Alison Levine has climbed the Seven Summits, skied to both Poles, and even spent three years swimming with the sharks on Wall Street. The biggest lesson she has learned is a simple one.
“You have to push yourself day after day,” she told the audience at Culver Academies on Wednesday (May 14). One of a handful of people to complete the Adventure Grand Slam, Levine said, “I was at my best when I was on the summit of Everest on May 24, 2010. But I know I have to be even better tomorrow.”
I was at my best when I was on the summit of Everest on May 24, 2010. But I know I have to be even better tomorrow.
Levine’s appearance was funded by the the Robert C. Vaughn family (Robert ’74, his wife, Fallon, and their children Robert ’06 and Browning ’08). The Vaughn Family Outdoor Leadership Series was established to introduce Culver students to adventurers and explorers who share their outdoor experiences, challenges, and passions.
What she has learned from her extreme adventures, time on Wall Street, years as an adjunct instructor in Behavioral Sciences & Leadership at the United States Military Academy, and as a board member of the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University now fills a book, On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership.
Levine started her talk with how she led the first all-female expedition up Everest in 2002, only to get within 300 feet of the summit and be forced back by a major storm. Making the decision to turn back was not easy, she said, but with supplies running low it was the right one. “If conditions are not right, you cut your losses, turn away, and come back better prepared,” she said, adding there is a saying that getting to the summit of Mount Everest is optional, “getting back down is mandatory.”
Some people didn’t consider the expedition a success because they didn’t reach the summit, but everyone came back down safely, which she considers an accomplishment. “No matter how good you are, no matter how experienced you are, things can go wrong,” she said. “It’s not about you, it’s about the team. You take action based on the situation at hand.”
While she never expected to make the climb again, she decided to make another attempt after the death of a friend in 2009. She successfully reached the summit on May 24, 2010. And “it just wasn’t that big of a deal.”
What was important were the lessons she learned along the way and in her first attempt. In fact, if it were not for the first attempt, she may not have reached the summit in 2010. In 2002, she learned about her pain and risk tolerance levels and how hard she could push herself.
Levine discussed this with Gen. Pete Dawkins, who is considered the most successful Heisman Trophy winner in history. Along with his Heisman, Dawkins served as First Captain at West Point, was a Rhodes Scholar, commanded a unit in Vietnam, and became the youngest brigadier general in the U.S. Army in 1981.
Dawkins told her about the “freedom to fail.” He said people who don’t fail often haven’t pushed themselves hard enough. But those people who have tried and failed often come back better than they were before.
That is why you must push yourself day after day, she said. So tomorrow will be even better.