Climb every mountain (or at least the biggest one you can find)
Michael, 37, lives in Perth and knows about feet, mountains, success and insecurity. He's expecting a baby with his wife Aimee in about two weeks.
I was born in Perth and moved with my missionary parents to Bangladesh when I was two. Even though we were only there for two years, the fact that we lived through a government coup and literally had tanks outside the front of our house meant that I was a nervous child, scared of crowds and policemen. We went back to Perth and life was relatively normal until I was eight.
Then I believe my life changed forever. We moved to Pakistan when I was almost nine. We lived in the huge bustling city of Karachi and I attended the British Overseas School. I quickly made friendships with the other ex-pat kids and ironically – being separated from my country of birth – felt at home.
My adventurous father and allowed me my independence early and by the age of ten I was riding on my bike around the city of Karachi with my friends, seemingly unaware it was one of the more violent cities on the planet.
The almost immediate change in my persona from being a shy, timid, anxious kid in Perth to the happy adventurous kid I became in Pakistan was a massive relief to my parents. My first climbing memories were of scaling the Pakistani homes which were the typical middle-eastern design of flat roofs and skinny ledges surrounding each storey.
When I was 10 we spent eight weeks in Murree, a beautiful small town in the Himalayan foothills of northern Pakistan. I attended the MK boarding school there (Murree Christian School) and at the end of the two months I said to my parents, “I want to stay. This is where I belong.”
My stay at MCS was, I believe, a pivotal moment in my life. It really was a perfect upbringing for an adventurer. We were in the foothills of the Himalayas in a close knit, largely American community. We enjoyed the benefits of both growing up in Pakistan and being close to an expat missionary community.
I returned to Perth when I was 14 as my parents believed that this would give me the best chance of re-integration into Australia. ‘Third culture kids’ typically have re integration problems back into their ‘home society’. I more or less found my way at the private boys school I went to, although it took a full two years for my American accent to properly wear off. I found friends quickly but I quickly learned not to talk about my adventures back in Pakistan as it just seemed to unreal to any Australian kids.
Success is everything
By 15 I was already very driven and motivated to succeed in sports and academics. I began running in Pakistan and was aware that this was the first thing I was good at. When I was 11 I was training by myself most days and this continued on in earnest in Perth. To quote Eric Liddell, the athlete portrayed in Chariots of Fire ‘when I run, I feel God’s pleasure’. Running was as spiritual for me as it was physically enjoyable. And that was positive. Success in running made me feel less insecure and less anxious about life. It gave me worth. This was good.
But it also meant that when I did not perform as expected in a race, I spent the rest of my week feeling very bad about myself. So this drive for success in anything I did was often a good thing – but it could also be a dysfunctional thing. I only felt worthwhile whilst I was succeeding. I only felt worthwhile whist I was attempting to do the hardest things possible.
I finished my schooling with high grades and as the second fastest under-18 runner in Western Australia. The continued success and results sky rocketed my confidence on the outside, but there were still niggling doubts that if I did not perform I was not worth anything. I don’t believe any other human was responsible for me feeling like this – certainly not my parents.
I chose engineering because it apparently was the hardest degree to do, but after completing the degree and getting an extremely good graduate position, I realised I hated engineering. I returned to university this time in Podiatry. It was a career path where it was very easy to set up your own practice, and I still valued my independence.
During this time I began mountaineering. There was something intrinsic in me that wanted to climb. Part of it was being drawn back to the mountains of my boarding school. Part of it was thinking that this was the most gruelling physical endeavour you could do. Part of it was thinking that if I was good at this, I would be worthwhile. And part of it was once again feeling God’s pleasure when I did climb. So once again, there were good things in doing this. But there was also a fair dose of dysfunction wrapped up in it.
In 2000 I met Aimee, the greatest blessing of my life. We got married in 2002.
She knew from the first few dates that she was getting involved with a mountaineer. It was not ideal, but she always gave me the freedom to climb. And I will always thank her for this. After more climbs in China, India and Nepal, I was finally off to my once in a lifetime goal – Everest.
In 2007 I got my chance on Everest and nearly pulled the whole thing off. But like many climbers, I succumbed to frost bite with only 16 hours to go till the summit. It was a huge disappointment to fall so short of such a compelling goal but I knew I was doing the right thing in returning to Aimee and my family in once piece.
Coming back from Everest was difficult. So much of my life seemed to culminate in this goal. And once again there were those nagging thoughts that I was just not worthwhile enough.
During these months I felt I was not as close to Aimee as before and it took a trip to the counsellor to hear Aimee say that I held mountaineering in higher esteem than her. At first I could not believe this came from her mouth.
The turning point for me – which happened very quickly – was that realisation that my identity and my worth was in my faith, my wife, my family, my mates, my empathy for others. It had almost nothing to do with my so-called successes. Life has been different for me ever since.
Finding my purpose
My one wish or prayer point between the age of 20 and 34 was that I would work out what my purpose in life was. And at this stage in my life I found it.
From a very early age I was extremely aware of people’s emotions. This empathy for others has stayed with me my whole life. I didn’t realise until my early 20s that not everyone was wired like this, nor that this perception was actually a gift. The question was – how could I properly act on that gift?
I had flirted with the idea of ‘coaching’ for more than a decade, but I finally started to formalise the process soon after Everest. One of the more positive spin-offs of climbing Everest is a massive amount of exposure to the public. I had many opportunities to talk to many groups of people at churches, schools and large corporate events about things that were close to my heart such as vision, goal setting and how to deal with anxiety and fear.
This also lead to me being able to coach. I meet one on one with people, working through with their goals, looking at whether those goals are functional, and keeping them accountable to their planned path. I now coach for three groups of people: those in a corporate setting; church leaders; and anyone from the general public who puts their hand up.
Something else that came from my climbing interest was extremely unpredictable. In my early 20s I realised that if you were going to climb the highest mountains on earth, you not only had to be extremely fit, but you also had to have access to money. Coming from a missionary kid background, I was extremely non-materialistic, so I had to work out how to make some money.
With my usual mindset of doing things as big as I could do them, I began the process of looking into the world of finances. To cut a long story short, I was amazed to find that after investing for seven years, I was actually starting to become fairly adept at it. My brother, an emergency physician with too much cash but not enough time to know what to do with it, gave me a large cheque one day and told me to do something with it. I got him some results, so he referred people to me. One day about three years ago a stranger contacted me and asked me if he could invest in my fund. The funny thing was I did not realise until that point that I did not even have a fund. I just thought I was helping out about 50 or so people.
Today and tomorrow
Life now looks something like this. I coach about one day per week. I still do corporate public speaking engagements with events from Everest being used as metaphors for life. Four days per week is spent investing for my fund which is primarily made up of sophisticated investors. And finally much of my week is spent catching up with ordinary families and helping them sort through their finances. I enjoy these meetings the most. You can have a profound impact on a family’s life by helping them sort out the basics so they can stop worrying about money all the time.
The fund is now worth over $60 million. I say this not to boast, but to say how unexpected life is and how God can steer your life in a way you never imagined. After all, how is it that a scared, anxious MK with not a materialistic bone in his body gets to run and own a hedge fund of this size?
Ultimately God has gifted me to think big and to pass this onto other people. My life is not about Everest or about a large hedge fund. It’s about journeying with the people I come across every day, and negotiating the obstacles of life, realising that the themes of life are not the everyday concerns, but the bigger things. They are family, it can be our faith.
Aimee and I now have our first child on its way. We are both excited and I can’t wait to bring a son into the world and let him know that his identity is in his creator, his family and not the things of this world.