By Haseena Patel

Cathy O’Dowd is an inspirational speaker, motivational author, and global adventurer. She is the first woman in the world to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, from both its north and south sides—an extraordinary accomplishment in itself—yet her message goes far beyond this remarkable achievement. O’Dowd’s years spent on or around Everest were, in her words, “a degree in living.” The journey led to insights about herself, individuals and teams facing overwhelming odds under intense stress. It is this wisdom that she has continued to share with her corporate audiences in over forty countries and on six continents.

 How did you get into climbing, and how did you build yourself up to get to the level where you could climb Everest?

I was introduced to climbing during a summer adventure camp for teenagers in The Drakensberg (Lesotho and South Africa). I got my next chance when I joined the rock climbing club at Wits University (Johannesburg, South Africa), and then I was off.

From there I was simply motivated by curiosity. What would it be like to try something colder, higher, harder? Would I be able to rise to the challenge?

I never specifically set out to climb Everest. I wanted a chance to climb in the Himalayas and applied for a place on the Everest expedition with that in mind. Even then, given that I joined the team at the last minute as the token woman, I didn’t think I would reach the top. I was there to learn all that I could and see how far I could go.

When you have an unusual dream, how do you stay on track in the face of all the negativity?

I believe you should be pursuing a process rather than the dream of some achievement. Learn skills, build experience, extend your network, watch out for opportunities and make the most of them, even if they are a little different from your initial dream.

I think the trouble with a “dream” is you probably came up with it when you didn’t have the experience to fully know what that dream really entails and whether it will give you the satisfaction you anticipate.

So set the dream, and then work out the (realistic) route that will move you in the right direction. Then stop fixating on the distant dream and get going with steps one, two, and three of the route. If, during that journey, your route moves off in a different direction, that is okay.

How did you stay motivated and inspired to keep going in the tough times especially since you had no role models to follow, being the first woman to achieve your goal?

I moved through the world driven by curiosity, invested in always expanding my skills and experience, and taking advantage of the opportunities that arose during that journey.

How important is support when you are chasing a dream, and how do you go about building your support system?

Support is hugely important, and it is a big advantage to have either or both emotional and financial support available in your network. Try to bring your current network on board by articulating both your goal and your path toward it. It also helps to tell them explicitly how you would like them to support you. They may mean well but still not know what sort of support is useful to you.

Of course your current network may not be on your side here. Start to thoughtfully build a network that is not just your family. Social media is a great source for this. Look for groups and communities used by the people you admire.

And challenge yourself to network more widely. To create a wide range of opportunity, you need the most diverse network you can build.

Finally, be honest with yourself—as best you can—about why you want this dream. Often people pursue dream A because, subconsciously, they think achieving A will bring B, C, and D into their lives as a result. Then they achieve A . . . and those other things don’t follow. Everest is just a mountain; getting to the top of it doesn’t necessarily solve all the other challenges in life.

What did the experience of meeting Nelson Mandela mean to you? How did hearing the voice of such an icon inspire or impact you? What was your personal take-away from the experience?

Nelson Mandela was a man of extraordinary charisma and profound personal integrity. It was an honour to spend some time with him. Despite being a hugely busy man who met thousands upon thousands of people, in the few minutes he spent with each individual, he was totally focused on them and what he could learn from them. That lack of ego, power of focus and life-long interest in learning from others was, I think, at the core of his compelling personality.

What is the best advice you have for women struggling to chase their dreams?

Invest in yourself—not by wallowing in dreams of fame or achievement, but by doing the work to expand your network, your skills, and your knowledge. Meet more people, and take any opportunity that will help you meet more people in different circles. Build your skill sets—a vast trove of information is available for free on the internet. But also do the work to find out about commercial, subsidized, and free training courses. Join clubs, join organizations. Reach out to role models you admire via social media.

Don’t invest all hope in one dream and then beat yourself up if you don’t seem to be getting there. Invest in the journey toward that dream and then see where the process gets you because it may get you to other dreams that you don’t yet know are an option.