Compassion, empathy, and impulsiveness define the character of Greg Mortenson, the book’s protagonist. When the reader initially meets Mortenson, for instance, he works as a nurse and cares lovingly for his sister. At the same time, he has few commitments and spends much of his time and money pursuing adventure. Mortenson’s compassion and easy-going, unstructured lifestyle actually work together in pushing him into humanitarian work. Notably, Mortenson never sets out to become a humanitarian. He begins his humanitarian career almost accidentally, when a climbing trip goes wrong and he ends up in the care of the village of Korphe. Seeing children trying to learn by writing in the dirt, Mortenson promises the villagers that he will return and build them a school. From there, his compassion leads him to expand his school-building project to nearby areas that also need better education. Mortenson’s empathy then helps him to learn the cultures and behaviors of rural Pakistan, allowing him to work easily with the local residents and village leaders in constructing and staffing his schools. His way of living lets him adapt comfortably to the harsh conditions of the Pakistani mountains and lets him commit to projects in distant Pakistan when his family resides in the U.S., and when he does not always know where his next paycheck will come from.
Mortenson’s preference for acting before considering all the consequences is, alternately, a great benefit and a hindrance for him and those he works with. He doesn’t stop to wonder how difficult it will be to construct a school in the mountains of Pakistan, for example, and if he had he might have realized the considerable difficulties of the project and decided it was impossible. In this instance, his impulsiveness may have been necessary for him to take on the project at all. On the other hand, the construction of the school might have gone much more smoothly had he actually stopped and considered the difficulties involved. Mortenson’s impulsiveness nearly has lethal consequences when he takes off for Waziristan without first making contact with anyone in the region. The Taliban kidnaps him and holds him for just over a week. In fact, the greatest lesson Mortenson learns over the course of the book is to spend time building relationships with others rather than rushing ahead on his own.