No Barriers Q&A with Erik Weihenmayer Part 2

Last week, I interviewed Erik Weihenmayer in part 1 for episode 046 and gave you the rundown of our Q&A on the blog. Today continues with part 2 of our conversation. You can listen to the interview on the Productivity Paradox podcast episode 047 and read some of our questions and answers here as well!

Erik is easily one of the most inspirational people I’ve had the chance to talk with. He’s a blind adventurer who has kayaked the Grand Canyon, along with climbing to the top of Everest and the Seven Summits.

Last week we talked about why it’s important to strengthen our muscle of suffering. Why it’s important to give and receive help on our path to greatness, and the importance of moving forward even when things feel incredibly difficult. Today we’re talking about the feeling of failure, having setbacks and how to get back up when you’ve fallen down. Let’s get started:

 

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Q: While you’ve had a lot of successes, we’re all going to have failures in our lives whether it’s climbing a mountain, going after a big goal, or just living our everyday lives. In your book you talked about your first pass at Lava Falls, which is one of the most intimidating rapids in the Grand Canyon. Your first attempt didn’t go as planned, but you got back in the kayak and you and your guide Harlan approached it in a different way. This time in a much more successful way. How important is it to get right back in there after you experience a setback or a failure?

A:  It’s not as simple as just I’m going to go, and go do it better this time. It goes back to this idea of suffering. After that first run I sat there with my face in my hands. I was nothing but devastated. My first run through Lava was just terrible. I was too far to the right, I was probably sluggish. I was nervous. I hit these boils and they flipped me. I was upside down going into Lava.

You pound your head against the wall. You rail against the unfairness of life. My message of my book was – the quicker you pick yourself up and respond optimally to adversity, the healthier you will be, and the more successful. You have to go through sort of an arduous process to not just survive adversity, but harness it. Really take the energy of that, and use it to propel you forward. I was through it. I lived, and do I just keep going down the river and put it behind me, or do I circle back and confront it again?

There are things that you can influence in your life, and you work like hell to do that and there are things you can’t.The things you can’t you have to let go, but it’s a tricky equation of what you can influence and what you can’t. I had to wrestle with that, and I really only had one night to do it. Ultimately I decided to go back and try Lava again.

 

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Q: Your friend, Rob Raker, gave you the advice. He said, “If you paddle like you’re expecting to flip all the time, it make you timid. The more defensive you are, the worse you’ll paddle, and the more likely you’ll flip, but if you paddle aggressively, you’ll charge through the waves.” How do we build up the courage to paddle aggressively in life?

A: It’s not at all simple… I’ve been caught massive vortex. It was like eight feet long. It flipped me, grabbed my feet, and pulled me down like it would suck my shoes off my feet, and held me down for a long time. It was trauma. That’s a life thing – trauma –  and then trauma sometimes gets ‘stuck’. My friend, Ryan Kelly, described it like a vibration in your soul, and you can’t get through it. You get stuck on it every time like a record that’s been scratched, and honestly that’s the way I felt after that swim. What I realized I had to do is to go back and reprogram

my brain. You’re constantly kind of reprogramming and strengthening the neurons, and the pathways in your brain, and if some get stuck, if there’s a break, how do you rebuild them? What people don’t realize maybe is that you have to go backwards, and that’s what I did. I went back to the beginning – to the National Whitewater Center, which is this man-made facility.

It’s pretty safe, and you can practice your kayaking, you can go back to the very beginning. I worked on my role, and I went through easy rapids just retraining my brain for months until finally I had some breakthroughs.

The courage thing is like the suffering thing… I think it’s a muscle that you train. Courage is not a state of being. It’s something you practice every day, and you practice with little habits that you

have in your life. Just little acts of courage that builds you up to that moment when you truly need big courage in your life. If you don’t practice it you won’t have sort of the muscle to be able to do it.

 

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Q: No Barriers was started because you wanted to be a part of this change in people to help others with their perceptions of what’s possible. Not necessarily in a gentle way. By showing them what they can accomplish. You wanted to help people come together to blast through one barrier after the next until as you say there are none left. Do you think you’ve accomplished this?

A: No. I think it’s an endless process. When Mark, a paraplegic who I talked about earlier, and Hugh, who’s a double leg amputee, and I climbed this big rock face together, we were kind of a broken team. One guy who didn’t have legs, one guy who couldn’t use his legs, one guy couldn’t see, and we worked together. For me, that was the beginning of No Barriers.

I look at people in the beginning of their journey, or somewhere along the middle of their journey, or wherever they wind up. Not just physically disabled people, but all of us. Because we’re all going through this process of growth, it is so easy to get stuck along the way. You ask yourself, how do you continue to keep moving towards that process of growth?

Going blind taught me an extra empathy for all of us who face barriers in our lives. A lot of the people we work with at no barriers are folks with invisible barriers. They’re barriers in the mind, and our emotions. And our self doubt and fears, or just being lost. You look at people who are stuck, and you ask, what does that map look like that we can build that can bring us to where we want to go? That can make us the best version of ourselves. It doesn’t make a person like me see. It’s not magical, but it does bring you to becoming the best version of yourself.

I wanted to understand that map better, and so we founded No Barriers, and then I started studying real people. Not celebrities or fictional characters in books, but real people who flailed, and bled their way towards transformation. I thought that’s where the secrets lie, and that’s why I wrote No Barriers.

 

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Q: You’re leading so many others to find their possibilities, and that is a never ending chain because those people that you are inspiring others, and it continues to grow and evolve. I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about the No Barriers summit that is happening in New York City in 2018.

A: We’ve grown our organization since we founded it. We have 30 staff members, 50+  guides. We have transformative experiences for people with challenges, as I said that expansive definition of the word ‘challenge.’ Not just people with physical disabilities, youth, veterans, and people who have had trauma and death. First generation Americans, kids in the foster care system and more. We have a big extravaganza every year, which we call our summit. Next October we’re going to have it in New York City on biggest stage in Central Park. There will be concerts, climbing walls, and we’re going to have amazing innovations there helping people to break through barriers.

People will come from all around the world to take part in this two-day experience celebrating our motto of no barriers, which is, “What’s within us is stronger than what’s in our way.” I think it’s a message we need right now especially.

 

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Isn’t Erik Weihenmayer a huge inspiration? Like he said, their motto and mindset can be used for anyone with any kind of challenge or obstacle.

I encourage you to listen to episode 046 and 047 for the full interview with Erik. He’s got even more details, stories and advice to share there. If you’re interested, you can visit the No Barriers website to learn more and look into reading his book here. I personally really enjoyed it!

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Tonya Dalton
Tonya Dalton