Alison Levine

First of all, I make no apology for what is about to follow: a Convention-related blog post.

Yes, I know, Convention was last week, and if you’ve been following the coverage, you may be Biltmore-d out. Nonetheless, today I must share a report from a great Bar event—the Friday luncheon and its inspired speaker.

(Fair warning: Tomorrow I plan to post a final Convention item, that one about the visit by the Iraqi Chief Justice. But if you’re all full up on inspiring stories about bravery in the face of danger and about the defense of a strong judiciary against the forces of chaos and about the triumph of ideals over brute strength, by all means, skip it. Angry Birds, anyone?)

I had intended to give you some insight into the keynote speaker’s message. Her name is Alison Levine, and she was billed as an inspirational speaker. A photo, a nice quote or two, maybe an anecdote to help remind us to try harder. In, out, done.

But then I sat through her presentation.

Ask anyone: I’m not an inspirational-speaker kind of person. But despite myself, I came away impressed and (gulp) inspired.

Junko Tabei

So I do apologize for reporting out so much of her message. If it’s too much for you, just skip to the bottom for a handy takeaway. Get ready, though: You may be inspired.

So who is Alison Levine? The short answer is that she’s a daughter of a member of the Board of Governors. That may have dampened my expectations, but it also became fodder for the witty and insightful Levine, who made great use of self-deprecating humor.

Jack Levine, pere, introduced his daughter. So right off the bat, you had a moment that could go horribly wrong, like cute-kittens-and-puppies-syrupy-sweet-please-stop moment. But Jack hit it out of the park.

Ever the lawyer, he set out the case for why Alison was qualified to inspire anyone: From birth through age 30, she suffered with a life-threatening heart condition that kept her from physical activity; even climbing stairs was beyond her. But after a newly developed surgery, “All of the energy she had bottled up for all those years poured out.”

That’s for sure. She then: climbed the highest peak on every continent, skied across the North Pole and South Pole—a more than 600-mile trek—as the first American to travel the route. She served as Team Captain for the American Women’s Everest Expedition. And, oh yeah, she’s an adjunct Professor at West Point.

(All of this was recited as I scanned the banquet table for those delightful little butter spheres; perhaps I should re-explore my priorities.)

American Women’s Everest Expedition, at the N.Y. Auto Show

Alison Levine then rose and offered her insights that would help in business and law practice—or, hell, in just about any endeavor. She salted her talk with images from her journeys.

Absent Levine’s compelling commentary, her lessons that I share here suffer from being “All law, no facts.” But messages such as “Do more with less” and “Progress doesn’t mean having to go in one particular direction; sometimes you backtrack” riveted an audience who were led to care what happened on an Asian mountain half a world away.

Levine gave a generous nod to a pioneer, Junko Tabei, the first woman to reach the peak of Everest. The speaker reminded us of Tabei’s words: “Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top; it is the will power that is the most important. This will power you cannot buy with money or be given by others. … It rises from your heart.”

Despite the seriousness of the subject, Levine’s approach was the opposite of somber. The audience was kept laughing relatively nonstop. But how did she steer a business-advice lecture toward the lighter side? A few examples:

  • The women’s team name included the word “Expedition” because Ford was the underwriter, and their journey coincided with the launch of Ford’s new full-size SUV of the same name. The team dodged a bullet she said, given the possibility of being named for the Chevy Avalanche.
  • The sudden movement of an ice-field led her and another woman to a near-death experience, which was “real scary—like cleanup-in-aisle-4 scary.”
  • “How do you go the bathroom?” is a common question Levine gets, so she decided to show us the tool that allowed the women to pee standing up. And she got a big laugh for revealing that, yes, they did write their names in the snow. But her subsequent PG-13 commentary got an even bigger laugh in the staid old Biltmore.

Finally, after all the funny and inspirational stories, it came down to a few things we like to think we already know (though rarely exhibit it in our lives and careers):

  • Aim to be more tolerant of failure, in ourselves and others. Risk-taking and innovation often come with a stumble or three.
  • Fear is OK. Complacency is what will kill you.
  • Take action based upon the situation you face, not according to some plan.
  • It’s not just about being at the top; it’s about the journey and the lessons we learned on the way.
  • You must weather storms to land in a place where you can have the best view.
  • There are always more mountains to climb. And tomorrow, I have to be even better.
  • Getting to the top is optional; getting back down is mandatory.

More about Alison Levine is here. And you should also follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/levine_alison

Props to the Bar for selecting such a riveting speaker. Now, where’s that butter?

Alison Levine

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