You're entering a very challenging world. It's harder and harder to predict the future; in fact, I promise you there will be days where you feel like you're climbing blind. But I don't think this is the time to lose our will, to be clouded by fear and doubt, to be swept to the sidelines and forgotten. I think this is the best time in history, perhaps the most precious time in history, to be a pioneer, to reach out, to take lead and turn it into gold.
We do this for ourselves, for your family, for your university but, I think most importantly, we do it for the sake of this wondrous world that we live in.
Helen Keller said: "I am only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still, I will do something. I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."
To Bucknell graduates 2011, keep climbing. Keep reaching. Climb high. Thank you very much.
Contact: Division of Communications
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