I nearlydied about 10 days ago.
I was climbing in the Dead Sea region of Jordan along with two rookie guides from an Amman-based climbing service. The mountain we'd set out to attack was about 2,000 feet in height and would require seven "pitches" to reach the summit. (Note: A pitch is basically the length of a 300-foot rope, which is anchored by the lead guide, who then belays the other climbers to that point, and so on and so forth.)
The ascent went swimmingly (although, based upon their numerous mistakes, I was acutely aware that my guides were pure novices).
We reached the summit around noon, and began the climb down the backside of the mountain. But the guides couldn't find the trail. The further into the deep canyons they went, the more lost we became. Plus, they'd only packed three liters of water, which had run out hours earlier.
Panic set in. We chose one very suspicious trail. It was the wrong one.
At this point, one of the guides fell flat on his face, suffering from heat stroke. The other guide grabbed all of the equipment, said he would somehow find a way to our parked car and be back with water, bananas, etc., within an hour. Together, we pulled the unconscious guide into a small cave, where I sat alongside his lifeless form doing my best to keep my cool in the intense 130-degree heat.
The other guide never returned. Three hours later, with my tongue swollen and my fingers trembling from severe dehydration, I made the choice not to die in the cave. I began a long, treacherous descent. But the path I'd chosen ended at a sheer, 250-foot wall. I was done. Out of water. And out of luck. I faced the prospect of either lying down and dying or jumping off the wall and hoping for the best.
That's when I heard sirens from faraway in the distance. My son, who was studying Arabic in an Amman university some 200 miles to the north, had decided to text me while I was in the cave. I relayed my dire predicament and got back to fighting for my life.
He took it from there, contacting the Jordanian army, which sent a rescue team to the site. After spending more than 12 hours on the mountain, I found myself in an ambulance being checked over by army medics. The troops were also able to rescue the two guides (the second one had been immobilized by the heat as well, and was unable to climb back up to the cave).
Needless to say, a near-death experience has a profound effect on a person. While I continue to process those effects, I did think of the parallels between a near-death experience on the side of a mountain and surviving as an entrepreneur. While the consequences are obviously not nearly as serious, there are some striking similarities.
Here are my four takeaways:
1. Be 100 percent sure you've surrounded yourself with the very best talent possible.
I made the huge mistake of placing my life in the hands of two rank amateurs from the local Dead Sea region. They turned out to not only be clueless as to the routes and proper use of equipment, but they also didn't pack enough water for the three of us. Likewise, CEOs are only as good as the talent they surround themselves with. That's why at my firm, Peppercomm, we always assign a project to a potential high-level hire to see how well she performs before making a formal offer.
I've been climbing for years, and have been through countless adventures, so I was able to use my acquired knowledge to improvise and get myself to a place where the Jordanian army was able to rescue me. Business owners constantly need to improvise on the spot as the world around them changes, new competitors spring up, etc. In fact, improvisation is fundamental to longevity. In our 20 years of business, I'll bet my firm has evolved our offering at least 10 times.
3. Move or die.
With one guide unconscious and the other one gone, I crawled into a small dark cave that, if nothing else, would protect me from the heat. But I also knew I was rapidly fading to black. I needed to either force myself to keep moving or die in that cave. The lesson for entrepreneurs is obvious: One must constantly keep one step ahead of marketplace change and, when in doubt, move forward. Stagnation can mean death for a business or a stranded climber all by himself in the middle of nowhere.
4. Stay calm.
This is perhaps the most important trait to possess. It's critical for any entrepreneur whose business is in crisis to remain cool, calm, and collected. Employees and customers alike can sense panic. And, when panic sets in, it's only a matter of time before the lights switch off. Ditto for me. I knew if I freaked out, it would only increase my blood pressure and heart rate, while further weakening me. So, I focused on the deep-breathing techniques I had learned in meditation classes long ago, and stayed alive just long enough for the troops to save me.