371 | Mental Toughness for Leaders with World Record Everest Climber Colin O’Brady

Mental toughness in today’s work is the ability to navigate uncertainty and overcome obstacles. When you have mental toughness, you can transfer those abilities to others that need it. All leaders need to be mentally strong. In this interview, we learn from the 2-time world record holder, Colin O’Brady. Colin shares with us how he strengthened his mental toughness in the midst of extreme pressure and frigid cold temperatures. Colin talks about mental toughness strategies that allowed him to climb the seven summits and the both the North/South poles. We talk about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Everest, and others in today interview.

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Target Audience: Colin O’Brady is an American pro endurance athlete, mountain climber, adventurer, and professional speaker. O’Brady is a two-time world record holder for the Explorers Grand Slam and Seven Summits speed records.


Mental Toughness for Leaders: The Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Leaders in the trenches and your host today is Gene Hammett

Colin O’Brady: 2016 when I climbed the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents, so Mt. Everest, Kilimanjaro, et Cetera, as well as going to the north and South Pole, which is known as the explorer’s grand slam faster than anyone has ever done that. But a bit of a crazy backstory that kind of got me into all this.

Gene Hammett: Well, I saw you speak at the spanx event the other day or Jessie’s event and it spanx headquarters and you really connected with me on the story. So I want the audience to understand even though you spent what, 45 minutes or an hour telling the story. It was a long time ago where you left for a world trip and something horrific happened. Right?

Colin O’Brady: Yeah. You know, this kind of obviously, you know, ends and triumph with some world records on top of the biggest mountains in the world, but really begins and I’m pretty opposite place, which is. Yeah. Just after graduating from college decided to kind of take my personal life savings and a backpack and a surfboard and decided to go, you know, kind of spread my wings and see the world. Not Glamorous at all, just staying in youth hostels, hitchhiking around the world and whatnot, but you know, got to see a big slice of the world as a young person. But fortunately in about halfway through that trip, I found myself on a beach in rural Thailand and was severely burned in a fire and ended up having to jump in the ocean to extinguish the flame that ultimately saved my life. But not before it’s 25 percent of my body was severely burned.

Colin O’Brady: Primary my legs and feet and the doctors in this tiny little one room shack of a tide hospital where there’s a cat running around my bed and across my chest in the ICU were saying to me, hey, look, call and you’ll probably never walk again normally. And so that was an incredibly traumatic time in my life. You know, kind of on the precipice of adulthood to be told, hey, your life is completely different. You’re going to be handicap forever and um, you know, fortunately, again, I’ll tell very brief retelling of this, but you know, fortunately the hero of this story is my mother really who came to my bedside and Thailand and said, you know what, your life’s not over. And kind of filled me with that positivity. Know my mind was just my mind and body. We’re just going through so much trauma. And she was like, we’re going to get you out of this.

Colin O’Brady: You’re going to have a full life. What do you want to do when you get out of here? Let’s set a goal. Let’s start working towards something. And I said to her kind of, you know, being a precocious kid in China say like, fine, I want to raise a triathlon one day. I’m thinking she’s going to say no, no. I said, a more realistical you’re in a wheelchair, whatever. And she was like, great, that’s your goal. And so fast forward, you know, basically 18 months of learning how to walk again and my mother’s kitchen one step at a time. Eventually kind of, you know, walk around the block and jog and I did honor that goal by signing up for the Chicago triathlon after becoming a commodities trader out there about 18 months after I had been told I would never walk again and racing the Chicago triathlon, which to my complete surprise, I didn’t just win the race, but I actually, sorry I finished the race.

Colin O’Brady: I ended up actually winning the entire Chicago triathlon, but about 4,000 other participants on the day, which was a total shock to me, but really change the trajectory of my life in that, in that moment of, you know, going from being burned, being told I’d never walk again to not only finishing my first triathlon effort, but to actually winning my first race. There was something inside of me that switch, which is like, what happened, you know, I had to rethink what happened over those 18 months and it comes down to mindset. For me. There was a mental shift or I could have gone into this dark, negative place. My mother kind of helped me fill my brain with positivity, with tangible goals, incremental goals. Along the way and the power that we have, not me, it’s just an individual, but as I think as humans, this sort of untapped reservoir of potential inside of us and the power of that mindset and so that’s really what I’ve kind of lived my life on over the last decade, which has, as I said, has led me to set several world records at this point and do certain other things, but really comes back to me really into that mindset and that mental toughness that required to get through these obstacles and get on the other side.

Gene Hammett: You know, Colin, I went over this when you gave the streets before I took seven pages of notes and you telling it this time I was able to really connect with it a little bit differently because I realized my brother was actually burned when he was about seven years old and the reason I bring that up is because the difference in your lives. There’s like night and day. Obviously he didn’t. He didn’t climb any of the tallest peaks in the world, but he really took a path of. He left that, define him at that young age. He let the tragedy that went through this and he ended up being an alcoholic. He committed suicide about 10 years ago. And I share that with the audience too because we all heard these stories. We all have seen these different things and I didn’t even think about it that day. How close, you know, at one point in time you guys were kind of in the same place that you said you were in Thailand. He had all the care in the world here, but he never broke from that because I think mentally he just didn’t think that he could.

Colin O’Brady: Yeah. And I think that there’s, I mean, when I reflect on my own experience, and that’s a powerful reminder, just in your story there, it’s that butterfly effect or that sliding doors, you know, I’m sitting in that hospital, I’m literally writhing in pain screaming and you know, thankfully I had my mother to kind of help guide me a little bit. But you know, ultimately it’s your own volition of being able to move on from an obstacle. And I say this in my talk that I you saw me give earlier last week, which is unfortunately in life, we all face obstacles of some kind. In my case, it’s a burn center and your brother’s case as a burn accident. But there’s all sorts of ups and downs, what you went through with your business 10 years ago and legal battles and all that sorts of stuff. And in those moments we have this choice of we can let this define us or we can decide this is a part of my journey.

Colin O’Brady:This is going to make me stronger. I’m going to learn from this and I’m going to move past this. In fact, you know, kind of almost let that be fuel to the growth on the other side of that. And you know, in a moment in time, those two decisions are seemingly, you know, just one step, one direction, one step the other direction. But that first step to the right of positivity or the left of being a victim and being taken over. This has a domino effect over months and years and during time. And one can lead to a life of, yeah, having been defined by this obstacle and his tragedy or the other is being defined by overcoming this and the sort of beauty and growth that can happen on the other side.

Gene Hammett: So I want to let you bring our audience into just one or two key moments of the journey. So I’m going to remind you what they said. The explorer’s Grand Slam, right? Which is the seven tallest peaks on each of the seven continents. And it’s also the North Pole and the South Pole. So I know there was probably really tough challenges of every one of those peaches, but give us, give us a moment of two of them that really tested everything that you got.

Colin O’Brady: Yeah. You know, one that comes to mind, uh, certainly was when I was climbing Mount Everest. So a eighth of my nine expeditions, nine expedition seven segments plus in north and South Pole, fewer than 50 people in history have ever completed the Grand Slam. And I was aiming to be the fastest by not taking any breaks in between. So, you know, climb one mountain, get off at, fly to the next continent, climb the next mountain. Um, ultimately it was 139 days consecutively, but the way the weather window fall and actually everest had to be the eighth of the nine. So instead of like kind of the hardest of the biggest mountain, the first when I was most fresh and it was 100 plus days that I had already been going before I attempted to climb Mount Everest and I went up and I was climbing just myself and the Sherpa by the Napa Sang Bodie, the two of us climbing and we thought there was a weather window.

Colin O’Brady: And so we went for the summit and we get up into what’s called the death zone above 26,000 feet and all of a sudden a massive storm blows in kind of unexpectedly. And you know, we do everything. We can just put up our, tend to get into shelter. But at that point it was pretty clear there was no going up the mountain any further way too dangerous. And it’s a part of the mountain where many people have died historically and I knew that so I had to wake up the next morning and instead of climbing up towards the summit, climb all the way back down and a lot of people back home, you know, sharing the story with social media advocate, huge movement around impacting kids and young people to dream big cycles of that and help you live. And all these public school kids, you know, hundreds of thousands were tuned into this via social media.

Colin O’Brady: It’s all sponsors press. And a lot of people were like, no, what? You did a great job, you know, you climbed mountains, you made it almost to the summit of Everest. You should be proud of that. You didn’t quite get the world record. But this has been a great effort. And giving me a pat on the back like good job, you know, and I’m thinking like, what are you talking about? Like I’m totally going to try it again. Force me to climb all the way back to the start of this climb. But like hopefully the weather is going to get better in a few days and I’m going to have it done when people are like, you’ve already used your oxygen and you’re too tired. It’s been 100 plus days. Good job, you know, you try and you know, of course I know a few days later the weather did clear again.

Colin O’Brady: It was marginal at best, but I was able to get back up there and ultimately summit Mount Everest, which is a super proud moment for me in my life and meant that I was just one mountain away from finishing the world record. But again, an interesting moment where I felt like I had a lot of accountability to others, but even those people weren’t applying the pressure. Like they were like, you did a pretty good job. And I put that in the business terms because I know that’s a lot of your audiences that you know, when people are growing companies initially people have. Someone had an idea for a business and they actually had the. Took the risk to start that business. And all of a sudden, as you mentioned, a lot of your audiences, businesses that are growing fast, right? And you might say like, Oh hey, you’ve reached a million in revenue.

Colin O’Brady: Like wow, like good job, like you’ve reached this plateau that’s like, you know, pretty respectable. But as I know as a high performing individual and, and as I myself have a very entrepreneurial mindset, it’s like you’re like, yeah, that’s good. But like, I, you know, my goal was 10 million or my goal was 100, whatever that growth goal is. And it’s an interesting thing when other people kind of say like, Hey, like you, you’ve done well, but you haven’t met your own expectations yet. And that’s kind of where I keep this everest analogy with the mental toughness, which was almost everyone around me would have been like, wow, you almost climbed everest. You climb mountains are mountains. You could never walk again. Like, that’s pretty awesome. And for me I was like, in my mind I was like, it was going to be a failure. And so unless I got up there at least tried my hardest again.

Colin O’Brady: And so kind of recalibrating that along the journey to eventually get to the summit was a big one and you know, another female you said too, you know, a second one that comes to mind that I shared in the talk that we gave, which was when I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, tell the story more briefly, but you know, I’m climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and I decide I want to see if I can climb it in one single day rather than the typical one week. And I’m with a local African guide because the National Park requires you to have someone with you. And I were going super hard and he’s tiring me out and I think maybe I can’t make it. And what I find come to find out is that he actually has been bribed by a group of his friends to tire me out. So I don’t make it to the top of the mountain because there’s a vet whether or not I can actually climb it as fast as I say I can.

Colin O’Brady: And he’s done a pretty good job of tiring me out quite honestly. Um, it’s, it’s a longer, funnier story. But you know, it was an interesting reminder that moment here I am all alone on the mountain, the one guy that I think is supposed to be helping me is actually working against me, but I also can’t continue to climb this mountain unless she agrees to also continue to go up the mountain once it’s revealed that he’s kind of, you know, betting against me. And so I think to me there’s this moment where all I want to do is kind yell and scream and kind of ring this guy’s neck, like jeopardize my whole project. You try to tire me out when I didn’t need to be inspired. But ultimately, you know, him and I kind of had a laugh about it, made amends, took a deep breath, and ultimately were successful together. And even though he had climbed Kilimanjaro 150 times previously, his fastest time, I’ve been three days before and we did it in 11 hours, which was a really fun moment for both of us. But I think, again, in business terms, it goes back to sometimes the people you’re working with are working against you or aren’t your best allies or whatever, but it’s figuring out how to compromise, not from bridges and build consensus sometimes even in the most high stressful, high stakes moments. And so that was one for me. Of course, that journey.

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Gene Hammett: No, those are really good things in it and I’ll let you guys know there were so many other moments inside the story because it was something it seemed like with every one of those peaks, I don’t know which one was the easiest. Which one was easiest by the way of


Colin O’Brady: a person’s pyramid maybe. I don’t know. Like I said, each one was different. They’re all different mountains and each had their own. As I look back at the same thing. Each one had their own like weird obstacles and you know, moments of joy and success. So.

Gene Hammett: So I want to ask you about this mental toughness side of this. So we’ve got an idea that you’re basically a bad ass. You came from the place of really not having much hope told you you’re not going to walk again to the point of I’m going to do something big for children. You, you actually connected to a mission and that’s one of the key elements of really digging deep. But when I think about this and what I want to ask you some questions as it relates to leadership, because we can all admit you’ve got mental toughness, right? You’ve been through this, you’ve probably been through many other things since then and even raising money, which is more like business than, than climbing mountains, finding all the sponsors you did. But if you were, if you had a couple of questions or a couple of different perspectives that a leader could ask their employees to get more mental toughness. What comes to mind when I aked you that?

Colin O’Brady: You know, what comes to mind immediately for me, I’m probably thinking about it further, is having an understanding of what the mission is or sort of like goal align. So of course the leader or business owner in this case, you know, generally wants to maximize profit or maximize growth in a business framework. And I think the question you’re asking is how do you get your employees to. You know, when I think of mental toughness, it kind of means not just mailing it and not just kind of showing up for the hours you’re supposed to be there, but actually working hard, dedicated creativity, skill challenge, you know, when the Times get tough and so how do you get that from your employees is kind of the question that you’re asking and I think, you know, having those employees feel empowered or having ownership and I don’t mean ownership necessarily inequity, although that’s one way certainly to incentivize people.

Colin O’Brady: But what is the incentive? Why should somebody want to kind of double down on it? And I think a lot of that you mentioned it has to do with the mission. You know, one company that I personally find a lot of inspiration myself as Patagonia from outdoor community. You know, Yvon Chouinard is a visionary and starting the company, I think it’s still private and they do close to a billion dollars in revenue or something like that. As you know, incredibly profitable business, but you hear that it’s impossible to get a job there because if you ever get a job there, no one quits like people were there for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, and you ask the question but why? And there is a company culture there that has to do with environmental conservation, that has to do with customer service, that has to do people really feeling empowered and proud to be at that business.

Colin O’Brady: And I think that that is a huge part of success. My parents actually are fairly successful entrepreneurs at this point and it started a chain of natural foods, grocery stores in the Pacific northwest called new seasons market and I had about four or 5,000 employees before they sold their business six, seven years ago. And they built that entire company on the tagline was new seasons market, the friendliest store in town and it was really about customer service. But how do you get employees, how do you get cashiers? How do you get guys sweeping the floor, you know, packing groceries into bags. So really actually be genuinely, authentically, you know, friendly to the customer. It’s not by just being like our company policy is to be nice to people. People are like whatever, $15 an hour, how do you get thousands of people excited about that.

Colin O’Brady: But in the end they built that culture by paying a little bit more of a living wage to people in jobs. So competitively their salaries are a little bit higher. But that helped with retention of employees. Ultimately that went back into the business as well as they made people feel like it was a part of a community at each grocery store was a community and that the people coming to the store where their neighbors, their family members, their people that they could relate to in the community and all of a sudden it wasn’t just a job, but it was a community space like community gathering place. And of course it’s natural food. So it’s about health and wellness and in people’s lives and families and all the sudden people felt buy into it even though ultimately it was still a job and rare. This is a tangent, but they also gave healthcare to employees that wouldn’t normally get that similar jobs at other businesses, so they felt really excited, you know, in our current structure to continue to work there. But anyways, it’s, it’s another example of getting people to buy into the greater mission of the business, thus having that mental toughness or that commitment to being their best selves when the times are good or bad.

Gene Hammett: No, you don’t know this because we don’t know each other that well. We just met at this event and I wanted to have you on here to tell the story I have talked to and interviewed more than a hundred hypergrowth companies, which the ink 5,000 and the key message that came out of looking at all the data and all the formulas was leadership that inspires ownership and a part of that is mission driven company and the other part is empowered to innovate, like letting the best ideas come up. So you just mentioned a couple of those things that sparked ownership. I want to go even deeper with, with not just with mission, but go beyond mission mental toughness. If you’re sitting down talking to employees, how do you get them to be resilient through these tough times? What questions do you ask or what do you get them to think about?

Colin O’Brady: You know, one of my monitors that I use personally, both as you mentioned, you know, raise money for my projects and things like that, so there are a lot of roadblocks that I hit in a more formal business context with what I do, but also of course when I’m climbing mountains and the projects that I’m pursuing right now incredibly meant to be challenging and one of my mantras is this too will change and it’s a powerful or this too will pass either way, but it’s a powerful mantra that kind of comes from my meditation practice, but it’s a good reminder that sometimes when we’re just overwhelmed by something challenging, whether that’s a really tough day at work or a problem or a puzzle or some sort of setback, depending on what kind of business you have and thinking it’s all completely over. Or this is.

Colin O’Brady: If this stays this bad, you know tomorrow is going to be worse than the next is even worse than that and just kind of it’s the way our minds are wired. That kind of negative self talk can very easily take over and I’m guilty of that as well, but when I remind myself the simple words, this too will pass. I realized like, Oh, like this is a hard day, but if I can continue to keep taking the steps, respond to the email, pick up the phone, have the hard conversation or whatnot. This will at some point resolve itself and I can remember there’s also good days on the horizon of that, so to me that’s a kind of power for minor for employees is that like it’s about continuing to push forward. It’s like that mental toughness, that perseverance, that mental fortitude that we’re talking about in this.

Colin O’Brady: What you’re actually saying is oftentimes people want to quit when it gets hard. People start saying that, you’re right. You know what? This isn’t going to work. I can’t. Let’s throw up our hands. I had this great idea for this innovation and I pushed people, didn’t quite see it from my point of view, you know what, nevermind, it’s not going to work. And what I would actually say is like keep putting those few steps in front, like keep trying every single day a little bit, you know, go that extra mile and that mental fortitude to actually say this too will pass is I believe that we can find solutions that we can work our way into hard situations and you know, go back to my burn accident. Yes. The doctors are telling me I wouldn’t walk again and no one would guarantee me a positive diagnosis, but I definitely was going to recover in some sense where my legs are literally like screaming in pain. Like to say this too will pass. It’s like, well, I’m not always going to be in a tie hospital wrapped in bandages, but when you’re in a tight, hostile wrapped in bandages, it kind of feels like this might never end. That’s an extreme example of this, but that to me, that mantra really inspires the mental fortitude to kind of continue on and keep taking those incremental steps forward.

Gene Hammett: So those are two different areas we’ve talked about is taking a few notes here so that I can really, this you’re talking to business owners that have built businesses who have really been through a lot of challenges, so I’m going to give you kind of give you maybe pull some lesson out of the speech or just thinking what does that person need this, this leading something going into a little bit of unknown. What from your journey would help them as they move forward.

Colin O’Brady: So, you know, I’m a, I’m a big believer in setting audacious goals and so as a business owner, I think that at some point you’re taking risks and at some point someone has probably told you, oh, well that’s not a great idea for a business because if it was this fortune, 100 company would have already done it or why isn’t Amazon already done that? Or why hasn’t been right? Like, we’ve all heard that before when we were like pitching an idea and you know, even Sara, you know, Sara Blakely talks about that, like everyone’s bought. Someone must have done it like actually she had a billion dollar idea that no one had thought of and was able to like strap it, you know, it’s incredibly inspiring her story that we heard last week. But you know, I’m a big believer in setting that audacious goal. Now. Here’s where I think it breaks down for people is people look at the present and then people look at this audacious goal.

Colin O’Brady: I want 100 million dollars in revenue and I have 500,000 right now. Or maybe I’m in debt. I’m not, I’m in the rest. And it’s then figuring out how to break that down into incremental steps. And so I think that actually has to do it to me that this too will pass that mental fortitude of I think having that big massive goal. I want to climb Mount Everest and I talk about it in my speech. I asked that question in the room, what’s your everest? And if we’re putting it in business context here, it’s huge success for my business growth or whatever, that’s my everest. Well then you’ve got to ask yourself, what can I do today? What can I do tomorrow? What can I do the day after that? Which really allows you to laser sharp focus on the incremental steps to get there. And I think celebrating successes along the way is also huge to that.

Colin O’Brady: So not just saying it’s this linear or sort of black and white, I started this business and it will only be successful when I’m at 100 million, but like celebrate 500,000. Celebrate your first sale, celebrate the first day that you’re, you know, profitable. Celebrate the 10 million mark, the $50 million mark, all that kind of stuff. Because I think we lose that along the process until we hit that extremely high goal that we might all have have for ourselves. So for me, that’s a big part of my belief is really having, having the, the ability to set that big goal, which a lot of people don’t even dare themselves to dream that greatly. I say dream greatly, go big know shoot for the stars, but then actually practically say, okay, what can I do today? Is it five emails that I can send it is a 10 phone calls, is it, you know, having a meeting with my staff that reorients us in this direction or that direction today. Then having those sort of tangible incremental steps to get there.

Gene Hammett: You know, I, I totally agree with you because some of the goals that I’ve had in setting up my business over the years, I’ve hit them all. Even meeting Sarah was something I put on my goal list three years ago when like, you know, who would I to interview and have an interview here yet, but just meeting or that step toward the journey is a huge something I can celebrate, but I’m still not there yet. So I appreciate you talking to us about, you know, creating a mission driven organization. How that engages ownership from people. Create know. Getting people to stop that negative self talk so that they can truly see how to move forward and your mantra, this will change. And then creating those audacious goals that challenge, not just you, but everyone, like I don’t know of a company, if they went in and said, hey, we’re going to grow three percent this year, everybody will be excited.

Gene Hammett: Three percent doesn’t engage. Like what? Where’s the opportunity for me to really create something new for myself and grow and I talk about growth. Culture is all the time, what you’re talking about just because you applied it to an learn this from climbing the tallest mountains in the world. I really appreciate you sharing what you had with our leaders here today. And thank you for being here. Part of leaders in the trenches. My pleasure. Thanks for having me. How can our audience, uh, you know, stay in touch with you or you know, I don’t know if you want to share what you’ve got going on next because I know you’ve got a big project that you’re not talking about yet.

Colin O’Brady: Yeah, yeah. No, I, uh, best way to keep up with me is on instagram actually at colony. So my most active social channel, I’ll always live updates from crazy corners of the world. And I will share this now because I think by the time this airs, it will be a live and current, but my most newest audacious goal is to become the very first person in history to cross the entire continent of Antarctica Solo and unsupported, which is something that people have tried for over 100 years. Actually going back to Ernest Shackleton and some of the earliest polar explorers and no one has succeeded in doing this. If we’re talking about the. I can’t voice a little bit out there. There’s actually an in the last few years, there’s been some pretty close to attempts on this project and wired magazine. A couple other big national geographic I believe, came out a couple years ago and said, this project is impossible.

Colin O’Brady: Thermodynamically, you can’t carry enough weight. You can’t bring enough food to get into all the reasons why. If someone can’t do this, and I firmly disagree and hopefully listening to this, check out my instagram and follow along because November first I’ll be out beginning this track was an 1100 mile journey completely alone across Antarctica. But it’s that thing of people saying you can’t, and I certainly believe it will, and the reason I believe it is that I have done a bunch of work, I’m a nutrition and innovation with the top doctors in the world and the sponsor that have called standard process and really trying to figure out, you know, really hacking the highest, highest performance potential out of my own self. So daring to dream greatly. I’m literally taking on a project that they say is impossible, but I’m looking forward to proving the world wrong on that one and coming out the other side. Successful.

Gene Hammett: Well, I love that. I think this will go live sometime around that aid that. So check in with Colin on instagram and uh, it’s been a pleasure to have you here. I’m so excited to share this message with my audience and thanks Colin.

Colin O’Brady: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

In this episode we’ll cover:

  • Experience in World Trip
  • Mental Shift and Power of Mindset
  • Tallest Peaks in the World
  • Mental Toughness
  • Entrepreneurial Mindset
  • Billion Dollar Company
  • Greater Mission of the Business



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