World Record Breaker

Just after graduating from Yale, Colin O'Brady was life-threateningly burned in a freak accident on a backpacking trip in Thailand. Nine years later, he set the world record for climbing the Seven Summits.

Strangely, the two experiences share something fundamental in common.

On Friday, May 27, 2016 at around 6:00pm Alaska Time, Colin O'Brady broke the world record for climbing the Seven Summits, the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents. The previous record was 134 days; he did it in 132. At the same moment, he broke another record for something called the Explorers Grand Slam: conquering the Seven Summits, plus skiing to the North and South Poles. He completed the whole challenge in 139 days.

O'Brady isn't a mountain climber as much as he an endurance athlete, someone who pushes his body to the limit, time and again, simply to prove that he can. In that sense, his career is perhaps the purest manifestation of the drive for achievement present within us all. At the end of the day, our most threatening opponent, indeed our only opponent, is ourselves.

To face that opponent, motivation comes in the form of the people closest to us. Colin couldn't have done it without his fiancee, Jenna, who was his partner throughout the record-breaking ordeal. There's also always other motivators; Colin's adventure was anchored by a child-obesity fighting project called Beyond72.

However, deeper than all of that, there's a hidden motivator, something that's almost impossible to explain. Something that most athletes never talk about, simply because it's so hard to. The concept of "flow state" is relatively new, arising only in the 1980s, and it's not well understood. But here, Colin postulates that it might just be the only place an ambitious person can be free.

What’s the point of climbing mountains? 

I can only answer for myself. I'm a very, very goal-oriented person. I like having that tangible, right-in-front-of-me goal. For me, that was “I want to climb this mountain.”

But why?

I believe when we commit fully to achievement, to high achievement, high performance, it brings out the best in us. When stuff gets really hard and things go wrong, and you're still committed- that brings out vulnerability, and that's something special. I think it's beautiful. It’s a very, very special, creative space inside the human psyche.

Human will has certainly created a lot of beautiful moments. But at the same time, chasing achievements is sort of an illusion. You can't take an award to the bank, for example. Are some high-achievers desperately searching for something that they're never going to find?

I was a swimmer when I was younger, and in swimming the main thing is lowering your best time. Of course, you're trying to win races and you're also trying to set an age group record or a state record or whatever record, but it's based specifically on your best time. So I'd work super hard for a year, get ready for my big championship meet, I'd go a lifetime best swim, maybe take a second off my hundred meter breaststroke or something. I remember that, literally, between the time I got out of the pool and walked over to my coach, I would already be thinking about how to talk to her about going even faster. Not thinking, "We did it!” I was already on to the next thing.


I totally relate to what you're saying. Which is why, for me, it comes down to the journey or the process or what I can unlock along the way. I've realized for sure that the external achievements, although we all love a little bit of praise and it’s nice to have your name in the newspaper or be on TV, that moment is fleeting. That moment is super, super fleeting. As soon as you’re out of the pool, you’re already stressed. To me, the real achievement is conquering that internal dialogue, your mind, and making yourself proud and full of purposeful action with whatever you're doing.

Writers say the same thing. Don't write for the attention, write to write. When you're thinking about the attention, the writing suffers. And I think that’s absolutely true. However, can somebody like you who is so goal oriented and hungry for achievements—and I mean that in a great way, it's amazing what you've accomplished—ever truly turn off that voice that’s telling you to achieve for the sake of it?

Sure, sure. Look, I'm not the Buddha. I haven't fully figured it out. But what I will say is that over the course of my professional athletic career I've had the good fortune of encountering some of my idols. Olympic gold medalists, world champions in various sports. I met Jerry Rice recently at a Nike event. And what I’ve realized is that there's no correlation between external achievement and happiness. There's just absolutely no correlation. Of those people that I've met, some of them are truly satisfied pleasant people, some of them are the most tortured miserable people. Some of them fall somewhere in between. External achievement doesn't really drive truthful happiness.

So what does drive truthful happiness?

When I've looked back, what were my fondest moments? If it was only about achievement, my fondest moments certainly would be standing on the very last mountaintop knowing I had just set two world records. That would be the obvious thing. I could say, ‘Oh yeah, it was all a bunch of really hard work, planning and executing, climbing the mountains and encountering a lot of risky moments. Then I got to this final mountaintop, I did it, I was so fulfilled.

When I look back, that's the opposite of true. Not that I didn't enjoy that final moment, but when I look back, it's the moments when I was just climbing that stand out the most. For me, I call them flow states, which is not a unique concept, but it’s the moments when I was just in it, lost in the adventure. 90% of the time my mind is running all over the place. But there's those moments 10% of the time, and maybe now as I get better at meditation it becomes 11% or 12% of the time. I don't know the exact numbers, but when I'm in the moment, when I'm present those are the moments that drive my happiness.

"There's no correlation between external achievement and happiness. There's just absolutely no correlation."

Yeah reaching flow state is an interesting motivator. I think a lot of people reading this would explain their ambition to achieve by saying, "Oh no, it's not about my achievement. The purpose is what I'm doing for others."

Yeah, greater purpose. If you look at Eastern or Buddhist philosophy, they would say that the highest order of things you can do in your life is to give to others, whatever you want to call that, charity or giving back or service. But then they would also be the first to say, when you give to others, it maximizes your own personal gratification and happiness. It's kind of like you give for the purpose of serving others, but that gives back to you tenfold.

Honestly, I will say that has been 100% true for me in my most recent pursuit, because very tied to my world record project was the mission of around inspiring kids to get outside, dream big, set goals. When it got really hard for me out there and I thought I wasn't going to be able to summit Everest, I even thought I had frostbit my hand off, I was thinking about these kids cheering me on. At the end of the day, knowing that I was climbing for something greater than myself, that if I made it to the mountaintop it would inspire some kid somewhere to believe that he or she could achieve something personal, that inspired me to keep going. Maybe that's a nice soundbite, but it's the truth.

Sure, but I think we're getting a little stuck. I've interviewed many people whose answer to everything is, "When I help other people, that makes me feel good." But that's still a little self-centered. You mentioned something different. You said that you’ve had these moments in which you really did feel free and totally lost in the adventure. That seems maybe even deeper than the happiness you get from helping people. Can you describe those specific moments?

Are you familiar with the concept of type two fun?

No, but tell me.

Okay. I guess it's more common parlance in the athletic space, but I actually think it applies to everyone. Type one fun is hedonistic. Type one fun is skiing down a mountain on a perfect powder day or surfing a wave, laughing... Just in the moment. Just feels good. It's fun. That's what we normally think of as fun. Fun, period.. Like dancing is pure fun for me. Type two fun is not necessarily fun while you're doing it, but as you reflect on the experience with a little bit of distance, it was fun. That's climbing a mountain in general. It's freezing cold and it's windy and it's shitty out, but when you're back at the bar with your buddies you're going to be like, "Oh, it was epic, man. It was crazy." That's type two fun. Then, type three fun is when it isn't fun while you were doing it and it's not fun afterwards. It actually just sucked.

With that in mind, I think that there are a lot of type two examples from my adventures. Maybe I smile when I remember those moments now because I know the outcome. For example, being caught out at camp 4 on Mount Everest, in a storm, in the death zone, taking two hours to put up my tent because the storm was so bad. Yeah, did it suck to know that I was standing on ground where people have literally died every single year, including this year, and I was caught out in a major storm? That was crazy. That was so scary. That was intense. But I also value that experience now, because it was just this intense thing, this crucible that I lived through.

But being lost in the present moment, in a flow state, are the most cherished moments of my life. When I describe these moments, they might not sound particularly epic—it’s not as sexy as telling you about the triumph of summiting Mt. Everest or the dramatic, risky moments that unfold while climbing. Rather flow state occurs in moments when I’m climbing or on the trail, so lost in the present that hours seem like minutes.

Yeah, it’s like your brain doesn’t even make a memory of it.

Exactly, it’s like my mind doesn’t record a memory at the time. I’m just living the moment and enjoying it while it’s happening. Oddly, being severely burned in the fire was one of the worst things that ever happened to me in my entire life. So much pain, so much trauma. It was tragic. However...

That was type three fun?

...well that’s the weird thing. Being severely burned in the fire was by far the worst experience of my life. Living through the physical pain and emotional trauma of those months in the Thai hospital, not being able to walk, has left deep scars both literally and emotionally for both me and my mom, who sat by my bedside the entire time. However, at this point being 9 years removed from that experience and reflecting on it, I have a lot of type two feelings around it. It was so painful that I would not wish that experience on my worst enemy, but getting through it, and learning how to thrive on the other side of it as a professional athlete has made me stronger mentally than I could have ever imagined. In some strange way I can see it now as a kind of positive memory.

And perhaps even more unique was that during those months in the hospital I experienced the highest occurrences of flow states in my life. I was stripped bare, I had no choices, no existential wandering mind, the intensity of the immediate trauma and eventual healing forced me to be stuck in the present moment. Sometimes searing moments of pain lasting just minutes felt like hours, but also days washed over me in minutes. I was fully lost in the experience.