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Climb with Compassion:
The Wisdom of Being Both Strong and Kind
by Luis Benitez and Bruce Kasanoff
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Copyright 2013, Luis Benitez and Bruce Kasanoff. All rights reserved.
This is a short handbook about compassion.
Compassion is what gives life meaning. It is what makes us human. We can
survive without it, but we cannot thrive without it.
You will forget this. We certainly have, many times. Neither of us is as kind,
strong or compassionate as we could be. Each of us can do better.
It is extremely hard work to remember the importance of compassion.
The main reason we wrote this guide was simply to give you an effective
way, year after year, to remind yourself about the importance of bringing
compassion into your work and personal life.
This work is a collaboration between the two of us, and it draws upon both
of our experiences. Luis not only is a mountain guide, but also conducts
leadership training through Wharton and for employees of Vail Resorts.
Bruce has spent many years writing and speaking about the value of
business relationships. Both of us speak at events around the globe.
To make this piece as clear and simple as possible, we chose to write this
handbook in Luis’ voice.
You do not live in a bubble
Compassion makes you stronger.
I’ve summited Mt. Everest six times, and have reached the top of six of the
“Seven Summits” a cumulative 32 times. I climbed with the blind athlete
Erik Weihenmayer to his historic 2001 Everest summit.
When I first met Erik, he was an English teacher from Arizona who had
done a little climbing, but who harbored a dream to be the first blind person
to climb Mt. Everest. He had a couple of friends from Colorado – all
mountain guides – and was looking to assemble a team to make his dream a
Erik wasn’t looking for hotshot climber/athletes; he was looking for outdoor
educators who were compassionate adventurers. He wanted people who
could understand both his challenges and the depth of his desire to dispel
As we started to develop our team, word got out and the naysayers started
coming out of the woodwork. We heard chorus after chorus of, “It can’t be
done, it shouldn’t be done, it’s a stunt.” Wave after wave of negativity swept
What solidified us wasn’t the goal of the summit, or fame or fortune. It was
compassion for Erik’s desire to be bigger than anyone thought he could be.
We weren’t thinking “summit or else,” but rather to give the effort our best.
No matter what, we wanted to come back healthy and as friends. That was
our overarching goal.
At long last, we were on Everest. Right away, we faced one of the most
dangerous passages. In between Base Camp and Camp One, we had to cross
the Khumbu Icefall, which lies at the foot of the glacier, where it starts to
Ordinarily, it would take a climber about six hours to go through this
treacherous stretch filled with teetering, tottering chunks of ice. That day, it
took us thirteen hours to lead Erik through the ice, and I led him for most of
Near the very end, right below Camp One, there was a tiny crevasse. If you
fell into it, at most your little toe might go in. So I didn’t bother to mention
it to Erik. But his foot caught the edge, and he started to fall. When I
reached to catch him, I accidentally cracked him in the nose with the
trekking pole that was in my hand, giving him a bloody nose.
Not much later, we were finally in Camp One, and I couldn’t stop
apologizing. I felt absolutely horrible.
Erik could easily have sat there and said: this sucks, I can’t trust you. But
instead of doubting me, he invested his effort in cheering the rest of us up.
He offered me compassion.
By the end of the trip, Erik could get through the Icefall in five hours.
The bulk of my professional career has been spent guiding clients towards
the summits of the world’s biggest mountains. Notice that I didn’t say to the
summits. Even though our goal is always to summit, compassion dictates
how close we actually get.
For example, one of the first things I tell my clients is that they are not my
ultimate clients. My ultimate clients, I explain, are your families and
friends. My job is to deliver you safely back to the people who love you.
Grasping this requires my clients to have compassion for their loved ones. It
means understanding the difference between what they want, and what is
best for the people around them, both at home and on the mountain.
You do not live in a bubble. What you do affects others.
Of course, my clients want to summit. Sometimes one thinks that, “If I just
keep my nose to the grindstone, I can get there.”
My response is, “If you do that, you are going to die.”
Climbing big mountains requires focus on the present. You have to be fully
aware of what’s happening right here, right now. In dissuading a client from
a never-stop-moving mindset, I’m trying to be compassionate with my
client - to keep him alive, and also to get him to understand there’s a bigger
picture out there than the one of which he is aware at that moment.
Compassion underlies all my decisions and actions on the mountain, but it
is not the only thing that guides my actions. I’ve turned people around on
Everest a couple of hundred feet from the top, and at that point there is no
time for compassion. If I tell you to turn it around, that’s it. We can talk
later. Accepting this requires letting go of ego. That moment before you turn
around is your ego’s last stand. It is also the time when you have the
greatest opportunity to learn a deeper lesson about compassion, towards
yourself and others.
You could spend weeks or even years holding onto anger or resentment
about not making the top. You might direct this anger towards me as your
guide, the weather, or the mountain in general.
What does this get you, aside from a burning pit in your stomach?
In moments like these, you will see how much strength compassion
requires. It takes tremendous fortitude to choose compassion over ego. It
takes even more to be proud of your decision, but pride is exactly what you
Not everyone agrees with me. Some people sneer at compassion. On the
mountain or in the midst of a flatland goal, they are filled with self-interest.
To me, this is shortsighted; it limits how much they can achieve, because, in
the long run, your lack of compassion always extracts a big price.
This guide is not about how you can climb a mountain. It is about your life
and your career.
Fleeting success vs. lasting success
There are quite a few endeavors that you can power through with sheer guts
and determination. People do this all the time at work, gritting their teeth
and surpassing goals. You may hate your job, your boss, or both – but you
have to earn a living, so you power through.
You can spend your whole life pursuing individual success, and you can
accomplish it. You can make a lot of money, live in a big house, and take
Not to be insulting, but this is fleeting success. It’s not the sort of success
that comes when compassion guides your life, and when you open your eyes
and your heart wide enough that you not only see what is happening to the
people around you, but you also do something to link their success to yours.
This is lasting success. Why? Because when you help change the lives of
people around you for the better, the success you spawn will continue to
grow and thrive long after you are gone. If you don’t believe me, invest a few
hundred dollars sending antibiotics to Zambia or to buy books for girls in
Ghana who lack them.
It always takes tenacity to succeed, but lasting success requires the added
element of compassion.
Can mere tenacity enable you to set a goal and achieve it? Yes.
Can mere tenacity bring lasting success to your life, and to the lives of
others? No way. The higher you aim, the more important compassion
In business and society, the lack of compassion sinks many ventures. This
lack makes employees realize that management could not care less about
them. It makes team members lose interest in acting like a team. It makes
entire countries rise up against their leaders.
But when compassion guides, the world shifts just a bit in a different, more
One of my good friends is Mama Zara of Tanzania, otherwise known as Mrs.
Zainab Ansell. In 1987, she started ZARA Tours and began organizing tours
to Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru.
Today, Mama employs about 1,500 porters and 88 registered guides. Being
a porter is a very basic, entry-level job. You carry supplies up and down
Mama could spend the minimum for porters, and simply forget about them
once climbing season is over. But that’s not what she does.
Instead, she sets up a personal bank account for each porter. Bear in mind,
many of these people have never even seen a bank. But she feels that if you
pay them on the spot, the money is soon gone and nothing changes in their
lives. In her mind, she is setting them up for the future.
I do not know of a single porter who has ever quit Mama’s company to go
work for one of her competitors.
Every year, Mama selects about ten porters to join her apprentice guide
program. This benefits her, because it builds her ranks of guides, but it also
gives porters a means to advance. She and her husband own four different
hotels for mountain climbers. As guides get older, she starts to move them
into a hospitality management program, so that they can work in her hotels.
Mama has found the intersection between compassion and self-interest.
Her programs benefit her community, her company, and her clients.
People mistake compassion for weakness, but it actually requires great
It requires strength to admit that your tenacity could kill someone else, or
cause him or her to fail because it is not yet your time to succeed.
It requires both strength and fortitude to be compassionate weeks or
months into an effort that has already taken almost every ounce of energy
It requires both strength and wisdom to separate what another person is
capable of doing right at this moment versus what he or she will be capable
of doing the next time you face together an enormous challenge.
On Wall Street, for example, many of the executives who work there have
had some level of moral or ethical training. They may have taken a course in
business school, or may have attended programs at a conference or internal
training session. To pass certification tests, they have to memorize all sorts
of regulations and principles.
But when push comes to shove, when they face a choice between
unbelievable profits and ethical “fine points,” some make questionable
choices. I’m being kind; some go way too far in the wrong direction. But
here’s my point: by the time they need their training, they are so far away
from it that it fades far into the background.
A similar thing happens on summit day. You are skinny, tired, and hungry.
You have been climbing for weeks. One or two months ago, you were in
phenomenal shape; that is no longer the case.
Under these circumstances, if compassion can show up, then you are having
a much different conversation.
Here are some tough questions…
Is there any way to inject compassion into the next budding Enron
Is it possible for compassion to transform a corporate raider into
someone with a more fully formed heart?
Can compassion soften the behavior of a dictator?
I think not.
There will always be people among us who have neither the ability nor
inclination to be compassionate. These people will be thrilled that you are
“wasting” your time reading about compassion, because they feel this will
distract you and give them an advantage. Some of these people will have a
long winning streak; there are certainly brutal dictators who have ruled for
But my goal isn’t to win over a dictator, corporate raider or financial con
No, I have two goals. The first is to remind myself to practice compassion.
The second is to remind you.
This is necessary because, as I said on the very first page, it is incredibly
easy to forget that compassion is what gives life meaning.
You probably already suspect this to be true, and understand that you could
benefit immensely by keeping this insight at the front of your mind, instead
of the back.
To make that possible, I’d like to share five principles that have made my
life immeasurably richer…
Take five compassionate steps forward
For the past twenty years, I have been involved on one level or another with
an organization called Outward Bound, which provides experience-based
outdoor leadership programs for both youth and adults. I started when I
was 19 as an assistant instructor, and now serve on the Board of Directors of
the Colorado Outward Bound School.
Outward Bound’s founder, Kurt Hahn, was a headmaster at an all-boys
school in Germany during the rise of Hitler. As Hitler was coming to power
and his Nazi youth party was gaining a foothold in German schools, Hahn
was one of the few who objected. He wrote a letter to the parents of his
students that said, “You may believe in the ethics of Hitler, and that is your
prerogative, but if you do, kindly come and remove your son from my
In retrospect, history teaches us that far too few people stood up against
hatred and evil.
A German Jew, Hahn was eventually forced to flee to Britain. As an
educator, he then went to the War Department asking a very simple
question, “What can I do to serve?”
He was asked to take a census of the soldiers dying in battles on the North
Sea. Hahn found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, more young
soldiers than old soldiers were perishing when they hit the frigid waters.
Hahn developed a theory that the older soldiers had more life experiences,
and they used these lessons to survive.
Along with British shipping magnate, Sir Lawrence Holt, Hahn founded
Outward Bound in 1941 to provide young sailors with the experiences and
skills necessary to survive at sea.
Hahn created “5 pillars” to support his work, and I’ve used these principles
around the world in countless situations, from helping troubled kids to
guiding passionate climbers to working with companies to foster teamwork
I’d like to share my take on the 5 pillars with you, but first, here is how
Hahn described them:
"I regard it as the foremost task of humanity to ensure the survival of
these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable
spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial,
and above all, compassion."
For most of our lives, we work hard to acquire new skills and develop the
ones we already have.
But when it comes to enterprising curiosity, we struggle not to lose a talent
that most of us acquired at birth.
Watch a young child. Everything is new and open to exploration. Everything
is fascinating. They are free from preconceptions. What you see as a spoon,
a toddler might see as an imaginary friend. Your “gate” may make an
Curiosity is what enables compassion to bloom.
As a guide, I might wonder: why is Sarah walking differently than she did
As a workshop leader for a group of 20 mostly enthusiastic business
professionals, I might wonder: why does Michael seem disengaged?
As a manager, you might ask: do I know the difference between an
employee who says ‘yes’ because I’m his boss and one who says ‘yes’ because
they agree with me?
As we grow older, events conspire to narrow our focus. We mistakenly
believe we have all the answers. We have more relationships, so we have
less time to wonder… why… how…what?
We may have walked this path 50, 100 or 1,000 times before. We stop
seeing it as a path, and instead zone out and hurry to some seemingly
Not coincidentally, as this happens, many of us become less compassionate.
It becomes easier to ignore problems that are happening “elsewhere,”
whether this means down the street or around the world.
The truth is, you must nurture enterprising curiosity, or it will fade away.
An undefeatable spirit
There will always be circumstances that will threaten to break your spirit.
There are days on a mountain when a storm makes any upward progress
impossible. Once on a trip on Mt. McKinley in Alaska, we sat in a snow cave
at 17,000 feet for a week, waiting for weather to clear.
I know you’re eager to get to the next paragraph, but let this sink in for a
minute. We were three miles high, forced into a cave for shelter, and unable
to go up or down. Over seven days, it is very hard to maintain your resolve
Our conversations centered mostly on what we would do once the storm
passed - would we continue? We had plenty of food and fuel, but the
question was whether we still wanted it just as badly?
In the end, avalanche danger forced us to turn back, but we stayed tenacious
throughout the trip. That trip really was about the journey and not the
I often look back on that expedition and relate it to many situations in
business and life. When things are at their hardest, what part of your spirit
allows and drives you to continue?
You may not know the answer, because you haven’t yet been tested. But you
can certainly guess. What is it, at your core, that you could summon to keep
you going strong when faced with extraordinary obstacles?
Of course, you could always test yourself by setting a crazy big goal.
You could choose to run a marathon, raise enough money to build a
community center in a disadvantaged neighborhood, or learn a foreign
language. If you are shy, you could decide to meet one new person every
If you set a big enough goal, somewhere along the line there will be very
good reasons why you need to abandon your goal. Don’t.
To make success easier, here’s a tip. The stronger you link your goal to an
element of compassion, the more likely you are to succeed. For most of us, it
is easier to raise the money to feed hungry children than it is to lose 30
pounds. The goals that are bigger than us, well, those are the goals that
make life most satisfying.
Tenacity in pursuit
People love to say that it takes tenacity to be successful.
But there is a much harder question hiding in the background:
How will you leave room for compassion next to your tenacity?
There is some amount of suffering that comes with the territory on
expeditions: windburn, sunburn, blisters, sore and achy muscles.
So, yes, you will need a healthy dose of tenacity.
But HOW will you be tenacious? If someone is suffering with a blister, are
you the sort to say “suck it up” or the sort to stop and fix a small problem
now so it doesn’t grow into something big later?
Brute force tenacity is far less powerful than compassionate tenacity.
Sheer tenacity might be able to get you up the mountain, but it is unlikely to
get your team up there, too. If you have, say, 20 people in pursuit of a
demanding goal, at any given point a few team members are likely to be
stumbling. Sure, you could write them off and leave them behind, but this
strategy is likely to leave you with a very small team.
Plus, there is the issue of needing different strengths to tackle different
challenges. The team member who rescues your team due to his sheer
genius may have been the member who stumbled over the first two weeks
because he was physically out of shape. If you had left him behind, your
team would have failed.
You see, compassion is not necessarily a selfless trait; it can be a very selfish
impulse. The people for whom you show compassion today may well be the
people who save your butt tomorrow.
Our economy is based on a simple principle: increase consumption.
The Great Recession demonstrated the degree to which this principle rules
our lives. When consumption declined, our economy went into a tailspin.
It’s beyond the scope of this guide to explore where this principle is bringing
us, but I would like to suggest that increased consumption has serious
limitations when considered on a personal level.
In today’s era of consumption, what do you really need to be happy or
I often enjoy how simple life gets when everything fits into a backpack.
There are trips where success depends on keeping weight to a minimum,
which means being brutal about deciding what is absolutely essential.
I look back on the times where I have literally cut my toothbrush in half to
save on weight, and wonder how uncluttered life would be if I took the same
approach to the rest of my life.
If you eat whenever you feel like it, you may end up obese. If you buy new
clothes every time you have extra money, you may end up with an
overstuffed closet and dozens of outfits you never wear.
If you are lucky enough to do well in life, there is a point at which the
thought should occur to you: I would be better off denying myself another
pleasure, and instead giving pleasure to others.
The wisdom of being both strong and kind
In every choice and decision you face, in every conversation, in every part of
your life, bear in mind what Kurt Hahn said:
“Above all else, compassion.”
You could choose to focus all your energy on being strong, but doing so will
only take you so far, and you will have a difficult time bringing others along
You could choose to simply be a kind person, but there will be times when
kindness alone is insufficient.
By being both strong and kind, you can make the world a better place and
give your own life greater value.
There’s much more to say, but now it’s time for you to add your thoughts…
About the authors
Luis Benitez stands among the world's
foremost high altitude mountaineers. In 2007,
Luis achieved his sixth summit of Mt. Everest. In
2004, Benitez claimed the world's (non-Sherpa)
record for most consecutive summits of Everest
(four). When not climbing, he conducts
leadership training programs and delivers
Bruce Kasanoff is a consultant, trainer and
author who helps companies be more humane.
He writes about business, leadership and
innovation for LinkedIn, FastCompany, and a
wide range of leading organizations. He also
creates and delivers workshops that inspire both
innovation and teamwork. Learn more at