Mortenson discovers his life purpose as a result of getting lost, and throughout the story there are many points where Mortenson, despite having taken a wrong turn, ends up in the right place after all. He is disappointed, for example, that he will not reach the summit of K2, but that failure leads him to the village of Korphe, where he realizes that building a school would be a better monument to his sister than placing her necklace at the top of the mountain and where his mission as a humanitarian begins. In another fortunate coincidence, when Changazi hides the stored building materials, Mortenson happens to meet Ghulam Parvi, who becomes one of the CAI’s most important workers. Later, as a result of the religious proclamation against him that might have ended his efforts in Baltistan, Mortenson gains the support of Syed Assam. Again and again, obstacles turn into opportunities, and Mortenson often succeeds not in spite of his mistakes, but often because of them.
From the beginning, Mortenson instinctively recognizes that education is the key to positive change. For instance, girls like Jahan, Tahira, and Shakeela who might have played limited roles in their communities without education ultimately become catalysts for change in their villages after going to CAI schools. They improve medical care, teach other women, and change attitudes towards women as they gain respect. Educated girls, we learn, are more likely than the educated boys—who tend to leave for the cities to find work—to remain near their homes, thus they share the advantages of their education with those around them. Consequently, the reader comes to understand that education for girls is a powerful and cost-effective tool for improving the social and economic conditions for everyone in rural areas. Mortenson also recognizes that education may be the best way to counter the spread of terrorism and violent strains of Islam. When Mortenson sees that ultra-conservative Muslims are building more and more madrassas that offer a free education for boys but also direct them toward militancy, he realizes the best way to counter the trend is by providing a free, more liberal education as an alternative. By showing young boys that violence is not their only option for escaping poverty, Mortenson believes they will be less likely to turn toward terrorism.
Mortenson’s genuine interest in understanding other cultures aids tremendously in his success. Growing up in Africa, Mortenson learned to regard foreign cultures as the equals of his own. When he first comes to Korphe, he wants to participate in the lives of the villagers. As he returns again and again, he strives to become part of the community. He learns about Islamic prayer not only to fit in better but also to gain an understanding of the people and their spiritual lives. Although he often becomes impatient and tries at first to force events that he feels aren’t happening quickly enough, Haji Ali teaches him that he must respect the ways of the Balti people if he wants their cooperation. As Mortenson becomes more engaged in humanitarian projects, he continues to build bridges between cultures. After 9/11, he urges Americans to combat terrorism through understanding and cooperation rather than warfare.