Monday, March 18, 2013

Life and Climbing (and great mentors)

"With climbing and life there is a difference between jumping and falling. And, I'm not going to jump. I'm going to take the risk of falling." - Eric Evans, 1997

(from my diary, freshman year of high school):

...At first I signed up for Dare to Achieve Job Shadowing because Miss Chapotan said I would miss school. Seemed like a Good enough reason. I hate my school, so whenever I can get away for a day, that's good.

When I found out I was going to be assigned to the Charlotte Climbing Center, I just laughed. The other 5 kids had to go to NationsBank and other really boring places like that.

When I met Eric, the owner of the climbing center, after school on Monday, he was a little different than I had pictured. He was a short African-American man, kind of muscley and handsome with a big smile. He was sitting in the office with Miss Chapotan, and I thought she might sort of have a crush on him.

"Eric Evans, nice to meet you," he said, extending his hand. Then, he asked, "You do know that you've got the awesomest job to shadow, right?"

"Well, it's a lot better than going to the bank," I said.

For some reason he thought this was funny and laughed really hard. He told me a little about his job, and I listened shyly. He then gave me his business card, pointing out the fact that his name was on there but that it did not say: manager, or president or anything. Just his name.

"And you know why it's that way? Because I know that I'm the president and owner. So, I don't need to have it on the card to remind me."

I laughed. He was funny.

On Wednesday morning Eric was waiting for me at 8:30 am. He was the first adult to arrive. All of the other kids were in the office, too, dressed in business suits and waiting for their people to arrive. I got to wear track shorts and a t-shirt.

"You're a runner, so let's run." We ran to Eric's car. On our ride to the gym I asked Eric some questions and he talked a lot. First he answered some of my business questions then he talked about more personal things.

Eric said that doctors tried to tell him he had ADD as a kid, but he has never believed in learning disabilities. He told me he was very poor growing up and that he learned that one of the most important things is attitude. His way of phrasing it was, "If you have a bad attitude you'll get your bad ass in trouble." Eric told me about overcoming the disadvantages of being poor. He also said that out of all of the climbing center owners in the world, he is the only Black one! This is like his claim to fame or something. He seems very proud of this.

Eric talked with me about my running and the psychology part of it. He ran the hurdles in high school like me. I told him about how intimidated I got in the 400 meters at yesterday's track meet. Eric told me that he was the shortest runner in the field when he won his district meet. Eric is not very tall at all.

"What you need to do is look at all of the girls you're running against and say 'yes, they're taller than me. Yes, they're older and more experienced. But, I'm going to beat them all anyway.'"

Then he said, "I sort of know how you feel. People have asked me before 'Do you think you can run the business being black and all?' And I just have to believe that I'm as good as anyone else. I've always asked myself, 'Why can't I win? Who says I can't?'"

We arrived at the Charlotte Climbing Center and Eric let me climb a moving wall while he made some phone calls. Then I looked through a portfolio-thingy. I realized how much risk and hard work Eric had taken to start the climbing center.

A few minutes later Eric finished his phone call, and we went to a meeting at NationsBank about trying to get a loan to expand the gym.

Eric said several people wanted to know why he didn't just sell the center and make a big profit. His reply was always that his dream was not to have a little climbing center. That was only his starting point. His vision was to offer several sports: Rollerblading, mountain-biking, etc.

"I don't know if it'll work out, but I have to try. With climbing and life there is a difference between jumping and falling. And, I'm not going to jump. I'm going to take the risk of falling."

Next we went to Discovery Place Kid's Museum with the mobile climbing wall. One of Eric's co-workers belayed the kids while Eric and I stood back and observed.

"You can really tell a lot about the kids just from watching how they climb," Eric said." He was right.

After the kids climbed I got to climb. I couldn't quite get to the top, but I tried. Eric wouldn't let me jump, and I wouldn't let myself jump either.

"This is harder than I thought it would be," I said.

Eric laughed, "Getting to the top always is." Then, his expression changed to a more serious one.

"So, what do you think?" asked Eric once I was on the ground again.

"Well, I can definitely see why the kids jumped."

Eric and his co-worker both laughed, "Really? 'I can see why they jumped.' That's all you have to say?!"

But, it was a tough wall to climb!


For lunch we went to a nice Thai restaurant downtown.

"This is the best part of my job right here," Eric said.

I had no idea what Eric was talking about until he pointed to some flowers. "I love seeing beautiful flowers. It just makes my day."

One thing about Eric is that he always seems to see the best in everything. I noticed that it was a rainy, dreary day. Eric noticed a cluster of flowers on an island in the middle of a parking lot.

That was when I noticed how much he appreciated little things. His outlook was to really focus on the good.

Over lunch we had the best conversation. Eric talked about selling a philosophy and a lifestyle, not just a product. We talked about rich people, and he pointed out that rich people often just want to be comfortable and are afraid to take risks. "I don't mind taking risks. I guess if you haven't got anything, you don't have anything to lose."

We talked about not being intimidated. I mentioned how I did not want to be blunt like my mom, but I feared being always shy like my dad. Eric said, "It's not that you're shy. You just think before you speak."

We talked about business, and Eric said he often works 100 hours a week. When I asked how he copes with the stress he laughed. "I don't really know." He said he had never thought about it, that he loves what he does. "I don't discourage you from being your own boss, I would just say, be aware of the consequences."

Eric suggested maybe I think about sports psychology. "I noticed you ask a lot of questions about stress and psychology. Just something to think about."

Around 4:00 Eric drove me back to school so I could get to track practice. He laughed at all of the student cars in the parking lot. "I told you I go to school with rich kids," I said.

I told Eric about this one girl at my school that crashed a BMW, then got a Lexus, then crashed that, then got a big jeep.

"You probably have better morals because you're not rich," he said, "You value things more."

We sat with Miss Chapotan for a minute or two to talk. He told me to start doing my algebra homework and stop complaining about Algebra being too hard, when really I just need to do the work. And then he left.

"After this I will work another 5 hours probably."

On his way out he said, "Call me to let me know how you do in your next track meet. Don't let the tall people intimidate you."

[Postscript: 17 years have passed since I spent my day with Eric Evans. I later found out that Eric's plan for the outdoor center did not work out. I think he never got the loan. Another gym named Inner Peaks came to Charlotte and drove Charlotte Climbing Center out of business.

In talking with my mom this Thanksgiving, I mentioned this story to her. Her response was, "You know what, though, that kind of person, willing to take that kind of risk, usually will bounce back pretty quickly. He's probably doing even greater things now."

I sure hoped so.

Needless to say, I developed this morbid curiosity to figure out whatever became of Eric Evans. So, I did some light "internet-stalking." A quick google search of "Eric Evans Charlotte Climbing Center" directed me to his LinkedIn Profile.

Not only did Eric bounce back after his fall. He seemed to have climbed to greater heights, founding "Peak Learning Companies, Inc." 

I was blessed with the opportunity to speak to Eric a year or so ago.  When we spoke he was living in Minnesota.  Since then, he and his family have moved to Brazil.  I hope to visit one day.]

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