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Home » Colin O’Brady: Change Your Mindset and Achieve Anything at TEDxPortland (Transcript)

Colin O’Brady: Change Your Mindset and Achieve Anything at TEDxPortland (Transcript)


Colin O’Brady

Here is the full transcript of pro endurance athlete and mountain climber Colin O’Brady’s TEDx Talk: Change Your Mindset and Achieve Anything at TEDxPortland conference. This event took place on April 15, 2017 at Portland, Oregon.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Change Your Mindset and Achieve Anything by Colin O’Brady at TEDxPortland


Colin O’Brady – Pro endurance athlete and mountain climber

I’m here today to talk to you about overcoming the biggest obstacle you’ll ever face. Let me take you on a journey.

It was the middle of the night, almost a year ago. I struggled to breathe. Each step taking longer than the last, I fought my way upward at the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner. “Focus,” I thought, “keep pushing forward.” The culmination of 130 days of consecutive climbing, the negative 60-degree windchill and the actual physiological state of my body fighting back at 28,000 feet on Mount Everest summit ridge was pushing me to my breaking point.

“Get ahold of yourself, Colin”, I desperately tried to regain control of my mind. But doubts, fear, and pain swirled in my thoughts. “One step at a time,” I thought. In an apparent daze a chair appeared in the snow in front of me blurring in and out of my vision. “One step at a time,” I thought.

These labored steps reminded me of steps I had taken before — steps that had given me a new lease on life, steps that would bring me to my knees yet simultaneously teach me life’s greatest lesson. My mind flashed back.

10 years ago, I had just graduated from college. It was time to let loose to see the world. I took my life savings from three summers painting houses, packed a backpack and a surfboard and set off into the world for an adventure with no itinerary. After all, adventure is just bad planning, right?

Three months into the journey, I found myself on a beach in rural Thailand. It was a beautiful evening. I was watching fire dancers in amazement and I decided to partake in the fun, jumping a flaming jump rope because you know I was 22 years old and invincible. In an instant my life changed. The rope wrapped around my legs and ignited my body completely on fire.

Survival mode kicked in when I needed it most and with one last breath and ounce of courage, I dove into the ocean a few steps away to extinguish the flames. Then darkness. Silence.

I woke in a one-room nursing station to look down finding my body completely bandaged. “What have I done?” I thought. I had been severely burned. Well, it must have been at least 24 hours later, I awoke leaving a surgery room in a small ICU where there was a cat running across my chest and around my bed, hammering home the fact that I was far from home and in a dire set of circumstances. Being in this unsanitary hospital could kill me and the pain — the searing pain was unimaginable, yet the morphine they kept giving me made it feel like there was insects crawling over my skin. I couldn’t tell which was worse.

I just wanted to give up. I was downward spiraling fast, ready to quit. Thankfully five days in this ordeal, my mother arrived to be my protector. I know now she was just as afraid as I was but she chose to never show me her fear. Instead she came into my hospital room every single day with a smile on her face and an air of positivity, daring me to dream about the future.

She kept asking me questions like: “Colin, what do you want to do when you get out of here? Let’s set a goal.”

My immediate response: “Mom, I’m screwed. The doctors say I may never walk again normally. What hope do I have? Life as I know it is over.”

But her positivity was unrelenting and infectious. In three days after she arrived, she was sitting on my bedside and I announced my goal: “Mom, when I get out of here, I’m going to one day compete in a triathlon.” Not something I’d never done before and looking down at my legs it seemed rather unrealistic. But with a tear in her eyes, she nodded and wrapped me in her arms as only a mother can.

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It was many more weeks until I was released from that Thai hospital. I still hadn’t taken a single step. I was carried on and off the plane and placed in a wheelchair when I got back here to Portland.

The next morning, I was in my mother’s kitchen. My mom said to me, “All right, Colin, now I know you’ve got this big triathlon goal but today your goal is to take your first step.” She then grabbed a chair from our kitchen table and placed it one step in front of my wheelchair. “You need to figure out how to get out of your wheelchair and step into that chair.” It took me three hours that day to work up the courage and strength to take that first step, but I did it.

The next day she had moved the chair five steps away, and the next day ten. Each day I could take a few more steps until finally after many weeks I regained my ability to walk. And then one day jogged — jogging felt like flying but jogging was a far cry from running a triathlon. So for the next 18 months I grinded with my goal in mind and finally a year and a half after my accident, it was time for me to take a shot at my dream.

I showed up in Chicago to compete in the triathlon. I dove into Lake Michigan to swim the first mile. I got on my bike, rode 25 miles, put my shoes on and ran 6.2 miles to the finish, crossing the finish line. I had done it. I had achieved my goal.

And there was one more surprise in store for me that day. I hadn’t just finished the race, I had won. Thank you. Placing first out of more than 4,000 other participants.

The first thing I thought about were those months in the hospital imagining what would have happened had my mom not forced me to look towards the future and set a measurable goal. Through his tragedy, I’d learned an invaluable lesson. I had learned that life will test us with setbacks but these situations aren’t permanent. We have full control of our choices to keep moving forwards one step at a time. I had learned that we all have reservoirs of untapped potential that can achieve great things. The biggest thing standing in our way: our own minds.

For the next six years, I competed as a professional triathlete in 25 countries and then in the fall of 2014 I found myself at the summit of Ecuador’s third tallest mountain with a diamond ring in my pocket asking my longtime girlfriend Jenna to marry me. I don’t know if it was the lack of oxygen to her brain to the altitude but she said yes.

Awed and inspired by the mountains around us and wanting to set a goal larger than herself, we set a goal together. I would attempt to set a world record for the Explorers Grand Slam with the larger purpose of inspiring kids everywhere to dream big, to set goals, to live active healthy lives. We coined our project Beyond 7/2.

Now the Explorers Grand Slam includes climbing the Seven Summits which is the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents as well as completing expeditions to both the North and South Poles. Fewer than 50 people in history had ever completed the Grand Slam and I would aim to be the fastest.

It took over a year of hard work for both Jenna and I to put our dream into reality but finally it was time for me to leave on the adventure. Jenna ever steady at the helm of the expedition logistics and running our nonprofit, I set off for the mountains.

First destination: Antarctica. A tiny little plane landed me onto the frozen continent. The landscape was desolate and surreal. It felt like standing inside the belly of a ping pong ball white in all directions and the cold — the cold was something I’d never experienced before, average temperature negative 40 degrees. It was so cold that I took a cup of boiling water and threw it into the air and it immediately turned into ice.

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After battling these extreme conditions for the next week, I arrived at the South Pole. And from there the journey continued onwards. Next, I climbed Mount Vinson, then Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, and finally after a hundred days I had completed seven of the nine expeditions to complete the Explorers Grand Slam and I arrived at Mount Everest base camp.

After three weeks on Mount Everest, I had slowly clawed my way up to the highest camp before the summit, Camp 4. The muscles in my legs felt like ice, cold, and hard. My head was pounding, my eyes were bulging, my face was swollen. In any normal circumstance, this would warrant a trip to the doctors but there were no doctors around. And besides I knew exactly what was happening. I had read all the literature on Mount Everest but nothing can truly prepare you for what is known as the Death Stone, above 26,000 feet in altitude where the human body cannot survive for long.

As darkness fell and the wind kicked up, I was exhausted and claustrophobic in my tent. I was scheduled to leave for the summit at midnight and I was terrified. Doing the only thing I could think of to try to calm my mind down, I reached for my satellite phone and I called Jenna. And in an incredible moment of bravery Jenna set aside her own justifiable fears and told me exactly what I needed to hear. She said, “Colin, people are going to summit Mount Everest tonight and there’s no reason you can’t be one of them. Go inside your body and listen. Face your fears. I know you can do it.”

And with her words in tow, I set off for the summit bringing us back full circle to where I began this talk. In the darkness, my headlamp only illuminated the few steps in front of me. “Focus, one step at a time.” I began counting my steps: one, two — ten steps could have fooled me, I felt like 10 miles. I felt my body giving up. I was hopeful that the daylight might give me some strength after a long night of climbing but the sunrise only illuminated the two-mile drop-offs on either side of me. I was again being tested by the biggest obstacle of all: my mind.

But this time I wasn’t alone. Jenna’s words filled my head. My mom’s words filled my head. Remembering those labored steps after my accident filled my head. Strengthened by those thoughts, my mindset shifted and my body forgot its weakness. I felt the surge of energy, each step taking me closer to the summit and after a few more hours of hard work I gazed out on the most magnificent view from the top of the world. We got any Timbers fans out there?

Of course, I had to bring a little hometown love with me up there with the timber scarf on the summit of Everest. After safely descending back down to Camp 4 and crawling into my tent, I reached my phone again to call Jenna. “How are you feeling?” she said.

“Whoop, exhausted! But I did it. No frostbite, no injuries. I’m good.”

She then said something I will never forget. She said, “Colin, I need you to put your boots back on.”


It had literally just taken me more than an hour to take my boots off and crawl back into my tent. She explained, she said, “She’d been doing some calculations back home and it just so happened that if I get to the summit of Denali my last mountain in the next week I could set not one but two World Records. She said, “I need you to put your boots back on now. Climb back down to base camp. There’s a helicopter there that’s going to take you to Katmandu .There’s not enough time for a hotel room or take a shower but an evening flight will take you from Dubai to Seattle to Anchorage and you have about three days to climb to know it.”

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In that moment, I could only laugh then, right? In that moment I was forced to wipe the slate clean and somehow just a hundred hours after standing on the summit of Mount Everest we executed Jenna’s plan and I arrived at the base of Denali, my final mountain.

The next three days were quite honestly the hardest of the entire project. I was battling extreme fatigue and to make matters worse, Alaska dumped a huge windstorm on me, 50 mile-per-hour winds, minus 60 degree wind chills, making me battle and earn each step. But with one last step on the evening of May 27, 2016 I arrived to the summit of Denali setting to New World Records for the Explorers Grand Slam and seven summits. Thank you.

Jenna and I together had accomplished our seemingly impossible goal and even better millions of kids were able to share it on the journey and the accomplishment with us via social media sharing with us their own goals and their own dreams for the future.

I carry this rock with me every day. It’s a small rock from the summit of Mount Everest. This rock stands for the moment I chose to keep pushing forward. This rock stands for my untapped potential. As I set new goals and ultimately encounter obstacles, this rock reminds me that even Mount Everest can be broken down to its smallest parts, a bunch of small rocks stacked on top of each other, many steps leading to the summit.

Maybe right now you’re struggling in your own day-to-day life, feeling overwhelmed like it’s just too much. Or maybe you have a great idea for a business you want to start or an innovation at your current job but people keep telling you it’s not possible. Or maybe you’ve been badly injured in an accident and you’re not sure that you can recover from it. You see, tragedy and other great obstacles befall all of us. And in these moments, our minds are flooded with doubt. We ask ourselves questions like: should I give up? Is this even possible? Or why me? leading us to a negative mindset but we don’t have to stay there.

The only question that we have when facing great obstacles is: how will you respond? You have a choice. And when you shift your mindset towards the positive, you will quickly realize that there is a reservoir of untapped potential waiting to be released by you.

Look, I’m just a regular guy from Portland but I can confidently tell you this. Achievement is not for the select few. Achievement is simply for those who never quit. It is for those who set goals. It is for those who put the most steps in front of the others. Achievement is for those who can overcome the greatest obstacle of all: their mind.

So set a goal, take the first steps. The chair is right in front of you. And when your steps get you there, push the chair further. When you feel like giving up, put your boots back on, let go of fear. Remember this story and remember this rock and watch as your rocks stack up to the summit of your Mount Everest.

Thank you very much.

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