In Support of Dangerous Activities.
Why extreme life experiences pay dividends in a bubble-wrapped world.
Later today I have an very important meeting; I’m pitching my company to a boardroom full silicon valley’s venture capitalists. The folks that typically scare a founder into forgetting his or her company’s business plan, even forgetting the company’s name. All their hard work and they freeze up like a deer in a car’s headlights. And it’s because they’re so worried about the outcome if it doesn't go well. On a scale from 1 to 10 of nervousness, worry or fear they would tell you they were at 11 or higher.
But I’m not nervous.
Why? I've been nervous, truly nervous. I've stood on a 30 degree slope of ice, where one slip means certain death over the edge of a glacier, in nearly the same spot these six climbers died this year — one year to the day since I did the climb. It was also -10 degrees, 30 mph winds and I had 40 pounds of gear on my back sloshing around with each step. Oh, and so blindingly bright I had glasses on that look more like horse blinders. That was my ‘11' on the 1–10 nervous scale. That instant is captured in the photo behind these words.
And I’m not worried, either.
Why? I’ve been worried, truly worried. After placing an IV in my neck because he ran out of veins on my wrists & elbows, I’ve had a doctor tell me he has to fuse my elbow together (forever) so he can repair the damage from breaking my arm in 12 places — including the internal bleeding that had my arm swollen up about as large as my thigh. Needless to say, being told you won’t have a functional arm creates a fair amount of worrying for what challenges lie ahead for the rest of my life. That was my ‘11' on the 1–10 worry scale. [aside: after a few surgeries and physical therapy I’m all fine now. I call my 10" long parallel scars my ‘racing stripes’].
Why you need these experiences
Confidence comes from the belief that you will get a desirable outcome from a situation — maybe not ideal, but desirable. You reinforce this belief through past experiences of desirable outcomes happening again and again. I didn't slide off the glacier, I didn't lose my arm. Despite the fear, nervousness and There are countless other examples in my life where risky experiences ended up just fine. The confidence gained by continually having desirable outcomes from these extreme experiences enables you to fearlessly tackle any corporate situation.
Who has already figured this out
Military Special Forces — They train with live bullets specifically because it makes soldiers afraid. This helps soldiers adjust their 1–10 scale of what being afraid really means, so in a live fire scenario those soldiers aren't operating outside of the bounds of what they've already experienced — they’re operating in a realm where they've previously operated, and have confidence that they can handle this level of fear.
Franklin Roosevelt — His inauguration happened during a bank panic, he worked through the aftermath of the great depression, saw Pearl Harbor happen and declared war twice, and stayed on as President through most of WW2. He did all this while having polio, and later congestive heart failure. His definition of being worried far exceeds anything most of us can comprehend. Yet his most famous quote summarizes how he leveraged his new 1–10 scale of fear to rally the country, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR understood the value of his experiences and tried to convey that to the US during tough times.
You. As a child, how many of us rode our bikes without touching the handlebars? We did it to experience a little fear, to give us the confidence to later stroll down the street with an ice cream cone in one hand, and another hand on the handlebars. Somewhere along the road to being adults we stopped pushing ourselves to experience fear, and now we’re all afraid of even mundane things, or worse — making up things to be afraid of (see: vaccines & ADD).
How to push your envelope
Well, you can go sign up to dive with sharks as I did. Here’s the link.
In a few minutes of searching, you can find skydiving, scuba diving, horseback riding and fencing classes. Once you move past those, dive in a cave, become a pilot, climb a mountain or take your car to a racetrack.
Still want more? Climb Everest, train to become a MMA fighter, join the military. It’s no surprise soldiers talking about their war experiences aren't nervous about a camera in their face, or the audience behind the camera.
How to leverage these experiences
My ‘10' on a 1–10 scale of nervousness is likely very different than that of a person whom hasn't experienced I-could-die levels of nervousness. The consequences of this are profound: When we both go in to a meeting together, or compete for the same job, I’m going to be more calm, focused and self-confident. That empowers me to be more focused on my goals of delivering a compelling talk, correctly solving the algorithm question or handling a tough question from a veteran VC on cap table structure. It’s a positive feedback mechanism for you: going in calm, collected and confident improves your chances of success, feeding into the next meeting, public speaking engagement or panel discussion.