5 investing lessons from climbing Mt. Everest

January 21, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Know your risk tolerance and threshold for pain.

By Jean Chatzky

140117164819-mount-everest-620xaFORTUNE -- Alison Levine is tougher than she looks. At 5'4", 110 lbs, she's not the person you'd pull out of a crowd if you were looking for someone who's tackled the so-called Adventure Grand Slam, which consists of climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents as well as skiing to both the North and South Poles. Investing -- despite the big-screen bacchanal portrayed in the Oscar-nominated The Wolf of Wall Street -- is also tougher than it looks.Interestingly, the two intersect in more ways than you might imagine. In Levine's new book, On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership, she lays out a series of lessons that apply to managing your money just as much as they do to managing your career, or your life. A few of her -- and my -- favorites:

Know your risk tolerance and threshold for pain. On the mountain, Levine explains, you have to know how much risk you're willing to take and plan your route accordingly. "The riskiest part of Mt. Everest is the Khumbu Icefall. The Icefall is in constant motion and there is always a risk that you could be crushed by a giant piece of ice from overhead or fall off a ladder." Many people choose to climb from the north side of the mountain to avoid this route. Levine tackled it twice. By the same token, you may want to avoid particularly volatile investments if you know you can't stomach losing what you put in. Just recognize that you may have to save more on the front end to accommodate for risks not taken.

Fear is okay. Complacency will kill you. Let's go back to that Icefall for a second. When you're on it, Levine explains, fear is natural. It's a given. What you can't be is complacent. If you stop moving, there is a much greater chance that one of those giant slabs of ice is going to crush you. The same is true of finance. It's perfectly normal to feel some sense of unease with markets, which are unpredictable by nature. But allowing that unease to drive you to a halt (whereby you're not participating in your 401(k), not rebalancing when a roaring market has you overweighted in stocks and so on) is a recipe for losing out on financial success at best, losing your shirt at worst.

You don't need total clarity to put one foot in front of the other. The first time Levine climbed Everest, she was just hundreds of feet from the summit when a storm rolled in. Snow was coming down hard. Visibility was terrible. She made the painful decision to retreat. Eight years later, she found herself at the same place, and the same thing happened. The weather turned for the worse. She couldn't see a thing. This time, she got out of her tent, put one foot in front of the other and made it to the top. What she learned -- besides "that having had the snot kicked out of me in 2002, I knew more about my risk tolerance and my threshold for pain," was that she could continue to move forward without being able to see precisely where she was going. Every investor lives that truth every day. The key is to do enough homework that you are operating with as much of a net as possible.

Making progress doesn't mean moving in a straight line. When you climb Everest, you spend 10 or 11 nights climbing before you even get to basecamp. The next day, you climb to camp one, spend the night. The next day, you're back to basecamp. The day after that, it's back to camp one, where you spend a night, before climbing to camp two. The following day, it's all the way back to basecamp. And so it continues, day after day. Up and down. Finally making it to camp three. Camp four. And the summit. The reason for this is called "acclimatization." Levine explains: Your body has to get used to the altitude. If a helicopter dropped you at the top of the mountain without having gone through this process you'd die. Granted, a rock-and-roll market isn't going to kill you. But recognizing that a habit of continuous investing -- whether you do it through a series of paycheck withdrawals into a work-based retirement plan, or by sending a monthly check to your brokerage firm -- is moving forward is an important thing to wrap your brain around. Even when stocks don't have a particularly strong year, you're still buying more shares of more companies that will likely be worth more in the future. The last five years are a primary example of this.

Your decisions affect your team, not just you. Making a bad decision mid-climb or being unprepared for the challenges ahead can put an entire team at risk. "If you run into trouble and have to be rescued, you're putting other people [i.e. the rescuers] at risk because rescues are very tough to orchestrate at high altitudes," she explains. Similarly, bad financial decisions you make can trickle down to impact your spouse and kids. Example: Putting a child's college fund before your own retirement. If you undersave and can't support yourself during your golden years, what happens? Your then-grown kids have to bail you out, just when they're trying to put their own kids through school. Everybody loses.

More from Jean Chatzky:

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Jean Chatzky
Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor of NBC’s Today show. Sign up for her free weekly newsletter at JeanChatzky.com. Follow her at @JeanChatzky.

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