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The Higher Purpose Hero Series: Erik Weihenmayer

The Higher Purpose Hero Series is a new, monthly feature that showcases the stories of real-life “Heroes” — men and women who, while brandishing a defiantly positive and determined mindset, are pursuing their dreams in spite of potential adversity, criticism, cynicism, or being misunderstood by those around them. The individuals showcased in this series have different beliefs, goals, and mantras for how to live life, however, they provide valuable lessons in unlocking your inner potential. I am very blessed to have had these “heroes” come into my life and I hope their stories can help in your own personal journey.

he·ro 1. a man or woman of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his/her brave deeds and noble qualities. 2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.

Erik Weihenmayer is a hero. Redefining what it means to be blind, Erik has transformed the image of blindness and opened up the minds of people around the world. He has never let his “disability” interfere with his passion for an exhilarating and fulfilling life.

On May 25, 2001, Erik became the first blind climber in history to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest. At the age of 33, on September 5, 2002, Erik became one of less than 100 individuals to climb all of the Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each of the seven continents – when he stood on the top of Australia ’s Mt. Kosciusko.

Erik continues to seek out new adventures. In September 2003, he completed Primal Quest, the toughest multi-sport race in the world – 9 days, 460 miles, and 60,000 feet of elevation gain. Last fall, Erik, along with his Everest teammates, led a group of blind Tibetan teenagers to 21,000 ft. on the north face of Mt. Everest as an educational outreach project to carve out opportunities for young people around the globe, no matter what their challenges.

Erik is a former middle school teacher and wrestling coach who has made his way onto the cover of Time, Outside and Climbing magazines. He has also been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, NBC’s Today, the Tonight Show, Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, and recently finished as the runner up on the ABC Reality Show, Expedition Impossible.. He is the author of the best selling autobiography, Touch the Top of the World and The Adversity Advantage. He is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the prestigious National Courage Award and the 2002 ESPN ESPY award.

Life Path: 38/11 Energetic Leader of People

1. You are viewed as a source of inspiration to millions of people around the World, becoming the first blind mountaineer to summit Mt. Everest and recently finishing as the runner up on the popular ABC Reality Show, Expedition Impossible. What are your short and long term goals moving forward?

Expanding the Soldiers To The Summit (STS) project is both a short and long term goal. We are planning another expedition for next year and we will be taking the new film, High Ground, on a nation-wide tour.

Along with expanding the STS program, I am working on growing No Barriers to have a greater impact on our communities. I want to spread the No Barriers mindset around the world because I think it is a very powerful and universal message that we can all benefit from as human beings.

Supporting Kyle and the team’s monumental effort to climb Kilimanjaro is a perfect fit for this mindset. If Kyle and team can reach the summit, I think it will speak a lot about pushing through physical and mental barriers.

Of course, I also have my own personal goals such as kayaking the Grand Canyon, climbing Mt. Damavan in Iran, and skiing off the tops of big mountains.

2. You founded the non-profit No Barriers USA in 2003 with the purpose of “promoting innovative ideas, approaches, and assistive technologies which help people with disabilities push through their own personal barriers to live full and active lives.” Kyle and I can attest that your 2011 No Barriers Summit was an event that changed our lives while also furthering our vision of climbing to the top of Kilimanjaro. For those that aren’t familiar with the organization, can you explain the concept behind the annual No Barriers Summit? How do you see this powerful event expanding in the years to come?

No Barriers is a community of people, some of whom are “pioneers.” These are people who push the envelope in all areas of life such as scientists, garage inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, humanitarians, and adventurers. They come together with the sole purpose of helping others who face challenges to help them break through barriers in their lives.

We all have barriers that stop us from living our lives the way we envisioned. We can tackle these barriers by building a community around us, by innovating and being creative. It is also important to change our approach to adversity so that it becomes a catalyst to go forward in our lives and have more control over our destiny. No Barriers is about people with disabilities not sitting around waiting for help but actually attacking their obstacles head on and being empowered with the necessary tools.

I am particularly impressed by the people that come to the No Barriers Summit, people like Kyle, who do amazing things or they have amazing goals and are trying to figure out the way forward.

3. What lessons have you learned about the power of mindset through your own experiences overcoming tremendous odds? Was there a particular “AHA” moment in your life where you began to realize that by confronting your fears and “perceived” limitations that your potential was unlimited? 

At No Barriers Summits, we show all sorts of amazing technologies and new innovations. But we’re not just showing off gear, we’re not a tech conference. It really comes down to mindsets, which are hard to teach.

When you embrace the No Barriers mindset, the more you reach and the better you try to be, the more adversity you bring into your life. You knowingly walk into a storm and you have to be ready. It doesn’t matter how inspired you are, you will be crushed if you don’t have the right mindset that leads your journey.

That tough No Barriers mindset says, “I can build the right tools and team to get through any obstacle. Even though there are lots of pitfalls ahead, I see myself standing on top of whatever it is I want to stand on top of.” When you go climb a mountain, you do this every time. You are a puny little human being, standing at the base of a huge peak. The only way forward is to tell yourself, “I can stand on top of that.”

When you have the right mindset, seeing yourself getting through all the obstacles releases lots of energy and excitement in your life.

4. You have written a wonderful book entitled The Adversity Advantage, focused upon empowering people to redefine their perspective towards fear and adversity. Can you share a few of these practices that you have used in your own life to overcome obstacles?

The Adversity Advantage concept is also a kind of mindset. Adversity is usually the sort of thing that crushes people and stops them in their tracks. People often say, “if it wasn’t for that obstacle, I could have done what I set out to do.” But instead you can figure out how to use those obstacles as catalysts. When you confront them in an innovative way, and with the right team behind you, adversity can be harnessed and the energy can propel you to places you wouldn’t have gone in any other way.

The premise of my book is adversity isn’t the enemy, it’s the pathway. There all sorts of tools and skills that you can learn, which allow you to do that.

5. What are the greatest lessons that you have taken from your experience mountaineering? What advice would you provide to Kyle Maynard as he prepares to climb Kilimanjaro in January?

There is a tricky balance that you strive to figure out your entire career of climbing. That is, how much can you control and how much can’t you control. For example, you can’t control the weather or the size of the mountain or all the unpredictable things, like sickness or injury, that can happen along the way. But you can control your response to those things.

It isn’t just cause and effect, for instance automatically turning back because of bad weather. If there’s Lots of snow, then you  have to change your approach and figure out a different way to the summit. You can’t control that you don’t have arms and legs, or you can’t see. But you can control your preparation, your team, your physical fitness, your mental toughness, and your skill. And you can control all of that stuff much more than you think.

6. As an inspirational figure and role model to so many people around the World, how would you define a good leader? How has your perspective of leadership evolved or changed since conquering the Seven Summits?

It starts with picking a really good team of people who fully support your goal and your vision. Then your leadership should help bring together the glue to that team so that everyone gets on the same page and goes out to do something great together. A good leader must also be persistent because there will be bad days where it feels like the team is falling apart. But with perseverance and a clear vision of the end goal, you can take it step by step and see it through.

7. What would you suggest to people who lack a sense of purpose? Growing up as the son of a Princeton Football Captain, how did mountaineering come into the picture? Do you believe that every human being has a particular “calling” at some point in their lives?

In your youth, you go through life and it’s your goal to explore and learn and try. Eventually, hopefully, you stumble upon something that you love and it becomes one of your joys in your life. For me, it was climbing. I would have never turned to climbing if I hadn’t gone blind because I would have still been playing football.

Sometimes the adversities that happen to you, affect you like wind affects rock. Adversity will shape you, but you can use it to develop into something ugly or beautiful. I think, eventually, everyone does find his or her purpose. And if they don’t, they haven’t looked hard enough.

8. You have accomplished some pretty amazing things over the course of your life. Is there a particular event or experience that has proved to be the most rewarding?

Going over to Tibet to work with Braille Without Borders and six blind teenagers that were ostracized in their communities. These are kids that people would spit on in the streets. It was a privilege to take them climbing and we reached almost 22,000 feet on the north side of Everest.

Even more impressive was the work that the founder, Sabriya, did with blind children. In ten years, she turned adversity on its head. She set up a training center that teaches cane travel and using Braille computers in three different languages (English, Chinese, Tibetan). These are now the best-educated kids in Tibet and they are out working. One owns a massage studio, another owns a bakery, some are running farms. They have changed the entire culture of disability because the kids are no longer outcasts.

9. Are there any books, documentaries, or articles that have had a huge impact on your life that you feel could positively influence the younger generations? What do you recommend in trying to find the beginnings of one’s path?

I would highly recommend the documentary on Terry Fox, called Into The Wind, which was produced by ESPN. As I was going blind, Terry blew my mind because, after losing a leg to cancer, he decided he was going to run across Canada to raise money for research. He didn’t finish his run because the cancer spread to his lymph nodes and he died.

But Terry’s run inspired a nation and has now raised billions of dollars for cancer research. He had a huge impact on the world, even though he had a short life. Terry didn’t dig in his heels when adversity struck, he attacked—that was a great lesson for me.

10. What changes do you feel must be made by younger generations to better the world we live in? As a parent to two wonderful kids, what do you believe is the most important lesson you can teach them?

It’s important to work hard at exploring what your vision is in life. And once you’ve found it, use that vision to bring good things to the world. Also don’t allow the obstacles that will always get in your way to stop you; figure out a way to harness them.

We cannot thank Erik enough for his support in bringing Mission Kilimanjaro to life as it was through our initial meeting that Kyle and I gained the necessary confidence to pursue our vision. We are proud to announce a partnership with Erik’s non-profit, No Barriers USA, as we work towards accomplishing our goal of reaching the top of Africa in January. Reach Your Highest Potential!

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