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If you like Edmund Hillary's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Roger Bannister,
Sylvia Earle,
Jane Goodall,
Richard Leakey,
Greg Mortenson,
Alan Shepard and
Chuck Yeager

Edmund Hillary's recommended reading: The Warlord of Mars

Related Links:
New Zealand Edge
Hillary Foundation
Himalayan Trust

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Sir Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund Hillary
Profile of Sir Edmund Hillary Biography of Sir Edmund Hillary Interview with Sir Edmund Hillary Sir Edmund Hillary Photo Gallery

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview (page: 4 / 6)

Conqueror of Mt. Everest

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  Sir Edmund Hillary

You've used the word "fear" and "mediocre" several times. You have written that the mediocre can succeed and the fearful can achieve or accomplish. Will you talk about that?

Sir Edmund Hillary: I do remember writing that, and that's just about the way I've felt about things. I know that in many ways, I'm basically a very mediocre person. I know I've been afraid on many occasions, but I also know that if your abilities are fairly modest, there are ways in which you can use them effectively. I think, for instance, that prior planning of what you're doing, slowly and carefully working out how you're going to meet problems if they arise, can be enormously helpful. If an emergency arises, you've already thought out the type of thing that you can do and the type of decisions you can make, the type of orders you can give, and overcome that problem and get through. I always have, in my expeditions, people who are academically far cleverer than I am, and even technically, far more competent. So if you want to lead an expedition, in a sense, you've got to keep ahead of them. These bright, competent characters you have with you who are marvelous to have on the expedition. And I've always found you can do that by, each night, when you go to bed, just let your mind dwell on the likely things that may happen next day, and think out carefully the sort of decisions that might be necessary to make in order to have the program carried through. So next day, when something happens, you're the one that's thought about it and you're the one who has the ideas. Whereas all the brighter ones really haven't spent too much time thinking about it. They have to produce it quickly out of their minds and sometimes their ideas, of course, are very good, but for a mediocre person like me, if you pre-planned it and thought it out, then you can give sound decisions on pretty short notice.

The qualities you mentioned, soundness and mature judgment, they're the qualities of leadership. So what you're really talking about is how you developed as a leader.

Sir Edmund Hillary: There are some people who are natural leaders, who have the ability to think quickly or choose the right decisions at the right moment. But I think there are an awful lot of us who have to learn how to be a leader, and in actual fact, I believe that most people, if they really want to, can become competent leaders. I think I was the prime example of someone with relatively modest abilities, but I think I learned to become a reasonably competent leader. Even practice is quite a useful attribute in this respect. As you do more expeditions and more adventures, you get more experience and you know more clearly what to do in moments of emergency. But I certainly never regarded myself as a natural leader.

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo
I can always remember, when I was at high school we had a school sort of army battalion and because, at that time, I was one of the larger boys, I was appointed sergeant of the number one platoon, and I was always absolutely petrified that when I was meant to turn the platoon left or turn it right, I was really actually hopeless at knowing quite what to do. But fortunately, my platoon, who were really all the misfits in the school, the larger misfits, they stood by me, and some of them were quite good at knowing when to turn left or turn right. So whatever command I gave, they would do the right thing. We were a pretty good platoon as a consequence although, at the time, I felt an absolute idiot. Some of the suggestions I made, my platoon ignored and did the right thing. But maybe I had a good rapport with them and, as a consequence, we were working together pretty much as a team, and we usually did the right thing. But I certainly was completely, often, at a loss as to what was the correct thing to do, but because of the feeling that I had with my platoon, we usually ended up by doing what was right.

How do you think you developed this healthy balance between being part of a team and being an individual striver?

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo
Sir Edmund Hillary: I did my best. I certainly had strong individualistic attitudes, and I think probably I was at my best when I was given the job as leader of a project. In other words, I was forced to think ahead and make decisions and make sure that everything was carried out successfully. I don't think I was a very good follower because I think I did have my own personal ideas and I didn't particularly like being ordered around, to tell the truth. On the other hand, as a leader, I was not the type who ordered other people around. I did expect my groups to have good, strong ideas of their own, but for us all to work happily together and I think, on the whole, our expeditions were very happy ones and that we had quite strong team spirit.

The press and the public rather think of you as a star and yet you think of yourself as a member of a team.

Sir Edmund Hillary: The press and the public have created an image of Ed Hillary, hero and explorer which simply doesn't exist. They've painted a picture of me as a heroic type, full of enormous courage, tremendous strength, undying enthusiasm and all the rest of it. But it's all really just a story, that's been written up in the newspapers. I'm a person, as I've said, of modest abilities, with a good deal of determination, and I do quite a lot of planning ahead. With careful planning and good motivation, I think you can often achieve things that other much more talented people would probably do much more easily. But then, a lot of these very talented people are not strongly motivated to carry out the things that I've been involved in.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What's the proportion of skill, planning, leadership and luck?

Sir Edmund Hillary: You need all those things of course. You certainly need planning and you certainly need a degree of skill and fitness, and there's no question at all that you need a little bit of luck. People often say you make your own luck, and I think probably 90 percent of the luck is self-created, but there is that ten percent. You've got to have things right at the right time. If you're heading for the summit, you've got to have a reasonable day for it. And if the weather doesn't treat you right, nobody's going to get there. I guess you'd call that luck. But if you plan things, maybe you're organized so you can wait for another day and put in your push to the summit. But I do believe that a little bit of luck is a good thing to have.

Have there been many situations where you've been criticized, and if so, what did you do with that experience of criticism?

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo
Sir Edmund Hillary: There have certainly been occasions in which I've been criticized. When we were doing our Antarctic trip and Manny Fuchs was crossing over the continent and we were putting out loads towards the Pole, and we headed off toward the pole and we actually reached the South Pole several weeks before Fuchs, which was never in the original plans. But we had carried out all the laying of depots which had been in the plans, and I had managed to acquire a dozen extra drums of fuel with the idea that once the task was completed, that we might head off for the Pole. There was a little bit of criticism in the media, particularly in Britain that we had "Won the race to the Pole," as they called it when we really weren't meant to do it. I don't think I really took that terribly seriously, because never at any stage had it been suggested that we shouldn't go to the Pole. It had never been in the plans either, but I've never been all that good at sticking to plans, as I mentioned before, so as I went along and as I'd made all the necessary arrangements for a little bit of extra fuel, I decided we would battle on over the last 500 miles and see if we could get to the Pole and we duly did. But I would say, in general, I've been very fortunate. People on the whole have viewed my activities, I think, in a very kindly fashion and I really haven't had to put up with much unpleasant criticism.

Have there been instances of constructive criticism in your life that have really helped?

Sir Edmund Hillary: Far too many incidents of constructive criticism! I'm actually the impossible person to go on a talk-back show, because people just call in and compliment me on all the things I've been involved in. I rarely get a good controversial question. I rather enjoy good controversial questions. A lot of this is the image that I mentioned. Being built up by the media, I think, has created me into sort of a person that really I'm not quite like at all.

You say you like controversial questions.

Sir Edmund Hillary: I don't like argument, but I enjoy controversial questions that I have to think about, and which I may agree or may not agree with. But I like having to put some thought into answering a question. In other words, a question that stretches my mind a little bit, rather than saying, "Thank you very much for saying those kind words."

It's sort of like a different context for a challenge. You're always up for a challenge.

Sir Edmund Hillary: Yeah, but I don't like argument, and I'd much rather discuss things in a reasonably quiet and rational way than to have a ferocious argument. In fact, I don't get involved in ferocious arguments.

What do you see as the challenges now for mountain climbers?

Sir Edmund Hillary Interview Photo
Sir Edmund Hillary: I think that the whole attitude of mountaineers has, in many ways, been forced to change. Most of the big mountains have been climbed, the summits have been reached. The Poles have been reached. People have been down to the depths of the ocean. All the grand things have been largely done. So the really good explorer today, gets his challenges by doing things in different ways. He will climb a mountain by a much more difficult route. He'll do a face climb, which may be steeper and more dangerous. He's got the technical equipment and the technique to carry out these things very effectively. Things that we simply didn't have 40 years ago. I think a lot of the big challenges nowadays, unless you're going out into space or something like that, are doing things in a more difficult way, by a more difficult route, and in a more difficult fashion. So the modern explorer with his greater technical ability and better equipment is able to do harder challenges and, as a consequence, he gets the same satisfaction out of that as we did 40 years ago with less effective equipment doing more modest achievements. It's not really what you've done, but it's the sort of challenge it has been for you with your degree of ability and equipment and what you're trying to overcome.

Are those the important qualities, then, for achievement that you would say are important in anything one might aspire towards?

Sir Edmund Hillary: Yes.

If I'm selecting a group, the first thing one has to look for is a record of achievement. It may be modest achievement, but people have shown that they can persist, they can carry out objectives and get to a final solution. If they can do that on small things, there's a very good chance that they'll perform well on big things at the same time. Then, I'm a great believer in a really good sense of humor. If you have someone in an expedition who's reasonably competent and has a great sense of humor, they're a very stimulating factor for the whole team, and they play a very important psychological part, I think in the success of the team.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

You can be involved in a very serious pursuit and have humor about it.

Sir Edmund Hillary: I personally wouldn't be, if I could possibly help it, involved in a serious pursuit in which there weren't a few people who could laugh a bit about it. Because I can remember many occasions -- maybe we've been stuck in a tent or we're up on the side of a mountain, this heavy snow, avalanches all around us, and we can't get up and we can't get down, but we just sat in the tent and reminisced about occasions and days gone by and laughed about old jokes and all the rest of it. Then you really have a very good time, even though you're sort of poised there between disaster both up and down. People who can make you laugh under those circumstances are very valuable indeed in an expedition.

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This page last revised on Feb 05, 2008 18:08 EDT
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