Three Entrepreneurial Lessons From Mount Everest

As I stood atop Mount Everest at 29,029 feet, I was running on fumes, low on oxygen and had herniated a disc in my spine so badly I could barely walk. I was practically crawling to make it to the safety of advanced base camp with the rest of my team. But, I did not make it and would instead need to spend another night in the “death zone” above 8,000 meters.

In the middle of that night, I awoke freezing and unable to breathe, only to realize I had run out of oxygen. Disoriented and gasping for breath, I dragged myself to the edge of the tent and was able to signal for help. Mingma Sona, my climbing sherpa, saved my life by changing out my oxygen tank as I laid in the tent. The next day, I rappelled down the Lhotse face and was reminded of how lucky I was as the body bags of less fortunate climbers were lowered next to me.

Climbing Mount Everest was the second hardest thing I have ever done, the second nearest I have ever felt to dying. The first is being an entrepreneur. The challenges of entrepreneurship are endemic, with entrepreneurs facing higher rates of substance abuse and suicide than control groups.

I have learned a lot from my mountaineering adventures that provides a different context for entrepreneurial challenges. Here are three of the most important lessons from my time climbing to the top of the world.

  1. Silence the voice telling you you’re not good enough.

I had submitted the tallest mountain in the world. I was well on my way down the mountain, even if I was hobbled and short of breath. I had safely climbed freakin’ Everest! And yet my inner inferiority complex wouldn’t stop reminding me that I had submitted slower than the rest of my group and was behind my goal of making it to advanced base camp. In a moment of clarity, I finally came to terms with just how absurd that nagging voice is.

Now, whenever I hear that voice telling me I’m not good enough, I remember that feeling on the Triangle Face of Everest and ignore that voice for the imposter it is. As entrepreneurs, most of us know that toxic voice well. We must learn to silence, or at least manage, that voice for our mental health and sanity.

To expose that voice of negativity for the imposter that it is, think of an accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud, something you didn’t think you were good enough to accomplish but did. Realize how wrong that voice was then and the likelihood that it’s just as wrong this time.

  1. Remember that oxygen is all that matters.

Among the dumbest decisions I made on the mountain was to be the only person to not to buy an extra bottle of oxygen for summit day. That stupidity came to a head when my climbing sherpa told me we would have to turn around about an hour from the summit because I was 30 minutes behind schedule. Because I didn’t have that extra cushion of Os, I had precious little margin for error. Thankfully, the guides reconsidered and I was able to proceed, but with far greater danger.

Cash is an entrepreneur’s oxygen. It is what sustains the venture and meters the speed with which the entrepreneur can scale. Not coincidentally, raising too little capital thanks to my hubris has doomed businesses I have built when the inevitable run of bad luck hit. I so often see entrepreneurs overthinking their fundraising rather than stockpiling as much oxygen as possible and using as little as they can. Remember, too little cash is as fatal to a company as too little oxygen is to a person.

My favorite trick for this issue is to examine your organizational chart and count how many people are bringing in oxygen (salespeople, a CFO who helps raise money, etc.) versus using oxygen (developers, product support, etc.). As entrepreneurs, we often put too much of the burden of supplying the oxygen for our entire team on ourselves and a small number of people, hiring lots of developers but not finding the money for a good CFO or enough salespeople.

  1. Prepare for the ‘death zone.’

Everything a mountaineer does physically and mentally is to prepare for the death zone, the area above 8000m where the body breaks down from the lack of oxygen. As mountaineers, we obsess over being prepared for that part of the journey.

Entrepreneurs experience their own death zone, the mental and emotional stresses that come from the pressure and isolation of the journey. Like most humans, entrepreneurs stress about money. But while most people stress about their own financial situations, entrepreneurs are responsible for not letting down everyone who works for and invests in them. I call this uniquely extreme entrepreneurial stress the “entrepreneurial death zone.” The symptoms of prolonged exposure to the entrepreneur include addiction, family stresses, inability to sleep and a host of other challenges.

Entrepreneurs usually face their crucible in isolation, with loneliness exacerbating the psychological torment. To succeed, entrepreneurs must know that the death zone is coming, that it’s a natural part of climbing the mountain, and be prepared for the experience. Key to that preparedness is a support network, but you can only rely on friends and family so much. Building a support network of entrepreneurs with whom you can be truly honest — and not worry that your bad news will leak — is critical. In addition, developing a mental health routine through meditation can provide greater psychological resilience to succeed, and an outlet for the worst times.

Mountaineering and entrepreneurship are two of the defining experiences of my life, bringing immeasurable joy and satisfaction. Each can be dangerous in their own way if not taken seriously, or if the entrepreneur is insufficiently prepared for the inevitable challenges of the journey.

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This Article first appeared in Forbes

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