Is There a Success Mindset? And What Do John Elway, Dwyane Wade and Garrett Madison Have in Common?

I was on a T.V. shoot with John Elway, the American football star and quarterback for the Denver Broncos in their two Super Bowl Wins.

We were filming, of all the illustrious places you could imagine, in his garage at his home in Denver. The campaign was based on sports stars who embodied “Being Comfortable in Their Own Skin,” so what better place to get them to open up and talk about themselves than at their own home?

John Elway

Toward the end of a long day of filming the question and answers, we moved from the garage to the street, wanting a shot of John throwing a football from his driveway, across the very wide street, into a large plastic trash barrel.

The trash barrel was a long ways away, so a few of us on the set amused ourselves catching the long bombs as John threw them. After quite a few throws, still not hitting the barrel, our Director just tossed the football in from where he was and got the end shot we needed. “All good” we told John, “looks good.”

I was fielding the return balls next to John and was ready to head inside.

“No,” he said without pausing, “I want to do this.”

And we returned to our places, John firing footballs at the trash can. Retired from football, end of a long day, a shot we ended up not using in any case, John Elway was not going inside until he had that football in the can.

As much as his phenomenally successful football career in front of the public eye was where he performed, his natural edge, his competitive spirit was something that was evidently very personal. He wasn’t performing for a crowd, he was putting a football in the can because he wanted to.

He was very good natured about throwing footballs at that trash can, he was making asides and jokes as the footballs whistled off across the street.

And he was going nowhere until he finished the challenge set before him.

During the day, we had had John up on a stool in his garage, firing question after question at him. We were looking for the inside moments, the casual comments, behind his public persona, so when people watched the T.V. commercial, it would resonate with our “being comfortable in your own skin” theme.

I realized there was a unique ability, a self confidence, in moving past a challenge, past a problem and to immediately work out a solution in his answers. It was as if the question embodied all the thinking necessary to acknowledge what needed to be done. And the answer was never an excuse, never a moment to ponder negatives.

He moved immediately into the solution, the solve, what should be done next.

At the same time, the answers weren’t ones that lacked consideration or were rushed, they were just moved on to so quickly, the problem was left behind and the answer was immediate.

It was as if the problem was being solved and synapses firing creatively at a speed that allowed immediate progression to a successful conclusion.

Perhaps a career making endless snap decisions as a quarterback does that for you, but it seemed a much broader talent, an approach that had helped define his success.

The advertising team and our client had dinner at John’s restaurant “Elway’s” with our clients following the shoot. A very fine meal and some rather well aged wine was followed by a quick visit from the manager to let us know it was all complimentary – certainly unexpected and a fine touch to end the day. And the football John signed and tossed to me at the end of the shoot soon went to my father, a long term Denver resident who had more interest in it than I.

Dwayne Wade

My next T.V. shoot was with Dwyane Wade in Miami, this time in a home along the canal, complete with pool, long wooden floored hallways and a kitchen that just walking in to you could imagine yourself a chef. If you don’t know who Dwyane Wade is, he is one of those sportsmen, that even if you don’t like basketball, you can still appreciate his athleticism, dynamism and pure skill that he applies to the game.

The first filming we did was outside at the pool, then we moved inside onto the floor. Unlike John Elway, Dwyane Wade was still in the thick of competition, playing at the time for the Miami Heat. And the T.V. concept was one with his kids in the mix, a guaranteed challenge. Put kids or animals in a T.V. shoot and you are asking for it.

At one point Dwyane was playing defense, his kids dribbled the basketball wildly and their shot missed. We reset, got ready to film and he looked at his son in a quiet moment and said “Now, you do want to make that next basket.”

And the mini-game started, and his son shot and it went in. Yet in that short instance, it was that transference of his competitive nature, in the midst of the clowning around, the playing around, that sinking that ball and making the point, was still important.

Later that afternoon, we were doing still photography for our digital campaign, and Dwyane, just standing around in front of a green screen in the bright, shining lights, wasn’t looking that natural. So we started throwing the basketball back and forth.

Not a ball I would probably actually use as Dwyane’s signature might just fade that much more.

The ball arrived in my hands like a bullet a few times, I was just focused on catching and not dropping the ball, I admit.

“Hey,” Dwayne said when I caught it the third time, my hands already burning. He didn’t say anything else. He came over, moved my wrists, shifted the angle of my hands, spread my fingers out.

He didn’t have to say anything. He exuded a level of confidence, and the immediate solution to my challenge without saying a word.

He didn’t have to tell me what to do, it was the fastest and shortest basketball lesson ever conducted. It was innately simple, creative, and it worked.

My palms still burnt three days afterwards, but at least I knew how to catch a basketball. I had him sign the ball for me just to capture the moment and it still falls out of my closet at random times.

We got two very fun T.V. commercials from that shoot, Dwyane lifting his kids over his head and throwing them in the pool, and the game of basketball in the house. Like every T.V. shoot ever, it was on a tight schedule, a big crew, non-stop activity.

In the afternoon, I stepped into the private room Dwyane and his kids had to take a break in, checking when they could be back out for more filming. “Hey, you want some pizza,” he asked.

It was very welcome to see that across sports stars, their appreciation and sharing of meals held a common gentlemanly theme.

Football players in Colorado, basketball players in Florida. Could it have anything at all to do with guides on Everest?

As this years Everest season unravelled, with the coupling of cyclones, covid, and cancellations, I watched as so many of us did, the early season competition as to who would play this season, who would win, and who would lose.

Who would be confident to make the move to Everest, to stay on Everest and work out a creative way to maneuver through the maze of challenges that are hard enough in a normal year, before you have to deal with a pandemic.

And oh yes, “what a long, strange Everest season it has been.”

At the end of the season, Garrett Madison reported his “best summit day ever.” After 11 summits, that was saying quiet a lot. It was a bit like declaring a winning season in the midst of what was in some ways a lost year for many.

You never know who you might run in to in the Karakorum. Garrett headed down the Baltoro, I’m headed up. Photo: the ever enigmatic Victor Saunders

I looked back at the Everest season, and I thought back to my many advertising shoots and the characteristics I’d realized in meeting and working with John Elway and Dwyane Wade.

Are those imbedded character traits: of competition, of wanting to be the best: of then moving from challenge to solution and having an innate ability to apply creativity immediately and realize success inherent across individuals?

I’ve always been loath to consider climbing a sport, particularly in big mountains. Big mountains are too dangerous, it isn’t a win or lose situation, it’s a life or death one.

But the characteristics I’d seen from the personalities I had met were not necessarily sporting ones, they were deeper than that and formed a part of their character. The micro-moments I’d experienced were ones that still resonated, still informed my own thinking, and were relevant everywhere from a corporate lecture to working out a new rock climb.

The solution mindset (every business lecture should refer to a “mind-set,” have a graph and chart taken from an MBA class, a solid colored slide with a big impactful word on it and a short video with loud music), is yet another popular way of saying it. If you have a solution you tend to be successful, as long as you get it right.

So I emailed Garrett Madison – I was curious.

Did what I had seen in John Elway and with Dwyane Wade, carry over to what makes one successful with an international guiding company, particularly in this ever so challenging year on Everest.

Was he too, highly competitive, confident and creative? How did he approach challenges?

I asked what Garrett’s inspiration was for setting up his own guide company – if I was looking to see if he had a sense of competition, that was pretty obvious.

“My inspiration behind setting up Madison Mountaineering was that I could lead high altitude expeditions better than anyone if I was fully independent.”

Being competitive is about being the best. It was a side I hadn’t seen and wasn’t aware of in our meetings from Antarctica, to the Karakorum and in the Himalaya. Garrett is client focused and very attentive, he is polite and congenial.

I was talking with his clients at the high camp on Vinson in Antarctica – they were having fun, they were relaxed, they were confident. You are only like that if you have a lot of faith in your guide.

But as a leader you aren’t going to get very far in a challenging industry and on the worlds tallest mountains being a lightweight.

In the last year, guides and guiding companies have approached the pandemic in highly varied fashion, often driven by different covid conditions in different parts of the world. With different countries and different destinations having reacted completely differently. For some companies there have been few opportunities to even operate. From shutting down, to hibernating, to a minimalistic schedule, to attempting to seemingly ignore covid, the range of approaches has been a very wide one.

Another group that had a good year on Everest was Ryan Waters and his Mountain Professionals Team. Ryan also exudes confidence and it was interesting to see his creative approach this year, holding his team at the South Col until an almost unheard of 5 A.M. in the morning, then climbing through the day to sneak up to the top between the two cyclones.

It was a very rare opportunity for his team to not have to struggle up through the darkness as nearly everyone now does, and to see and perhaps really enjoy that spectacular final day of climbing to the summit.

During the pandemic, Madison Mountaineering also kept on guiding, kept on running international expeditions, and when Everest season came around already had extensive experience working through the challenges of Covid. So how did Garrett have the confidence to keep operating I asked him?

“My approach is unique in that I only operate smaller, boutique style climbs, led by myself or one of my hand picked and well trusted guides. My ‘hands on’ approach to overseeing every aspect of our expeditions means our trips are each custom built. Mountains are always in a state of flux, we must constantly adapt to changing weather & route conditions, I apply this mentality to my business and life in general.

New conditions require new solutions.”

Finally, I wondered if he felt his approach is different. Does he have that rapid fire ability to move from problem to solution, to weigh options, but do it so quickly that the answer isn’t a rehash of the situation, or an excuse, or another problem ladled on top of the last one, but an immediate use of creativity to begin realizing a solution and moving on to being successful?

“I approach challenges differently than most. When confronted with a complex problem, I see it as an opportunity to figure out a unique solution, rather than give up and throw in the towel.

Covid has provided an easy excuse to say ‘no’ these days…rather than saying ‘yes’ and striving to come up with an innovative, unconventional, unproven, or risky answer.”

Or as Dwyane Wade put it in his T.V. commercial “Don’t be afraid to foul.

Standing in John Elway’s garage, fielding footballs for him as he tossed them at a trash can so far away I could barely see it. Throwing basketball’s back and forth and being coached by Dwyane Wade.

Sensing a unique underlying power to move forward, with confidence. Not in a simplistic fashion, but rapidly applying creativity, to immediately progress to a successful conclusion.

Perhaps what makes you good at throwing a football, tossing a basketball and carrying an ice axe aren’t really all that different after all.