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How to be a modern-day pioneer

by Erik Weihenmayer
Published on October 1, 2018

Erik Weihenmayer is principally known by his crowning achievement – when he became the first blind climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, in 2001. A few years later, he became one of fewer than 100 individuals to climb all of the Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each continent. He’s also an accomplished paraglider, skier and kayaker.

His resume includes several other accomplishments that go well beyond mountain climbing and outdoor adventuring. Erik is the author of Touch the Top of the World and The Adversity Advantage, and most recently, No Barriers: A Blind Man’s Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon, and he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious National Courage Award and an ESPY award in 2002 from ESPN. Erik is also the co-founder of No Barriers USA, a non-profit organization that helps people of diverse abilities to attack challenges head on, problem solve, build winning teams and serve others.

In this interview, we chatted with Erik about his “No Barriers” philosophy and what health care leaders can learn from him.

You're a modern-day pioneer. Many of our readers are leaders at hospitals or in the health care industry, an environment that is undergoing a major cultural change as organizations are shifting toward value-based, consumer-centered care. Can you share a little of your philosophy on being a pioneer in the face of challenge?

From an individual standpoint, I think it’s really important for all of us to see ourselves as pioneers. For me, being a pioneer doesn’t have to be someone discovering the cure to cancer. Literally everyone can be a pioneer.

I think we can fall into the boxes that life puts us in, and I want to remind people that the possibilities are endless. We're on the brink of the most incredible changes right now in health care and in technology, and people should be excited by the transformations every day. When we measure ourselves by the historic accomplishments or milestones of others, it’s easy to feel like we’re falling short, but I think we’re all trying to move forward and push in some way.

We all need to see ourselves as modern-day pioneers trying to engineer our future. When you look at my climbing, you can see me hanging by my fingertips off some huge rock face, and that’s the icing on the cake – it’s the cool glory shot. But what you can’t see is all the time I spent in a dark gym, hanging from a finger board or developing systems and strategies and tools to help me. If every individual embraces that spirit of pioneering, then their team and their company is going to be way better. 

Let’s talk through your concept of an essential “Rope Team.” What does this mean for you, and what might health care leadership learn from this idea?

When I started climbing, one of the things I realized quickly was that when you’re on a glacier with these big, deep crevasses that are hundreds and hundreds of feet deep, the way to share the risk and the reward and increase your safety is to rope up with others. So, if one person falls into one of those crevasses or takes a tumble down the mountain, then everyone throws themselves down on their ice axe, and they do what they call a “self-arrest,” which is they stop people from falling. And vice versa, because you’re attached, if one person summits, the whole team has to summit. Sometimes they call it “hauling tuna,” and I’ve been the tuna before, where you’re having a bad day and someone is in front of you with a rope hauling you forward. Some days, you’re hauling the tuna yourself. That’s part of it, because people have good days and bad days.

And that sort of reinforced this idea of the incredible interconnection that it takes to achieve big things. You have to create this foundational vision that aligns the team, and that’s the idea behind the rope team. If you think about our lives, we’re continually creating rope teams to mount challenges that you couldn’t figure out by yourself. Maybe it’s an obvious way to solve problems, connecting yourself to the right people – but I know this first hand because I never could have kayaked or climbed alone. I had to build this team around me.

Can you discuss some of the technology that's empowered you to become the active adventurer you are today? 

People often say, “Oh, wow, you’re such a daredevil,” and I want to say, “No, no I’m not, I’m just very methodical.” I love looking at a process and building a team around it to go from A to Z as quickly as possible, not just plod along. That whole process is about technology, in a way.

But some of the specific technologies that I’ve used are incredible. There’s something called BrainPort  that’s based on neuroplasticity and artificial intelligence. It’s basically a camera that you wear on your head and it takes a video of what’s in front of you, and it transfers that to a microprocessor and translates that to tactile images that I feel vibrating on my tongue. It’s the idea that the brain is really what sees, not the eyes – the eyes are just the portal into the brain. And that was a pioneering concept that Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita had when he was creating this concept of neuroplasticity, that one thing is damaged and there’s always a new pathway that can be created. And I actually use that in my life more philosophically because I think there’s always a pathway – I just haven’t figured it out yet.

I’ve used that device to climb up big rock faces and I’ve also used it to play Tic Tac Toe with my kids. I can read cue cards with that device, and for me, that’s the most beautiful part of technology. It can increase our capabilities and connect us to others in new and profound ways that break down the barriers that exist around us.

You travel all around the globe meeting with people and coaching them through adversity. For anyone reading this who is facing immense pressures – either within their industry or otherwise – what is the best advice you can give them?

There’s an idea that we talk about in No Barriers: “What’s Within You is Stronger Than What’s in Your Way “We all have something inside of us that we’re trying to contribute to the world. We start out excited and happy and hopeful, and life beats us up. We get crushed and we’re stagnating and, worse than that, our potential can be lost to the world. It’s important to understand that process. The question that we should be asking ourselves is: What does it mean to climb? I’m not talking about climbing mountains. I’m talking about continually challenging ourselves every day until we die.

Erik Weihenmayer is a keynote speaker at the 2018 Cerner Health Conference. Register for CHC18 here.