Interview with Climber and Leader Brad Beggs

This post is the first in a series that summarize interviews I’ve done with rock climbers who are also leaders in some aspect of their life. I’ve long been a believer that beyond being a fun and challenging pursuit, rock climbing teaches us many lessons about leading ourselves and leading others. My goal in doing these interviews is to learn what other leaders have experienced to deepen my understanding of the transformative power that climbing can have on us.

I plan on launching a podcast with the full interviews later this year, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this interview with Brad Beggs, who runs the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Outdoor Program.

Brad Beggs


“Growth takes place out of the comfort zone.”

Don: Outside of your leadership experience with the University of Tennessee, is there anything else that others should know about your leadership background?

Brad: I have a graduate degree from the University of Tennessee in Recreation Administration, that focused pretty heavily on leadership. I also was the chair of the City of Greenville, North Carolina Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission.

I also served as the co-chair for the Student Development Committee for the national organization Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE), where my focus was on training students to be leaders in roles in whatever kind of job they were pursuing after college.

Don: Sounds like you’ve had leadership experience in an administrative role, also in the community. And a little bit as some entrepreneurial work you’re doing, right?

Brad: Yes. On the side, I’m running a guidebook business for paddling in eastern North Carolina. A lot of people know that area for amazing paddling in the outer banks and the western part of the state, but the whole center part of the state has a lot of amazing paddling and it doesn’t get a lot of notice. This is important to a lot of communities looking to make use of their rivers and their lakes for economic development.

Don: Fantastic, so why don’t you tell me a little bit about your rock climbing background and what rock climbing means to you?

Brad: My very first experience climbing came when I was 16 years old. I was with my parents on vacation at Kitty Hawk, and there was this indoor wall. It was a tourist thing. I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me try it, and I got up the really easy part and couldn’t do a small overhang. There were no indoor gyms at that time where I lived, so when I got to college at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts where they had a really strong outdoor program and an indoor climbing wall, I really got into it. I loved the movement and it reminded me a lot of my time in ballet. I did ballet for 10 years with the Canton Ballet.

Don: You talked about ballet. I often liken delicate climbing to dancing. I’ve never met anyone who has actually been a climber and also a ballet dancer. Can you comment on any analogies there?

Brad: In ballet, you might have eight to sixteen seconds of choreography that you learning at any one time. And your choreographer or artistic director will expect you to get those moves down pretty close to perfect. It needs to get refined in terms of holding the positions properly and expressing certain energy. Once you have that down, then you move onto the next move. That small chunking is similar to red pointing a route. Learning full-on ballets like Nutcracker or Dracula might be 10-minutes at a time, sort of like learning a pitch for a multi-pitch climb. Rehearsing for a red point was really familiar and comfortable for me.

Then there is also the idea of having a partnership. In ballet, you have to know your partner really well. You have to really have great communication. And if you don’t, you’re going to drop on each other. You’re not going to look good on stage. It’s similar to climbing partners.

You also learn to be front and center and stay calm. You learn to stay calm because you don’t want to have a fall or mess something up in front of 1,000 people.

Don: Many of us have this fear of failure or being in front of others even if it’s at the crags. I’m sure that mindset has been useful to you, having that experience.

Brad: I think it really came in useful in my first ever public leadership position with the City of Greenville Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission. I was 29 at that time. Everybody on the Commission was probably 15 to 20 years senior to me, and a lot more experienced in city politics.

It was a bit intimidating, but from my training in ballet and climbing I had this comfort of being out in front.

Don: How about a piece of advice or tip that’s been useful to you for others who have that kind of anxiety around being front and center?

Brad: Finding smaller positions that are of lower consequence is very, very useful. I used to have a lot of anxiety when talking to complete strangers and starting up conversations. It helped me to read The Game by Neil Strauss. It’s a book about his experience to become a pickup artist when he was working at the New York Times.

In the book, he suggests that we need learn our human interaction skill sets. If you want to be comfortable talking with women, you need to be comfortable talking with people. That’s really where your actual issue is. He suggests practicing this by talking with cashiers or wait staff in short conversations.

Then you can apply that idea of chunking things down. If you’re not comfortable with public speaking, find a group in which to speak where the consequences aren’t high. And just like climbing, you go from 5.8 to 5.9, 5.9 to 5.10. Before you know it, you’ll be really good at it.

Don: I love that whole chunking it down thing. We talk a lot about that in Vertical Mind. I think it’s great advice. When I talk about leadership, in my mind there’s two distinct pieces of leadership. One, I call personal leadership – is leading yourself. Then the other is people leadership which is leading others. So how about something you learned from climbing that helped you to lead yourself?

Brad: I’ve learned that I really need to study where my stop and resting points are. I need to figure out where I think the cruxes are. An example of how I applied this is when I had graduated college and trying to figure out what the next step was in my career. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a computer science person or a mountain guide, so I tried both. I really liked being a mountain guide thing, so I started looking at a lot of job descriptions for mountaineering jobs. From this, I figured out what steps I needed to take to have a successful career as a mountain guide.

Once I had figured that out, I laid out my career plan of experiences, certifications and training I needed. Then I made a wall paper for my laptop with my plan, so I would see it every time I used my computer. When I wanted to surf the internet, check emails, or work on a project, it was there as my reminder.

I would check stuff on that list whenever I accomplished it. It was a great way to hold myself accountable.

Don: I really love that because I’m a big believer in that tool as a visualization aid. I think that’s a great thing because you’ll see it all the time. That’s fantastic.

You’ve accomplished several significant goals. However, I’m sure there were setbacks. I’d like to hear a little bit about what you would consider one of the biggest setbacks.

Brad: While I was living in eastern North Carolina, which is a Mecca for a paddling, I did a lot of paddling. Rock climbing on the other hand, was four hours away, so my rock climbing ability really plateaued.

Well I was finally available to work on the paddling. The paddling was great professionally, but the challenge in that region and the setback was not being around a lot of similar people who wanted to get after it. Whether that was with paddling or in climbing or they want to start their own businesses, or they want to really improve who they were or how they saw that world. I had a really difficult time in my seven and a half years there, finding enough people that were really similar to me in those particular regards.

A lesson that I applied from rock climbing that helped me in this situation is how sometimes things don’t work out, and you just have to deal with it. Maybe it rains the day you plan to go do a climb you’re excited about. I was living in North Carolina by choice, and I knew it was temporary. I just needed to know that it wouldn’t be raining forever, and the climb would still be there when it stopped. That really helped me.

Don: Sometimes in climbing, and elsewhere in our lives, there is just some misery.

Brad: Yes, exactly. You’ve got to embrace the suffering. It is transient, even though sometimes it feels like it will never pass. Just keep that in mind that it will.

Don: I know for me, climbing has done a great deal in terms of my own personal development. And it sounds like for you too. Is there a resource that you have come across, a book, a podcast, a kind of leadership, a personal development that you’d like to share?

Brad: The book is The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. I also like I Will Teach You to be Rich by Ramit Sethi. Those books are super actionable in terms of how can you automate certain aspects of your life.

Don: How about your favorite leadership quote and why?

Brad: “Growth takes place out of the comfort zone.” Staying comfortable can be great for a while, but over time you lose your motivation. You lose your desire.

Don: One of the things that I hear most if I go to a cocktail party or a dinner party and I meet people who aren’t climbers, and they find out that I climb, is, “I could never do that. I could never climb.” What would you tell someone who was scared of climbing that would maybe persuade them that they should try it?

Brad: I would start having the conversation in an indirect way. I’d ask them about what their real fear is. Some people might say, “Oh, I’m afraid of heights.” While you might see them standing next to a railing or a nice overlook with no guard rail and they’re perfectly comfortable. Sometimes what they say is really an excuse or a shield to hide behind because they don’t want to be outside their comfort zone. They don’t want to have this idea of lack of control. They don’t want to feel a sense of embarrassment or a sense of failure that they can’t get off the ground.

When people have said this to me, I start thinking about who this person is. What do I know about their background. I’ll ask some probing question. Have they traveled somewhere new recently? What is a new thing that they recently tried they enjoyed? When was the last time that they did something new that made them a little bit uncomfortable that turned out to be a really enjoyable experience? If you want to try rock climbing it will be similar to that.

Don: I really like that approach. Leading the outdoor programs, you probably saw some real big transformations happen with some of the people in the program or clients for the program. Can you share with us one that sticks in your mind?

Brad: There was one student, who I’ll call Anna. When she first started working for me, a lot of the older staff members were like, “What the heck? Why are you hiring her? She’s so quiet.” But in my interview with her, I’d seen her come alive when I asked about some of her favorite experiences growing up in the outdoors. Her cover letter was really well written and talked about the meaning of being outside with her dad and hunting and fishing. She really wanted to be able to provide those experiences to other people.

I knew she had her motivation. By the time she graduated as a senior, she had become a great leader. Some of the older staff members said, “That’s Anna! I remember her when she was quiet and shy, and had a hard time speaking. Now she’s very social, very gregarious.”

Don: Well Brad, it’s really been a pleasure talking to you today about what you’ve learned, and sharing some of your resources and insights. I want to thank you for your time today.

Brad: Thank you for having this conversation. I appreciate all the work that you’re doing and letting people to know that rock climbing is more than an idle activity for a fringe group.

Don: Absolutely, I’m hoping to keep doing and bringing some of these stories to others.

Brad: Right on.

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