Author & Philanthropist Simone Knego: “They Told Me It Was Impossible And I Did It Anyway”
STOP comparing yourself to others. So many times we focus on what everyone else is doing and fail to see what we, ourselves, are capable of, and how what we are already doing is positively impacting the world. It’s actually the little things we do every day that have the biggest impact.
As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Simone Knego.
Beginning in a traditional career, Simone shifted over the years to a truer path in her journeying, tapping more deeply into both personal and professional interests of hers. Listening to herself more amidst real world experimentation took her from CPA, to equestrian entrepreneur, to teacher — and still she pressed on in her quest. Now an author and keynote motivational speaker as well as globe-trotting philanthropist, her climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro at age 42 was not only the zenith of physical accomplishments for this mom of six — but a richly symbolic one given her core message of being your own extraordinary self in order to most genuinely impact your world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?
Early on, I earned a Master of Accounting from the University of Florida and began my professional life as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). But I soon realized my passion actually wasn’t numbers — it was helping people. This led me to then become an elementary and exceptional education teacher so I could work with children. I had a dream to have a horse farm so during our time in Texas, we bought a place in the country and built a barn and covered arena. My business developed into one of teaching horseback riding, hosting visiting instructors for various clinics, and creating a summer camp with most of our activities geared to kids ages 5–13 (which sadly ended when we relocated out of state). Today, my desire to be of help has expanded into sharing my story and experiences in hope of inspiring and motivating others to make a difference in our world.
I am the mom of six children — three of whom we adopted from South Korea and Ethiopia — and I’m also an author, motivational keynote speaker, and a passionate philanthropist. For the last decade I have been very involved with The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), most recently serving as Co-Chair of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet. With my husband, Rob, I’ve also travelled the world on many philanthropic missions, including medical missions as he’s a neurosurgeon. Every choice I’ve made is a part of my story.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In October of 2020, my first book, The Extraordinary UnOrdinary You: Follow Your Own Path, Discover Your Own Journey, was published and became a bestseller on Amazon. My motivation for writing it was to share my stories — the good, the bad, the ugly…and even the sad. In sharing many of my own “everyday moments” I’m hoping these messages will inspire others to realize what they too are capable of, and recognize that the choices we each make every day truly have the power to inspire and impact the people around us.
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?
As a motivational keynote speaker who’s frequently interviewed, it was validating indeed to have Entrepreneur cite my book on its “must-read book for 2021” list — and I trust that selection reflects the fact I have a two-fold message for both businesses and nonprofit audiences I address — one geared to inspiring the “whole” person to be their best in making their own unique contributions to the world, professionally as well as personally.
Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?
In 2014, I committed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with Survivor Summit, an effort geared to raising funds as well as awareness for the Livestrong Foundation. Only tricky bit was…I wasn’t actually a climber! Honestly, I probably hadn’t climbed anything steeper than an incline in a shopping mall’s parking garage at that point. But I embraced the opportunity as it presented such a unique opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone. And although it wasn’t originally a bucket list item for me, as soon as I was asked to do it, I was immediately all in.
I think most people who heard that I’d committed to climbing the highest mountain in Africa (it’s a dormant volcano) probably thought I had lost my mind. After all, I was 42 years old, a mom of six, and frankly not in the best of shape. But I’m a big believer that when you put your mind to something and actually do the work, you can accomplish virtually anything. I can’t tell you how many people asked, “Do you really think you’ll make it to the top?” However, their skepticism just made me all the more resolute in my determination.
In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? :-)
I crested the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with my Survivor Summit team on February 2, 2015. And it truly felt as though everything I had experienced in my entire life had brought me to that moment in time, that incredible top-of-the-world vantage point. The air was so icy cold that my cheeks felt as if they might shatter from the intense smile that overtook my face. My body ached all over after hiking for five days to an unimaginable 19,341 feet — over 20% higher than Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the U.S. But no physical discomfort could diminish the exhilaration of that first glimpse as I looked out atop the pristine long-range vista of peaks and dramatic valleys, and first grasped the gravity of my personal achievement. I may have been a DREAMER, but hard work and dedication made that dream come true. And no naysayer can ever take away that accomplishment away from me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The person who encourages me the most is my unconditionally supportive husband, Rob. We got married when I was 21 and will soon celebrate our 28th anniversary. He always believes in me, even when I come up with crazy ideas. When I announced to him my plans for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro his reply was, “I can just picture you at the summit.” When I told him I was going to write a book he said, “I can’t wait to read it.” His favorite question is, “How can I make your life better?” He’s that person who I can always rely upon fully, and he has consistently made my life better for over a quarter century now…he’s just a joy day in and day out (how blessed am I?!).
It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?
Admittedly, it’s never easy to ignore people, especially when they’re criticizing you. But I’ve really learned to focus on believing in myself, and quieting the voices from the outside. At the end of the day, when we’re aspiring to do something good that doesn’t negatively impact someone else, it really doesn’t matter what anybody else has to say.
My mom has always been an amazing role model. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania on a farm, and her mother only had a sixth grade education. Her dad worked in the coal mines and a local brewery. By the time she was 13, she knew she wanted to pursue an education for herself. Beginning by working for another family, she cared for their kids and saved all of the money she earned. As soon as she could, she applied to the University of Pittsburgh and was accepted. While in college she worked three jobs to support herself. After graduating, she applied to medical school at the University of Pittsburgh and was accepted. Given that era, she was one of only five women in her medical school’s class when she graduated in 1965. So my own mom is one who had a lot of naysayers throughout her own career. As she shared with me when I was growing up, she struggled with people not believing in her because she was a woman “in a man’s profession.” In addition to being an amazing mom, she was also an amazing doctor. And she’s just an amazing human overall. In retrospect, seeing her tenacity, her grit, and her resiliency over the years really inspired me to realize who I am and what I am capable of too. But, I am going to be honest, it took me a lon-n-g time to actually get to that point. For the first part of my life I didn’t believe in myself and, as a result, I struggled with my value, my self-worth, thinking that I wasn’t enough. Now that I’m older, I appreciate more fully everything she went through, and I now realize I’m not “just” enough, I am more than enough.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)
- STOP comparing yourself to others. So many times we focus on what everyone else is doing and fail to see what we, ourselves, are capable of, and how what we are already doing is positively impacting the world. It’s actually the little things we do every day that have the biggest impact.
- Realize your value. Stop labeling yourself. During the periods in between various business pursuits of mine I used to say things like, “I’m just a stay-at-home mom” when asked what I did for work. I used these words to diminish my value because I didn’t see my value. In actuality I’m not “just” anything.
- Don’t use the word “can’t” because can’t means won’t. That means you won’t even try. I had a conversation the other day with an acquaintance, and as we discussed Kilimanjaro, this woman said, ”I can’t even imagine climbing it, I could never climb a mountain.” My response was, “Do you want to climb a mountain?” She said, “No, I’d never want to climb a mountain.” So the narrative should change to not wanting to climb a mountain instead of not being able to do it. Words matter.
- If you want something, ask for it. The worst someone can say is, “No.” If you don’t ask, you will never know what could have been. And remember, most people actually want to say yes.
- Failure and mistakes are part of life. Don’t be afraid to fail and failure doesn’t mean the road has ended. Failures are just bumps in the road. We need to experience them in order to learn and move forward on our journey. And it’s how we move forward after a failure that helps us grow as people.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not BE defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, and how you can still come out of it.” ―Maya Angelou
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We don’t need to change who we are. We need to change the way we see ourselves.
I’m not saying we should be complacent. What I am saying is that when we change the way we see ourselves, when we start believing in ourselves — truly believing in ourselves — then the world opens up to us. We’re willing to try more things, we’re willing to reach out to help others, and we’re willing to expand our goals.
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