Commencement Address 2015 - Emilie Cortes

Emilie Cortes, Owner and President, Call of the Wild

OSU-Cascades Commencement Address 2015


Embrace Your Obstacles. Embrace Your Life!

My college experience may not be unlike some of yours in terms of facing some serious obstacles. I left home at age 17, worked up to three jobs at one time at University of Houston, transferred to American University in DC and paid for my high tuition with credit cards. I was one semester away from graduating with a double major in international business and management and a double minor in French and Russian, but I ran out of credit. I did manage to graduate with one degree, and I finished first in my class.

I began to recognize, not that I was cursed or anything, but that life is a series of obstacles. Does that sound pessimistic? I don't think so, I think it's reality and once you embrace it, you'll be embracing life.  

Once I started looking at obstacles differently, my perspective really changed. As you head out into the world, the more you expect obstacles, the less they will seem like a big deal. It's an important component of resiliency.  
I've found it's really easy to put others on a pedestal who seem to have "made it."  And you might do this with me - I own my own company, seem to be living the dream, won the Bend Chamber Entrepreneur of the Year award, and have climbed on 6 of the 7 continents. We often assume that these people are extraordinary. However, I really believe that I am an ordinary person capable of extraordinary things - and the difference lies in the ability to embrace obstacles.
So how the heck did I transition from facing obstacles to embracing obstacles? I had a healthy work ethic and ability to focus, but it really wasn't until I discovered mountain climbing in my late 20s that my perspective shifted.  

I will share a few key elements that helped me do this:

The first is partners. Good partners can make or break you. I went to Tokyo with a girlfriend for New Year's Eve one year. She never stopped complaining about how much she hated Japan and big cities. It made our entire trip downright miserable!

Fast forward to one of the most challenging trips I have ever taken this past March to scout a remote trek on the border of Uganda and the Congo while climbing peaks along the way. It was hot, it was cold. The days were long, we waded through bogs, balanced over logs, scrambled over rocks. One of my clients needed to be evacuated and another sprained their ankle. They all said it was the best trip of their lives.

People can weigh you down or lift you up, and that can make all the difference in the world when you are facing obstacles. Surrounding yourself with awesome people will help you embrace your obstacles and embrace your life.

The second is preparation. There are no guarantees that everything will work out for you, but if you are prepared, you really stack the odds in your favor. "Success is when opportunity and preparation meet." 
“How does a 5 foot 1 inch woman manage to climb big mountains around the world?” My obstacle was being a small, soft, unathletic woman. But I am driven, disciplined, and believe in hiring experts. I hired a trainer out of Seattle who specializes in preparing mountaineers for high altitude expeditions and I did everything she told me to do.  I embraced it, I was prepared and in doing so, I embraced life as a mountaineer.

Third is perseverance. Mountain climbers are notorious for having highly developed levels of perseverance. We face many obstacles on the way to a summit - the preparation and logistics, the weight of the pack we are carrying, the weather, the conditions of the rock or snow, permitting issues, altitude sickness. This is why we rejoice so much when we make it to the top of a hard mountain, and why we aren't totally demoralized by failure - we'll be back.

I tried to climb Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, three times without success. Each time I tried a winter ascent of a more difficult route and each time I was turned back. I got frustrated and decided "It's not about the journey, it's about the destination." I still didn't want to do it the easy way and so I decided to do it solo, backpacking 48 miles to the top and up and over. I didn't give up on my goal and found a different way to get to the top and feel really good about it.

Perspective is the fourth element and is also critical. I was on Mt. Rainier in Washington about ten years ago doing a guided climb of the Emmons Glacier route. I was the only woman, and I happened to be the only one with any previous climbing experience. After five hours of approach hiking with an impossibly heavy pack, we had only just reached the glacier. Looking up at this long plateau and steep headwall we still had to climb, it was demoralizing. We stopped to take a break.
The youngest guy on the climb was 22, about 5' 11", and named Jason. He came up to me and asked, "How are you doing, Emilie?"  I said, "Great!"  His face fell and posture crumbled as he responded feebly, "Really???  Cause I'm hungry, tired, thirsty, and I'm not sure I'm going to make it!" I responded, "Oh, I'm hungry, tired, thirsty as well, but that's normal!  That's why I'm great.  They're not giving these mountains away, you know!"  He perked back up and said, "Really? So that means I'm doing great, too!"   

I kid you not, his energy and body language for the rest of the climb was completely different. He made the summit and in good style. All that changed was his perspective on the difficulty, not the climb itself, conditions, training he'd done beforehand, only his thoughts about it.
Be aware that most obstacles exist only in your own mind, and thankfully you have control over your mind.

Passion is the final ingredient to embracing your obstacles and embracing your life but it's more complicated than just, "Follow your passion and happiness and money will follow."

I originally went into finance and investments because I was good at complex math, it was lucrative, and I was far more concerned about supporting myself than having impact. It was ultimately unfulfilling and I ripped the Band-Aid off my life in one pull, left my corporate job, acquired Call of the Wild, a women's adventure travel business, and moved to Bend to align my passion with my vocation.

However, my relationship with obstacles changed dramatically. Since I was following my passion, I expected the "universe" to align with me and basically grease the wheels to success. When the obstacles keep coming my way, I became angry and even depressed. They were big and they felt personal and daunting. Because my passion was so important to me, facing obstacles was overwhelming and my dream was at risk with each one.

I had to take pause and reevaluate and reestablish my relationship with obstacles...turning back to embrace them and embrace life in the process. The more you care about what you are doing, the bigger the same obstacles will seem. But it becomes that much more important to embrace, because the reward is that much greater.
Today is your day to celebrate the obstacles that you have faced to get here and sit in these chairs. Celebrate your obstacles, and celebrate your lives!