Alison Levine was born with a hole in her heart, so she decided to climb Mt. Everest

Growing up, we learn fear is something to avoid. But fear is a natural human emotion, a survival instinct. Instead of beating ourselves up for getting scared, we can harness fear as motivation to succeed. Alison Levine, my guest on the latest TMI (The Motivation Inside) podcast, knows this very well, telling listeners, “Fear is only bad when it paralyzes you.”

Alison is an inspirational woman, having climbed the highest mountain on every continent. She led the first-ever American women’s expedition to climb Mount Everest, pulled more than her weight (literally) on an expedition to reach the South Pole, and skied across the Arctic Circle to reach the North Pole. And she accomplished all of this in spite of being plagued by a heart condition, Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, and a neurological disorder, Raynaud’s Disease, that makes her extra prone to frostbite.

Alison not only possesses superhuman qualities, but is also a team player, generous friend, and down-to-earth human being. In her book, On The Edge: Leadership Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments, she discusses how climbing serves as a great metaphor in life and business. Unlike other successful people who write about their experiences, Alison doesn’t sanitize anything. She delves into her failures as well as her successes in keeping with the ethos of TMI that setbacks are life’s most valuable learning experiences.

In fact, Alison said on TMI that she chose to title her book On The Edge because, “There were so many times where things didn’t go as planned, where we didn’t achieve our goals. There were expeditions where I showed up and I thought I was as prepared as I could possibly be, and I still couldn’t perform as well as my larger and stronger teammates. I wanted to write about the times where I struggled and walked away bummed out that I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to do.”

I asked Alison on TMI what it feels like to be a “double alpha-squared female,” but she corrected me, saying, “While it sounds like I’ve had so much success, you learn from failure. All the times I’ve stumbled and not reached my goals weren’t in your introduction.”

Alison also asserted on TMI that she doesn’t consider herself a magnificent athlete. Relentlessness is more important than athleticism or physical strength when climbing a mountain.

“I always tell people, ‘you don’t have to be the best, fastest, or strongest climber to get to the top of the mountain — you just have to be absolutely relentless about putting one foot in front of the other,’” she told TMI listeners.

As a child Alison was fascinated by the stories of the early Arctic and Antarctic explorers, but didn’t decide to follow in their footsteps until she was much older. She was born with a hole in her heart that grew larger as she aged, and at 30, she had her second heart surgery. To celebrate her recovery two years later, she flew to Tanzania and headed for Mount Kilimanjaro. Essentially broke, she used frequent flier miles to get to Africa and, at the base of the 19,308-foot mountain, hired a local guide for $300 to take her to the top. Along the way, she experienced an epiphany that continues to influence her life and career.

Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t a difficult climb physically, but the elevation can seriously impair hikers. As a first-time mountaineer, she got a severe headache and felt the need to turn back. But before turning back, Alison heard a voice inside her head that said, “Take one more step.” So she did, and then she took another, and another, and another.

“When I feel like I’m getting my butt kicked, there’s that voice saying, ‘You’ve felt like this before — you can take one more step,’” Alison said.

Alison and I also discussed leadership opportunities for women. We agreed women and men often have different leadership styles, but Alison noted women don’t necessarily need job titles to be leaders, since being a leader involves recognizing everyone on a team has a responsibility to 1) move the team forward to reaching its goals, and 2) look out for one another.

“Women may have a different leadership style from men, but everyone has a different leadership style — even men have different leadership styles from each other,” Alison said. “Women just have to get out there and step up when there’s a leadership opportunity for them. You don’t need a title to be a leader — it’s not about a title or how many.”

My entire TMI conversation with Alison Levine, in which she discusses her unique upbringing and what she has learned from Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski, and more, is available here: