105: Blind Adventurer Erik Weihenmayer On Turning Adversity Into Opportunity

Written by Rob Stott

February 8, 2022

At Nationwide Marketing Group’s PrimeTime show in Phoenix, blind adventurer and motivational speaker Erik Weihenmayer shared his absolutely incredible story, which saw him overcome a rare disease that caused him to go blind and ultimately reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Erik sat down with the Independent Thinking Podcast to dive deeper into his message and the meaning behind his No Barriers Lifestyle movement.


Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast and incredibly excited right now. We’re fresh off of the PrimeTime opening keynote and sitting back here, been welcomed into the green room. Mr. Erik Weihenmayer, our opening keynote adventurist and incredibly motivational speaker. I appreciate you taking the time having just walked off the stage yourself to sit down and chat with us for our podcast here.

Erik Weihenmayer: My pleasure, Rob.

Rob Stott: Yeah, so I mean, we just got through roller coaster of emotions, listening to you talk and share your story. So now I’m going to ask you to boil it down to that one minute pitch if you had to for those listening that weren’t in attendance here this week for PrimeTime in Phoenix, how do you boil down that message? What can you tell our listeners here at the Independent Thinking podcast to help them kind of encapsulate the knowledge you tried to impart?

Erik Weihenmayer: Well as you heard from the audience, it’s like I don’t want to preach, I don’t want to give you like the 10 pointers to ultimate success because people are too smart for that. You know what I mean? There’s no like shortcut, there’s no cheap little trick that’s going to bring you to the top. And if that does happen, I think it’s going to collapse like a stack of cards. So what all I was doing up there is talking about what I call no barriers life and what that map looks like, because we’re all trying to grow and change and evolve in our lives. And by the way, just a side note when motivational speakers go up there on stage, and they’re talking to the audience, a lot of times the message they’re talking about is things that they’re telling themselves.

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer: I mean, so I’m not immune from all that stuff. So I’ve been thinking about how to build this no barriers map in my life, like to go through this process of growth and change and change and grow that my whole life until the day we die. Keep challenging myself in different ways.

Erik Weihenmayer: What does that process look like for each of us? And what is the template like, what are the elements that you got to watch for along the way? So today I was talking about things that are so simple like how to have a clear vision of who you are and where you’re going, how do you pioneer ideas forward, right? Like seeing your life as an engineer just completely building systems and strategies and tools.

Erik Weihenmayer: How do you keep, when you don’t even know the outcome half the times.

Erik Weihenmayer: How do you perform alchemy, this art of turning lead into gold constantly. How do you build these beautiful teams around you and create a sense of trust where you’re putting your life in each other’s hands and then sum it together, and then the end goal, the culmination how do we figure out how to then come down the mountain and use our experiences to elevate our lives and our team somehow that’s for me, the end goal. And for me, that was starting my nonprofit no barriers work with about 20,000 people a year, all people with challenges, different kinds of challenges, from invisible challenges, to physical challenges, to veterans who have struggled and so forth.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And the thing that stood out to me because you mentioned it, obviously it’s an element that kind of weaves throughout the conversation is that, and the reason that it resonates is because it’s something we talk about so often amongst our own team here at Nationwide Marketing Group, but also as we’re gathered for events like PrimeTime, but that idea of team and trust, and being able to trust your team.

Rob Stott: So I mean, dive into that a little more because you have a team obviously that supports you in what you’re doing. And it’d be interesting to hear, you talked about it a little bit during your presentation, but what are you looking for as you build your team or as you build your team in an individual to make sure that they’re the right fit to be able to work with you?

Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah, well, when I went blind, I hated receiving help because I didn’t want people to look down on me. I went blind just before my freshman year in high school, totally blind and I hated receiving help. I was just like this mean little raccoon, lashing out from the corner because I didn’t know what my future was going to be. And I couldn’t see through this brick wall in front of me of what a life as a blind person would be like. But over time you realize as a blind person, sure, you can become incredibly independent, but there are things like kayaking the Grand Canyon and climbing Mount Everest, you’re just not going to do alone. So you got to kind of in a way, give up your ego, this like macho thing of like, I’m going to do it myself and pound my chest at the top, and you got to create this interdependence.

Erik Weihenmayer: And one of the hidden gifts of going blind was the beauty and the power of interdependence, of putting your life fully in someone’s hands and having them put their life fully in your hands. It’s just a tremendous gift. And it’s fueled my journeys and my teams and my accomplishments with these kind of rope teams. So what I look for are obviously skillsets, but I also look for people, like the leader of our Everest climb, his name was Pascoali Vincent. PV, we call him he’s Italian. And as we were planning my Everest climb, we would meet for breakfast and we’d talk about logistics and planning and the team and everything. And he would say, I had another dream and it was this reoccurring dream that he had every night. And it was the dream. We were summiting together. We climbed the Hillary Step together and we were approaching the summit and we were hand in hand and PV said, and it brought tears to my eyes. He’d wake up crying.

Erik Weihenmayer: And he’d say, because if I could get you to the summit, it would be the hardest thing I’d ever done. And I thought, wow, that’s really cool. But I go, the hardest thing you’ve ever done, like, wait a second. What about the hardest thing I’ve ever done?

Erik Weihenmayer: But, but the point being that, yeah, PV had this like big ego, right? Like a good, like healthy ego, like he could achieve this. And also he was the kind of guy that was inflated by challenge, right? Like he was built up by challenge.

Erik Weihenmayer: Challenge didn’t diminish him. It didn’t terrify him. It didn’t make him shrink. It actually made him better. And so I think ultimately that’s what I’m looking for. These people who improve through challenge. They embrace it and they love it and they want to be part of great things and great teams and they believe they can make it happen. And it’s kind of a, this is such a bad analogy. I wish I had a better one, but it’s almost like a kind of schizophrenia, which obviously nobody wants schizophrenia, but it’s kind of like a weird, healthy schizophrenia, or like, you’re not naive. Right. Right. But you’re seeing all the things that can turn you back. You’re seeing all the pitfalls, you’re seeing all the challenges, you’re seeing those so clearly, but at the same time, the other side of your brain figures out how to believe through it and how to summon up what it takes to know that you can get through that stuff and you can stand on top. And, and that’s a crazy, amazing skill that I look for.

Rob Stott: But yeah. I mean, you talk about creating alchemy and turning the lead into gold and using this adversity to motivate and challenge you. Just from your own experiences, because I can imagine you mentioned it going blind and just sort of what that does to the psyche. What did it take or what was that motivation for you to not, as you describe it, there’s campers and climbers, and to not fall into that kind of camper mode where you let what was happening, sort of define you and in turn you took those challenges and converted it to this motivation to do what you’ve been able to accomplish.

Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah. I mean, so in the talk today, I talked about my second book called “The Adversity Advantage”. I teamed up with the scientist, Dr. Paul Stultz, and he’s a real expert on adversity. Like he’s helping to change the world’s relationship with adversity, understanding that like adversity is… And this can turn into like a little bit of a cheesy motivational thing, but it’s really not, because it’s not just turning lemons into lemonade, it’s this really complex art to be able to not get sidelined, to not get shoved to the sidelines and be just sitting and stagnating. And we know it when we’re there, but continuing to climb, continuing to challenge ourselves every day, continuing to figure out yeah, how to take lead and turn it into gold in our lives.

Erik Weihenmayer: And I mean, you see it everywhere. Once you like notice alchemy, you see it everywhere. And it’s something I try to do all the time, because just because I summited Everest or kayak the Grand Canyon, done these big things it doesn’t mean I don’t struggle. I mean too much information here, but my wife and I sadly separated a couple years ago. So like struggle, it’s constant in our lives. We got to figure out how to take that struggle and translate it into like the things that we hope for. Energy and wisdom and empathy and love and friendship and innovation and the stories of alchemy, if you start to notice them are really amazing motivators.

Rob Stott: Is it a mindset? Is it something you do? Because I know it’s obviously a struggle because as you said, if you look at the campers and climbers, a majority of people might fall into that camper mentality. So is it the way you think about things? Are you doing something or is it just something you over time you know what it takes, sort of practice makes perfect, that whole-

Erik Weihenmayer: It’s taking struggle and turning it into something that benefits you and your family and your rope team and the world in some way. I mean, like here’s a great example. My friend Mindy Shire, she’s a part of our No Barriers organization. She’s kind of an ambassador, she’s jumped in and teaches all kinds of workshops and stuff for us. So she’s amazing human being. She’s a mom, her kid is pretty severely disabled. And so he misses out on a lot of cool things. And he came home from school crying one day and he said, “Mom, everyone dresses themselves. Like they wear these really swanky outfits to school and I can’t do rest myself.” And she’s like, okay, so what’s the first thing? Crushed as a mom crushed. Right? Like you want to stick your head under the pillow and just cry.

Erik Weihenmayer: But okay. So she did that, but then she realized, okay, wait a second here. I’m a bit of a seamstress, I know a little bit about the sewing machine. So she takes a pair of pants, takes his buckle, the buttons and the zippers off, replaces them with Velcro magnets. And the next day the kid wears his cool pair of pants to school.

Rob Stott: Oh man.

Erik Weihenmayer: And okay, now this second piece doesn’t always happen, but the second piece for her was wait a second. I could probably do this for other people. So she started a company called The Runway of Dreams. She partners with Tommy Hilfiger now. And it’s not just one son, it’s that thousands of people with disabilities that now can wear these cool clothes on this adaptive clothing line. That’s just the perfect example of alchemy, and if you start to understand it, you’ll notice it everywhere.

Rob Stott: Right. I mean-

Erik Weihenmayer: And it always begins with struggle. It never begins after a day on the beach.

Rob Stott: Right, right. There’s that defining moment. Something that happens.

Erik Weihenmayer: I mean, sometimes it begins with a couple beers in the garage.

Rob Stott: Sure.

Erik Weihenmayer: Possibly, you know.

Rob Stott: Like all good ideas.

Rob Stott: No, but I mean, it’s clear that in sitting here talking with you and seeing you describe this, there’s plenty of examples that you’ve kind of come across in the No Barriers Lifestyle and the movement that you’ve started. I mean, you shared some great examples during the talk today, is there one, obviously another one here on the podcast, is there one that sort of stands out to you or do they kind of all flow together?

Rob Stott: Is it something where, I don’t know, I guess just that, is there one that stands out to you or is it just a story? Yeah. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer: From my no barriers experience?

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah, I mean, there’s so many of them that I love, because I get in the field and I get to lead expeditions. So I led a lot of youth groups and I love to see like the kids. I led a trip across the Mustang region of Nepal and we had kids with all kinds of challenges. We had a young woman who had some struggles and was a cutter. She cuts to like feel and that was her struggle. And a kid who had been kicked out of school for violent behavior and has been working himself through these programs to try to kind of come back into society. We had kids who struggled with depression. We had kids who had disabilities, blind and deaf, physical things.

Erik Weihenmayer: We had one kid whose struggle was that he was gay and kids would pull him off the bus stop and beat the crap out of him every day.

Erik Weihenmayer: So the crazy irony is that we’re brought together a lot of times by our struggles. We lean into our struggles and we become a support group for each of us, for each other. And we say, Hey, if we lean in, we can help each other solve these problems. We can help each other get stronger and better and live better lives. But we have to like lean into each other and stop seeing our situations as separate. At a macro level we’re all the same.

Erik Weihenmayer: Humans have been struggling for thousands of years in the same ways over and over and over. And so No Barriers is really this idea of leaning into that and saying, okay, we’re going to get stronger as a community. We’re not going to wait around for others to give us handouts.

Rob Stott: And, and the awesome thing about that is that hearing you describe your movement and the No Barriers Lifestyle almost it feels like it’s synonymous with what I, not to this extent. And certainly not the types of struggles that you’re certainly seeing on a regular basis. But I mean, I think about our members here at Nationwide and kind of what we’re trying to do in bringing this community of independent retailers that have seen a lot of struggle over the past two years in the face of a pandemic and the challenges that you mentioned on during the talk of supply chain and things like that, but the importance of leaning in and listening to one another and being able to learn from one another and how one retailer from Idaho may not have the same business as a retailer in Pennsylvania. But the fact that they went through the same struggle, they can learn from one another and overcome those challenges that they face on a regular basis.

Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah. And it’s true. I mean, like when it’s like perfect weather, what do we do? We just go, Woohoo, it’s perfect weather.

Erik Weihenmayer: When we go through a pandemic and we’re struggling and you’re competing against these big boxed retailers, this is the time when you learn, this is the time when you grow, when you figure out those new insights, those new paradigms that change the whole game aim. This is like the most amazing time to be able to do that in this community of Nationwide.

Erik Weihenmayer: It’s like, perfect. There’s energy under our feet and you collect that energy and use it. And then today I was saying that like we find that struggle is actually the pathway to like discovery. And I think this is the time.

Erik Weihenmayer: And to the group today, I brought that back to alchemy with the idea that like, Hey, the world’s crying out for alchemy right now. Like, let’s be alchemists. Let’s take that charge and not be overwhelmed by helplessness and by powerlessness.

Rob Stott: Sure.

Rob Stott: Completely different direction, because I was trying to think of a way, we talked about it beforehand to weave it in, but haven’t found a way yet. So I’m just going to outright ask. And I don’t often talk about my own personal outside of nationwide marketing group things I do, but wrestling is one of them. And I thought that was a cool connection because when I think of in just, you mentioned it, obviously in high school, you were a wrestler in Connecticut. Is that-

Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah.

Rob Stott: Okay, I guess to start, I see this is where I’m going to geek out on the wrestling side. People are going to learn about me, who I really am, but what brought you to wrestling? Because this was after you had gone blind. So what is it about the sport or just what introduced you to it and made you think that was something you wanted to pursue?

Erik Weihenmayer: Well, the crazy part was that before I went blind, I wasn’t able to do any contact sports, any physical sports, because if I banged my head, it would… I have very weak retina, so they’d unravel faster. So I was kind of like hands off. And then when I went blind, well there’s nothing else to lose.

Rob Stott: It’s a contact sport. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer: So I thought, okay, I’d heard about blind people wrestling. My brother knew the captains of the wrestling team. And one day I found myself tapping down the hallway towards that stinky wrestling room. And the team embraced me and I loved it. What they would do on our team is all the freshman would line up, and then we had the state champion who was 105 pounds. Sounds like what you started out, Rob.

Erik Weihenmayer: And he would wrestle and humiliate all the freshmen one after the next. Pin them in quick succession.

Erik Weihenmayer: And so it was my turn. The first guy got pinned in like five seconds and the next guy in like seven seconds. And then I got pinned. I don’t know, slammed on my head upside down. I don’t even know what happened. And I was like 12 seconds. And I was like, wow, you know what? Okay, I’m blind. I stink at this sport, but I stink like five seconds better than every other freshman in the line. Like this is progress.

Erik Weihenmayer: And so, yeah, they didn’t baby me. They just treated me like another kid. And that’s awesome. Embraced me. And that was my first team. That was my first team. Wrestling is so cool because there’s this individual element to it where you are like you against your opponent, but at the same time you’re working for your team. And so the wrestling captain, that cool guy that crushed me in 12 seconds, he would bring me out to the mat and he would get my feet lined up on the tape and everything. And then I would start with a hand contact where we touch hands. And I love wrestling, as I said, it was my first real sport where I embraced something that was bigger than myself.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely.

Erik Weihenmayer: Bigger than myself.

Erik Weihenmayer: The blindness was there. It was present, but it wasn’t the biggest thing. So yeah, I loved it because I really found that every team I’ve had has been similar to that, where it’s bigger than me, you’re trying to contribute. You’re trying to like elevate the team. And so when I became a teacher here in Phoenix, by the way where we are, Phoenix Country Day School, I was a teacher for six years. My classroom worked exactly the same way and my climbing teams have worked exactly the same way.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. And one of the cool things just about the sport too, in general, you mentioned the individual aspect, but not that it directly relates to climbing, but I feel as someone who tries to impart some wrestling knowledge on some high schoolers nowadays, that so much of the sport itself is feeling and knowing how your opponent’s moving and having to adjust, and you almost, you kind of have to have that innate ability to understand angles and body motion and things like that. So it almost it’s like dancing. Right. So learning, learning to dance and I have to imagine that was a unique experience trying to-

Erik Weihenmayer: Yeah. Will you be surprised how many ex-wrestlers become climbers? Because when you go up a really gravely climb and dirt is falling in your face and your hands are sweating and you’re grunting like a pig, and just every muscle hurts. You’re like, wow, you go, what a wrestling match. Right.

Erik Weihenmayer: So wrestling is the heart of it. Is at the root of it. So yeah, wrestling was so important in my life.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. I got to ask, I don’t want to take too much of your time because I know you got bigger and better things to do than talking to Independent Thinking podcast. But no-

Erik Weihenmayer: Eat another muffin in the green room.

Rob Stott: They got good ones. I will tell you. But I mean something we kind of talked about it a little bit ago with the ways you find motivation, but obviously setbacks are a thing too. And you mentioned that today that there’s moments of darkness, they do come up. Is there something you do obviously can be different for any individual, but is there something that you do that helps you to just not push it away because the Alchemist again, right. Converting that negative energy into something positive. Is there something that you do or advice you could share about just what it takes to not let that bog you down?

Erik Weihenmayer: I mean, I wish I could give like the perfect situation or scenario, but I mean, basically I think my advice is really just when these tough things happen, do not bury your head in the sand, walk through the door, walk through the door, even if it’s as painful and hard as hell, you walk through that door because that challenge is guiding you. And on the other side, there is some kind of discovery. There’s some kind of meaning and it’s for us to sign. And sometimes we don’t want to walk through that door. I’m like, that’s miserable, that’s painful as hell, but what’s the other choice to slam the door and just shove it down. We’re not going to grow if we do that.

Erik Weihenmayer: And I’ve walked through some doors that I’ve never wanted to walk through. But you do wind up on the other side so often brighter, stronger.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. So your No Barriers Lifestyle, if we can share information, obviously if people are watching we’ll have the YouTube version of this posted with some picture, we’ll get some good images from your slideshow today to share, but on our website, we’ll have it in the description underneath, but learn more about the movement that you’re pushing in the No Barriers Lifestyle. What can they do to fix some information.

Erik Weihenmayer: Check out nobarriersusa.org. And we have all kinds of cool events. Like the world, we went virtual with a lot of our stuff for a couple years, so now we have these incredible hybrid event and people are welcome to come in person. We have them mostly in Colorado, all around the world, but mostly in Colorado. We have a What’s Your Everest event where we all climb a mountain together with all kinds of folks with challenges, a lot of folks in wheelchairs. So we’ll put you to work.

Erik Weihenmayer: And then we have another event called Our Summit, which is thousands people getting together, music and speakers and workshops, and really physical fun things in the sunshine to really help people understand what this no barriers life means and all the facets that it has expressed in the world.

Rob Stott: Erik, I certainly appreciate you taking the time to join us here at PrimeTime, and it’s been incredible able to listen to your story and then just an honor to be able to talk to you and have you on the Independent Thinking Podcast. So we appreciate it. And certain look forward to reading a couple books.

Erik Weihenmayer: Awesome. And I love the community here at Nationwide because these are retailers who are family owned businesses and really interconnected with their communities. And it really like when I think about that, I think like that’s a beautiful part of America. And I want to see that part of the community thrive. I want to see it thrive, so it’s really awesome what you guys have built here.

Rob Stott: Oh, thank you so much. And we appreciate and look forward to bumping shoulders down the road too.

Erik Weihenmayer: All right. Yeah, come on out and we’ll hike a mountain together.

Rob Stott: Sounds awesome.

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