I listened to Alison Levine speak at the 8th Annual Invent Your Future Conference on April 22nd at the Santa Clara Convention Center. She is a remarkable woman who was the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. If that was not enough, she also climbed the highest peak on each continent.
I didn’t know anything about climbing mountains. I was astonished to learn that climbing Mount Everest takes many weeks, and it is a crazy process of going up and down several times through a series of camps that range from the base camp at 17,700 feet to the summit at 29,028 feet. I just assumed there was a linear ascent through camp 1, camp 2, camp 3, and so on. It turns out that the human body starts to malfunction and deteriorate at high elevations, so you climb up to the next camp and stay for 24 hours and then go all the way down to base camp. You give up each precious foot of elevation that you gain each time you go farther up. This whole up and down process takes several months.
The point that I took home is that the ascent is not a straightforward path. The key is to keep your head about you and realize that if you need to turn back even though you can see the summit, that change is part of the process. Several times I have turned back from promotions or the next level up. I have gone back “down” to work at a place where I could recover and gain strength and then train to go back up the mountain.
The moral of the story is that as women we might chose different paths at different times in our life like acclimating to our situation before making the next move. Taking a break to care for a child or pausing because our partner has a high-powered, demanding role can all be phases of the ascent. The key is mental preparation, stamina, and focusing on your next summit.
The story of the first U.S. women’s team offers important career lessons:
- No one gets to the top alone – Alison selected the women’s team that would encourage and support each other on this grueling mission. There are also a large number of support staff, Sherpa guides, and base camp crew members who enable the team to succeed. Each of us needs to build that support for ourselves in our own career ascent. Who are your guides? Who are members of your support staff?
- Climbing to the top, while a massive physical challenge, is also a huge mental game. Alison did not choose young women for the climb but rather chose several in their forties and fifties because these mature women had the mental strength to stay focused on the mission. So do not fear if you aren’t a billionaire by the time you are 30! Don’t discount your capabilities as you mature.
- Define your summit, train, and know that it’s not a linear path. Go up, come down when you need to revive and rest, and then give the ascent another go. You can do this on your terms.
About the author: Nina Bhatti has held a variety of research and product management roles at HP, is a technologist by training, and is now an entrepreneur working on her first startup to solve product search for e-commerce.