One step Back, and Keep Moving Forward: Smart Talk with Alison Levine at Des Moines Civic Center

Tue, 03/16/2010

A review by David Borzo

The Smart Talk Series crowd at the Des Moines Civic Center was treated to something a little different on Wednesday night, March 3rd. Alison Levine may not have the same household name recognition as many of the Smart Talk Series speakers, but she more than held her own with her powerful message of doing whatever it takes to conquer complacency. She began her captivating presentation explaining her notion of a circle of experiences and enlightenment: from her early difficulties she gained the motivation and fortitude that drove her, eventually, to scale mountains; and those ascents to the top of the world in turn provide e her with the insight and wisdom needed to help her navigate her life. Alison LevineWe should all have such drive. Ms. Levine’s accomplishments show that she has the right stuff: the right stuff in mountain climbing, the right stuff in business, and the right stuff as a motivational medium for us.

Ms. Levine shared her story as a health survivor – not with an illness as an adult, but one that she was born with – a heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. This life-threatening heart condition was so serious and unstable, that she was not even allowed to walk up a flight of stairs. Surgery as a teen then changed her life – conquering her physical ailment and energizing dreams that were as big as mountains. She encourages all of us to act on our own dreams. Ms. Levine’s advice, as reported in a recent Des Moines Register interview, is “If you have ever wondered about something — a sport, an activity, a hobby, a talent — don’t just read about it or talk about it or watch movies about it. Go out and do it.”

With her mantra of doing whatever it takes, Ms. Levine recounted experiences as the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, a history-making climb that put her health and spirit to the test. In 2008 she also made history as the first American to complete a 600 mile ski-crossing in western Antarctica, all the way to the South Pole. In these adventures, Ms. Levine’s personal adversities included overcoming fears, as well as continued heath issues; she was at higher risk of frostbite, due to Raynaud’s Disease, which causes the arteries that feed her fingers and toes to collapse when experiencing cold weather and severe stress. Cold weather and stress! Naturally she took up mountain climbing…perhaps because it seemed an impossible task.

She recounted those extraordinary experiences and fears to the Smart Talk audience with well ordered clarity, and riveting images. How do you climb the highest peak in the world? How does your body become accustomed to the altitude and lack of oxygen? Ms. Levine recounted the arduous and exacting tasks, including a return to base camp every night, even as you get further and further up the face of Everest every day. Calling this “Climb high, and sleep low”, the process helps your body acclimate to the oxygen levels, and she used it to point out that there are times that you need to move back one step, in order to make it one step closer to your goal.  As her team advanced on Everest, they eventually had to pause between each stoic step–needing to breathe in and out several times, before being able to even take another step.

“Fortitude” and “determination” just scratches the surface of what makes a woman like Alison Levine tick. As a successful businesswoman on Wall Street, she found that her hard work and dedication was applicable to the business world. And as a woman dedicated to helping others achieve, Ms. Levine founded the Climb High Foundation in 2005, a charitable organization dedicated to improving the lives of jobless women in third-world countries. Her drive and relentless pursuits keep her busy all over the world.  Smart Talk is all about taking the lessons of others and applying them to your own life. Well, even if you are not setting out to climb mountains and conquer the poles, Levine’s advice is intrepid and poignant: “Fear and Risk will never kill you, but complacency will.”

Image Via Smart Talk