Q&A with SET22 keynote speaker Bonita Norris

Bonita Norris, who in 2010 became the youngest British woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest at the age of 22, will be opening the SET22 conference in January 2023 with her keynote address focused on resilience and motivation. Here, Bonita reflects on some of the key lessons she’s taken from her experience as a mountaineer, and shares what she hopes attendees will take away from her talk at SET22.

What are the most important lessons you learned from your Mount Everest expedition and how do you apply these lessons to your everyday life?

There are so many lessons I’ve learned. I would say the most important one is that you are so much more capable than you think, and that failure is not guaranteed; you can always surprise yourself and succeed at something you thought was impossible.

The second would be the power of having great support – how fantastic, supportive people can help you achieve your dreams. Not just because they’ve literally stood next to you and climbed besides you, but because the words they say and the encouragement they give can be so transformative. I definitely would not be here were it not for people saying ‘you can do this’ because, often, I didn’t believe I could. It was only them telling me that made me take that risk and find out.

Lastly, I think remembering to stay present in the moment, and as tempting as it is, not look too far ahead. I think it’s important to find gratitude and meaning in the moment you’re in no matter how tough it is, and know that that step on the mountain or towards the mountain is very small but getting through it is a huge achievement. Those small steps are the things that add up.

How can educators inspire and motivate their students?

I think teachers and educators are exactly like Sherpas, the indigenous climbers that live around the bottom of Everest who we would climb the mountain with. They are the backbone of the mountain, they are the people that lay the route and do all the groundwork, and then they support us right to the summit. They are like our guiding lights and the ones that get us to the top. For us, it’s the biggest achievement in the world to have that summit in the bag and to come away knowing we achieved what we set out to do. But for them, the next year they go back and do it all over again with a new group of climbers. They really are the true heroes of the mountain.

I think having that level of resilience to go back year after year and keep going and keep inspiring new people is just incredible. For me it’s difficult to offer advice to someone like that because I’ve only ever climbed it once, but finding meaning in what you’re doing is the most important thing – finding your why. Who are you doing this for? Is it your students or for yourself? There’s always going to be something that keeps us going and motivates us. It always comes back to that meaning.

You’re an advocate for spending more time in nature. How do you think we can embed sustainability into more parts of our lives, including into education?

I think you have to start with that connection to nature, it has to be a priority. How can we do what we’re doing but include nature in it? So, for example, can we do this particular activity outside? It’s the little things, but we ultimately have to remember we aren’t fully human without a connection to the outside world. Our brains evolved over hundreds and thousands of years in the natural world and it’s only recently we’ve shut ourselves off from it.

On the mountain, people often ask me about resilience. For me it was always easy to keep going in some ways, even in my lowest moments, because there was always something so beautiful to look at that would keep me going. I think nature allows us to process our suffering, it gives us understanding of what we’re going through, it hardens us up and it gives us gratitude, so it’s got to be at the core of everything. I’m not an educator so can’t give hardened tips, but the goal should be to trust that people will respond to the natural world, and that, when you do include nature in the way you educate, it will make a positive impact.

What do you hope attendees will take away from your talk at SET22?

I just hope people leave feeling there is possibility within them that they perhaps haven’t tapped into, and that there’s no time like the present to set that challenge and take that leap of faith into the unknow, and find out what they’re made of. I hope that people leave feeling anything is possible – ‘if she can climb Everest then what can I do?’  

Attendees At SET Conference

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Join Bonita, Judy Ling Wong, Geoff Petty, host Sarah Simons and more than 20 other speakers at the SET22 conference taking place 17 January 2023. Don’t miss out - book your ticket for SET22 today!

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