Yesterday, I had the great honor of listening to Erik Weihenmayer speak. If you don’t know who Erik is, he is the only blind person to climb the tallest peak on every continent, including Mount Everest. The core of this talk was that it is only through adversity that greatness is possible. That adversity is a catalyst whereby alchemists are able to transform the lead weights of life into gold. I was rapt as he shared his story, and the stories of other alchemists who have done just that. Inspiring people with inspiring stories.
Anyway, I knew as soon as he started speaking that I would write about the moment. That thought took up space in my brain that should have been reserved for listening, but I couldn’t help it. I knew that I needed to try to pass some part of that moment on. But it was like standing on the south face of the Grand Canyon wanting to take a picture to show the kids — some part of me knew it was a moment that just needed to be experienced.
But, I’ll try.
When I am faced with extraordinary people, like Erik, I struggle. I find myself both motivated and dismissed. Part of me wants to jump on board and figure out how I can do more, be more. And part of me says, “Don’t forget, you are just you. Ordinary. Normal. You are not like them.”
That damn voice is always there.
But when I got back to my hotel room, a copy of Erik’s book “The Adversity Advantage” was there. And right there was the subtitle: Turning everyday struggles into everyday greatness. And all of a sudden there was a new voice in my head, “So, you’re ordinary. So what. No excuses, kid. Grab an oar and paddle.”
The only serious adversity in my life happened in the first week. I’ve probably told the story before, and of course I only know it second hand, but at 7 months pregnant my mother started bleeding and was rushed to the hospital. I was born via emergency c-section, weighing in at a scant three pounds four ounces. My grandfather says he took one look at me, muttered, “I’ve shot rabbits bigger than that,” and couldn’t come back. My mother says the first thing that the doctor told her was that she was young and could have more kids. I wasn’t supposed to make it.
But, I suspect that type of adversity — no matter how real — is not what Erik meant. He meant conscious struggle with adversity, the face-to-face meeting of barriers. During his talk, he said that he believes that people fall into three categories: quitters, campers and climbers. All people face barriers, it’s what you do about it that matters. I’ve spent a lot of time talking in prior posts about quitting, but this idea of camping versus climbing was new. I liked it.
You see, campers used to be climbers. Campers got to a point where it just got too hard, took too long or hurt too bad, so they stopped. They have put down stakes, put up their tent and said, “I’m done. This is the place.” I’ve met campers. I even love some campers. And, occasionally I’ve driven campers crazy. Because I’m the first person to admit that I’m a climber.
Not in the literal sense. The last thing you will ever catch me doing is donning sub-zero gear and taking on a mountain or clawing my fingers into some 1″ crevice on a sheer rock wall. No, nothing that exciting. But there are dozens of people who have found themselves tied onto my rope line getting dragged along past “it’s good enough” or “people can’t do that” or “no one has done that”. It’s not sexy, and it won’t put me on the speaking circuit, but it has gotten me on some pretty damn good rope teams.
And, while my negative voice wants to remind me that persistence to change the status quo when surrounded by ‘no buts’ isn’t real, the voice of Erik tells me it is. And, my favorite barrier story is about a map. A parking map to be precise.
I had just taken over the parking office on a university campus. Three layers of management had suddenly left and my boss was stuck with a leadership vacuum. She called me into her office and asked if I would be willing to step in to hold the space until she could hire the right team. I said sure. I usually say sure.
When I got there I found a group of people who desperately needed a climber. They were camped, entrenched after years and years of being the most disliked group on campus, and in fairness no one likes trying to park on a college campus. Nothing had changed in a long, long time and I think when I bounced into the office they were completely incredulous. I started asking question after question. Why do we do this? How does this work? What should we change? It was like I was metaphorically running around and pulling out tent spikes and rolling sleeping bags into packs. And nothing was a bigger metaphor for that then the parking map.
The parking map was the only map for the campus and it was a relic from a bygone age. It was difficult to read, hard to navigate with and covered on one side with obscure parking rules in ridiculously small font. I hated it immediately, but more importantly lots of people told me they didn’t like it. It didn’t fit with the great branding that was being done across campus, and it didn’t make the team proud to hand it over. When someone would get ticketed and the team had to point the rule broken on the map I could see their faces, “Yeah, I know it sucks but see it’s right here, section 14, paragraph 3, line 2. See?“
And yet I have never heard ‘no’ as many times as I did when I was trying to get that map updated. Not in six years of post-secondary education, not in 20 years in industry. No one liked it but no one felt it could be any better. And if it could get better, there was no way it could get done before the start of the next semester. I just didn’t understand reality. Come sit by the campfire, it is super comfy, we’ll make you a s’more.
Not a chance.
I talked to everyone. And when they wouldn’t get as excited as me I backed off and scheduled another meeting and talked again. I wasn’t trying to climb a mountain, I just wanted one small symbol that we could climb — that we could make something the team was proud to be part of. I finally found a campus office that had a CAD drawing that had been created for a different purpose. They agreed to let me talk with the student employee who worked in their office. I convinced him to work overtime — nights, weekends — to make the changes. We dropped detail, added parking colors, tweaked it. I rewrote the parking rules, created a dummy mock-up. Sweet talked the team in the marketing office to make it pretty. We got it off to the printer and the finished maps made it in just in time for the fall semester.
I opened that first box like a five year old on Christmas. My team must have thought I was crazy.
That map went on to become the standard for all campus maps, and still is. And once we conquered the map, next came signage, uniforms, updated parking permits — a new office. Each shift was hard, each step was uncomfortable. The people from that team who have become friends were honest with me — it was a lot. Too much, some days. They were tired and they weren’t sure we would make it. Being on my rope line wasn’t easy.
But climbing isn’t supposed to be easy and when I think back to that effort I always smile. I smile because I helped a great group of people get back to great. It didn’t change the world, but it changed their world. It was just a map and it was so much more. It was proof of the possible. It was proof of value. It was proof of more. For me, it was being able to look into people’s faces and see the pride of accomplishment, to watch them put their own packs on their backs and say, hell yes, we’ve got this let’s climb.
It seems to me that is the adversity advantage.