Weihenmayer sat down with us recently to share his thoughts on his diverse background; overcoming the challenges he’s faced since retinoschisis robbed him of his vision as a teenager; and his nonprofit, No Barriers USA, which offers transformative programs and experiences for veterans and others with disabilities, as well as youth and caregivers.
Q2: Tell us a little bit about your nonprofit, No Barriers USA: Why did you start it and how did you come up with the name?
Weihenmayer: I was climbing Mount Everest and I reached the summit. It kind of blew my own perceptions away. When I made it down to the basecamp, I was so psyched. And the team leader said, “Don’t make this the greatest thing you ever do.” I interpreted that as, “Don’t do this to build your resume. Try to create a growth experience that’s a catalyst to other growth experiences.”
Everest became a catalyst to start No Barriers.
Years before, I went climbing with Hugh Herr (rock climber, engineer, and biophysicist) outside Moab, Utah. Hugh is a double-leg amputee, having lost his legs in a climbing accident. After he went through his struggle, he really wanted to get back into climbing so he started innovating prosthetics and got back to climbing at a super high level. In some ways, he was even better—one of the top 10 climbers in America.
Hugh, Mark Wellman (author, filmmaker, Paralympian, and motivational speaker), and I climbed this wild desert tower together. It was mind boggling to hear how both Mark and Hugh overcame their challenges to be able to do this. I was really blown away by the process of the struggle. The process of something shattering your life and then having to rebuild those pieces.
I thought: What is the roadmap, what is the template these folks have used? What’s inside? It almost became a spiritual pursuit. I wanted to understand what the external and internal processes were and see if we could teach them. I believe what we can grow inside can overcome the real barriers that exist outside in the world. And I’m not just talking about physical ones … there’s uncertainty, anxiety, and other modern things that plague us. At a macro level, challenge is challenge, and we can all learn how to grow from each other.
To discover some kind of purpose or fulfillment in your life … that’s really how No Barriers became this movement that now involves thousands and thousands of people.
Q2: Who are your role models and why?
Weihenmayer: Hugh and Mark, for sure. My dad was also a huge mentor to me because he was “no barriers” before the phrase even existed. He was always trying to help me find a way to break through barriers. When I was a kid, I used to ride my motorbike down the driveway. I was going blind and one day I couldn’t see the ramps anymore. My dad painted them bright orange so I could see them for about another six months. He had that can-do attitude. He was a Marine and just wired that way. I credit both my parents for the mindset I’ve adopted in my life.
Lastly, I think about a guy I never met, Terry Fox, a young Canadian who lost his leg to cancer. In 1980 he embarked on a cross-Canada run to raise money and awareness for cancer research. He was forced to end his run after 143 days because his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs.
He died the following year, but in his young, short life he inspired a nation. His impact was massive. Mostly he showed me that when bad things happen, you don’t have to curl up in a ball and protect what you have left. You can get bigger. You can convert it into vision, into fuel. You can react to things in this proactive way that’s different than your natural reaction. Alchemy–turning lead into gold. Taking struggle and turning it into innovation, empathy, and love–all the things we’re after.
Q2: What did teaching 5th graders teach you?
Weihenmayer: I taught language arts, writing, and math. One thing I learned is that a classroom is a team, and it’s an interdependent team. Especially for a blind teacher, you rely on your kids. I relied on my kids to write on the board, to correct each other’s quizzes. There was a trust we had to build. There was an interdependence.
Later, when I started climbing, I discovered when you’re roped together on a glacier it’s risky—there are crevasses and other unforeseen challenges—so you share the risk. Sometimes you’re pulling others up the mountain, and sometimes they’re pulling you up. My classroom was my first team. Everyone had to rely on each other. It was really a beautiful process to see those classrooms come together or sometimes fall short a little bit. Being blind really enhanced the experience and brought forth the idea that we have to rely on each other.
I also learned something in middle school that helped me relate to my students years later. When I went blind, I tried so hard to blend in—something middle school kids really struggle with.
There was this student in my class who was Sikh and wore a turban. He said, “Mr. Weihenmayer, I feel embarrassed I wear a turban to school.” I responded, “Why don’t you do a show-and-tell about the Sikh religion?” So he brought all these cool artifacts and weapons to class, and at the end of his presentation, he ripped off his turban and his hair flowed down to his waist (many men in the Sikh religion never cut their hair), and all the kids gasped in amazement. And I thought, your differences are not weaknesses. Your narrative is strength, and that’s what moves the world forward.
Q2: How/why did you get into motivational speaking?
Weihenmayer: I came in through the back door. When I climbed Denali, that got a lot of attention, and I had a sponsor: American Federation for the Blind. They had sponsors, one was AT&T, and they asked me to come speak at an event. I was a writer and an English teacher and enjoyed writing. I should be able to articulate a message. I locked myself in a room for the weekend just sweating it out. And when I went to AT&T and spoke to this audience, I really enjoyed it. I thought it was cool.
Speaking is like trying to figure out how to articulate your experience—taking threads and weaving them into a tapestry. We’re all looking for ways to build purpose. What are those whirlpools that keep swirling around in your life? What does that map look like that we’re all trying to create to navigate our lives forward? Learning how to speak publicly and motivationally is a great process of self-discovery.
Q2: What has been your biggest life challenge?
Weihenmayer: Clearly blindness has impacted my life in a big way. But that doesn’t make me immune to all of life’s other challenges. I adopted a little boy from Nepal when he was 5 years old. That was huge. Bigger than Everest. Teaching him English and how to ride a bike … going through all the trials and tribulations of parenthood. Normal challenges off the mountain are just as profound as those on the mountain or the even the bigger ones we face, such as going blind.
Q2: What’s the one thing you’ve learned from your experiences?
Weihenmayer: I’ve learned that there’s a template. It’s a messy, messy template. How do you build your team? What kind of people do you want around you? How can you take crappy things and turn them into growth in your life? How do you build a vision or a value system that guides you through hardship? How do you celebrate along the way, these beautiful summits in your life that you may not even recognize? How do you take all that and use it to celebrate the world in some kind of way?
At 40 years old, I found myself in front of the Colorado River taking on this new sport of whitewater rafting. That beginning process is so vulnerable. It’s so difficult to put yourself in those vulnerable positions. You’re starting over constantly, and that can be scary as hell, but when you move through that uncertain process and you follow that messy template, that’s what I call “No Barriers.”
You won’t want to miss Erik Weihenmayer’s keynote at CONNECT 23. Register to attend the conference today!