Melissa Arnot Reid’s biography reads almost like a record book. She’s climbed Mt. Everest six times. She’s the first American female to finish the climb without supplemental oxygen. Along with running a successful mountain guide business, she co-founded a non-profit organization.
But if you meet Arnot in person, she’s quick to tell you that, in between all those achievements, were failures. That climb without the use of an oxygen tank? That took five tries. Starting that non-profit? That was more terrifying than climbing Everest. The mountain guide and motivational speaker recently sat down with CreativeLive founder Chase Jarvis to talk about persevering through failure — and what anyone facing the fear of failure needs to know.
Arnot is driven by insatiable curiosity — that drive to answer questions, to learn something new is a big part of what pushes her to reach her goals. Her advice? Find what pulls you first. In the distraction of life in the internet age, many tend to grab onto someone else’s passion and tendencies. Make sure that passion is yours — because if you’re only trying something for the accolades that come with it, that task will be 10 times harder.
How do you know what your passion is? When you find that one thing that blindsides you so much that you don’t even stop to ask that question, she says.
Arnot wasn’t climbing off trust funds or a huge savings account. Much to the delight of her self-described “hippie” parents, she gave up the job she earned with a college degree (that she paid for herself) and lived in the back of her truck. Once she was in, she was all in.
“I think you have to be totally willing to be in survival mode. The nourishment that your character and soul receives is so much more caloric dense than real food. You have to make sacrifices, but they won’t feel like sacrifices,” she says.
One of the biggest challenges in her journey, Arnot says, was giving up what other people thought of her. That letting go and taking risks works both ways — if you are going to give up the criticism, you have to give up the accolades too.
When she went back to Everest to try the trip without supplemental oxygen for the fifth time, she kept quiet and even lied about where she was going. She started the climb on the quieter side of the mountain. “How dare I give these people who don’t know me the right to tell me what I think I can do?” she said. “…you have to be willing to trust your own instinct. You know you best.”
Growing up in a family that prioritized living in the mountains and spending time together over the steady paycheck of an office job, Arnot was one of the few Caucasian students at a school on an Indian reservation. “There’s a lot to be learned from sitting in a space where you don’t look like the people around you,” she said. “Own yourself…so many of the harmful things in the world happen from insecurity.”
Now, as a female climber in a male-dominated industry, she encourages any woman in the same position, whether that’s climbing or working in tech, to just do their best and leave it at that. “Don’t worry about if you were hired to fill a quota. Who cares? As long as you are doing the best job that you can, it doesn’t matter,” she said.
When facing the fear of failure, Arnot replaces the word fail with live. She says if she’s afraid of failing, then she’s afraid of living — because failure is a part of living. Take your ego out, she suggests, and don’t make that failure personal, because failures will probably happen a lot.
Many of those she leads to the top of Mount Everest made the decision to make the climb in a comfortable, temperature-controlled room. She takes an opposite approach — she makes the decision on her next objective at the worst part of the climb, nearing the peak when hiking for hours in the cold with nothing but the light from a headlamp. If she can make that decision at the most miserable point in the journey, she knows she can face the challenges that next step will bring.
She says that she doesn’t have a master plan — intentionally. Each new adventure will change you, she says, and that learned experience allows you to bring something different to the next step.
There’s a point during every climb when you are attached to a climbing partner with a rope and the talking just stops — because all the communication you need is the pull of the rope telling you where your partner is. The phenomenon is something that fellow climber and co-founder of the Juniper Fund David Morton calls “the brotherhood of the rope.”
Arnot says there’s no such thing as individual success. “When I was on the final push for 14 hours to the summit without oxygen…I remember thinking about the fact that I was being moved along by all the people who taught me and believed in me — and even the ones who hadn’t. It took all that to allow me to have that one success on my own,” she said.
“Even on a solo journey, you are still doing it with the help of a team.”
As a mountain guide, Arnot is often leading others on the climb, some that have little climbing experience. She credits her tactile learning style with helping her develop a sense of empathy that has built her leadership style.
“I’m a real optimist when it comes to people,” she said. “I know what my own mediocrity is and I know what I’ve been capable of achieving. I know what’s inside me. It’s not exceptional or elite — it’s just normal. I have this deep belief in other people and what they are capable of.”