Best-selling author, adventurer and leadership coach Alison Levine earned her stripes the hard way: despite suffering from several serious and rare health conditions, she’s climbed the tallest peaks in all seven continents, skied to both the South and North Poles and successfully swam with the sharks on Wall Street.
On April 14, Levine will headline Padua Academy’s fundraiser honoring Women’s Achievement at the Riverfront. TSD rappelled alongside Levine to learn about more about the leadership insights she regularly shares with audiences including West Point Cadets, CEOs and young women who may not be encouraged to climb their own Everests.
Town Square Delaware: You had a successful career on Wall Street and then politics, but something then drew you into the life of an adventurer. What was it that spurred you to take on big-time mountain climbing and glacier-crossing?
Alison Levine: Actually, I was making a life in the adventure world before I worked on Wall Street or in politics. I took a break from climbing to spend some time in corporate America. I was constantly feeling like I was broke and was tired of stressing about finances. I had friends who were always going out for dinner and were going away for long weekends together and I could never join them because I couldn’t afford it. I spent all my time trying to find sponsors for various expeditions and scrounging for funding.
I finally decided that I needed to do something to change my situation and thought that if I could learn more about finance and accounting that I could someday run my own company. I figured Wall Street was a great place to get my feet wet. The learning curve felt steeper than any mountain I had climbed, but I like trying things that are out of my comfort zone.
The stint in politics was brief, but was also an incredible learning opportunity. Everyone needs to work on a political campaign at least once.
TSD: What is it about stories like yours of extraordinary physical courage and achievement that captivate us so much? Do you think it is tied to people too often underestimating human potential?
AL: Well, I think everyone is drawn to these types of stories for different reasons. Some people are intrigued by things that seem so different from their own day-to-day lives — so they’re “transported” to a place or a situation that they never imagined themselves in, and they can “experience” these extreme environments without actually feeling the pain and suffering.
And really, we all have mountains to climb — some literal and some figurative — so these stories of survival against the elements inspire people to push themselves and try things that make them uncomfortable. Usually when we’re uncomfortable we learn a lot, and that’s always a good thing.
TSD: Beyond summiting peaks or rappelling cliffs, are there other less-extreme ways people can stretch themselves and discover strengths they didn’t know existed? What kind of adventures do you recommend for those who are perhaps less athletically inclined or don’t have the resources to pursue exotic activities?
AL: Well, exotic adventures often don’t require much in the way of financial resources. If you can borrow a backpack, a tent, a sleeping bag, some warm clothes and a camping stove — you are ready for an adventure. The only other thing you need is either a car or a plane ticket to transport you to your adventure location. And if you don’t have enough money for that, then you can always raise the funds from other sources like I did.
And of course now you can crowd-source your funding; that wasn’t around when I was trying to raise money/find sponsors.
If you don’t like sleeping in a tent, then just go find a youth hostel in some random country, and go there and create your own adventure. There are also a ton of nonprofits looking for volunteers to work overseas for short bursts of time. That’s another good option because you get paid to have an international adventure and you change lives at the same time.
TSD: Columnist David Brooks recently wrote that we live in “a culture of oversensitivity, overreaction and frequent moral panics” (when referring to some of the less-healthy aspects of social media). As someone who teaches and advises on leadership and ethics, what is your take on the current state of our culture and leaders roles in it?
AL: Great question! I agree with Brooks’ advice that in today’s world with social media sensory overlaod — it’s incredibly important to know your own “True North.” There’s a chapter in my New York Times bestseller On The Edge: Leadership Lessons from Everest and Other Extreme Environments that talks about having a personal mantra — and going back to that mantra will help you stay grounded and stay true to your values when the conversation or situation around you seems muddied or dark.
TSD: Is this your first time in the First State?
AL: Nope! I was in Wilmington in 2011 as part of the Smart Talk Speakers Series and was also there in 2014 to do the keynote at the Delaware Banker’s Association 119th Annual Meeting. I can’t want to come back!