YVON CHOUINARD: Reaching the Top by Doing the Right Thing


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He admits it's not easy for a business to be green. "But part of the process of life is to question how you live it. Nobody takes the time to do things right. Look at those guys." He indicates three boats that have appeared on the river. Two fishermen sit on raised chairs at the bow and stern of each boat. A guide sits in the middle and rows. "They won't catch a thing," says Chouinard, "because they're dry casting. Besides, you don't need a boat to fish this goddamn river. All summer I haven't seen one other person walking the river." Chouinard is dead on; the men don't catch a single fish among them.

"Same with mountain climbing," he says. Chouinard, who has climbed El Capitan and every other seemingly impossible mountain, was caught in an avalanche on Gongga Shan in China in 1980. He and three companions rode the avalanche down 1,500 ft.; one of the others broke his neck and died. "Nowadays, people are interested only in reaching the top so they can tell others they did it," says Chouinard. "So they climb Everest with a Sherpa tied to them by a 3-ft. rope, one behind and one in front. Their beds are made when they reach camp. Someone has put a chocolate mint on the sheets. They don't tough out their problems, and they say they climbed Everest. They start out assholes, and they end up assholes.

"And it's the same with business. If you focus on the goal and not the process, you inevitably compromise." He spits out the word. "Businessmen who focus on profits wind up in the hole. For me, profit is what happens when you do everything else right. A good cast will catch a fish. It's like Zen archery"--he believes in a brand of philosophical Buddhism, a surprising pursuit for a French-Canadian Catholic raised in Maine. "Success has nothing to do with sticking an arrow into the bull's-eye," he says. "It's all about practice--practicing taking the arrow out of the quiver, practicing notching the string. When you have worked at the process for years, the arrow hits the target naturally. Fishing, climbing, selling, it's all the same."

Chouinard can work himself into a lather of pessimism and rage at environmental abuses, yet he is personally content, and he has good reason. His Wyoming house, about a mile from where we are fishing, is one of his three residences. The other two are on the California coast. On a whim, he can board a plane to British Columbia in search of brown trout and steelheads. Having accumulated a fortune, "I do what I want to do," he says. He wishes the same for his employees, who often refer to his "Let my people go surfing" speech, in which he told them to live in the moment, "as long as the work gets done," and if the surf is up, surf.

Virtually free of company duties, he spends time with his wife Malinda and their two children. Malinda, a small and glowing woman imbued with cheer and curiosity, was his partner when they started out living under benches in their shop to save on rent. And she is his partner today in the good life, which is expensive but not lavish. The house at Jackson Hole is small, done in comfortable rustic sloppy. Chouinard seems a little ashamed of having so much, though he has less than he could have. He has no stocks, only a checking account. He admires the Native American potlatch ceremony, in which the host would give away everything he owned.

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