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On the Edge: Review

Sometimes, the best lessons are learned through experience. Hence, when my wife recommended I read this book, I was curious why the two of us would have a common interest in a book. After reading it though, I see why. Allison Levine shares leadership lessons learned from the field, instead of linking it to theory.

Part of what perked my interest stemmed from my childhood desire to climb mountains. In middle school, I was the youngest in a wilderness class, and the second youngest and I would dream of scaling tall peaks and do crazy things. I had read a number of mountaineering books and couldn’t wait to try, but alas my father was too cautious. Cost and college and a host of other excuses prevented me from pursuing those dreams further.

Levine completed the Grand Slam (Seven Summits, reach both North and South Poles) and lived to tell about it. She was the lead of the first American women’s expedition to Everest, and she shared stories of her summit to Carstenz Pyramid and skiing to the South Pole. Here is what stood out to me:

Discipline

It takes an extraordinary amount of discipline when scaling mountains, because at any moment a lack of preparedness and a clear mind will ruin you. She shared stories of climbers who would not clip in to the safety lines because the line was going too slow, and how a couple of people passed away (that may have survived). Sherpas who scale the routes back and forth oftentimes think that because they just traversed a path earlier that they know where the cracks are (it changes every day – especially on the Khumbu Icefall). Not taking the time to ensure your harness is on comfortably or your crampons drawn tight could mean the difference between life or death. While the majority of us do not face such extraneous conditions on a daily basis, we should not let down our guard, especially when the work we are doing carries a greater risk. I oftentimes find myself taking a deep breath and walking away for a few minutes when I become mentally cocky.

Dedication

I admire Levine’s grit when trying to find ways to get the job done. For example, when training for her South Pole expedition, because she lived in the Bay Area, she did not have the luxury of skiing long distances over predominantly flat terrain. However, she needed to train if she was to keep up with the Antarctica expedition. So she went to the beach, roped a tire to her waist, and started dragging it through the sand. If I recall correctly she worked up to dragging three tires. Despite onlookers questioning her mentality, she found a way to use the tools at her disposal, instead of complaining that she did not have the right environment for it.

Progress does not always mean moving forward.

Prior to this reading, I did not realize that climbing Everest was not a gradual climb to the top. Apparently, you start at base camp, then go to camp 1, then descend to basecamp, then camp 2, basecamp, so on until camp 4 then summit day. This is due to helping one acclimate to the conditions of low oxygen. Levine draws on this experience to encourage us to keep moving, even if seems like we are not moving forward. Each individual has their own life experience, and most of the time it is not a straight line that leads as the crow flies. Continue to gain experience and expertise where you are at now, but do not be discouraged if it seems like you have backslidden a bit.

Networking

Levine shared some experiences where towards the summit oftentimes people hit dangerous conditions and others walk by. The moral compass in all of us thinks that if we saw someone that looked like he/she needed help, we would stop and help. However, answering that question takes a different tone when in the death zone (above 8000m). To increase your chances of being helped should you hit a block, it depends on how you network at base camp. If you are reclusive, stick to yourself, and do not make an effort to be friendly to others, you will be on your own on the journey. However, a friendly face, words of encouragement, and desire for others will increase your familiarity among others. If they see you at the top and remember a positive conversation with you, they will be more than likely to help you.

I have historically struggled in this area as I approach work as just work. Keep my head down, get stuff done, and call it a day. Sometimes I’ll engage in friendly banter but oftentimes you won’t find me around the watercooler (perhaps because my boss expects us to be working every minute of every day and minimize fun conversations?). However, this makes sense because humans are largely emotional creatures. Finding the right balance between these competing factors is one that I have yet to figure out, but out of all the lessons, this is probably the area I needed the most work.