"Standing there on the edge, I was sick. It was so scary. Every cell in my body was screaming out in unison and individually. I thought if I can do it down on the ground, I can do it up high; it's a mental thing. What I didn't realize is it's 2 million years of evolution that you're fighting against."
Every time I saw a cute girl I wanted to approach, my heart would start pounding, I would start to sweat all over my body, the muscles in my chest and stomach would tighten, and my legs would begin to shake. I was terrified. And it happened all the time. Why? Because living in New York City, I would see gorgeous women everywhere - walking on the sidewalk, in parks, on public transportation, in bars and restaurants. It Wasn't Logical. - Eric Disco, webmaster of approachanxiety.com, referring to his past anxiety talking to women (note: to the best of my knowledge that is *not* eric disco in that picture.)
Two very different people, describing entirely different situations but describing the very same feeling- fear. Balcom's fear was pretty warranted; he trips, he dies. Disco's fear, however, was illogical. Worst case scenario: he trips over his words and the girl rolls her eyes and moves on. Trust me, he'll get over it. There are lots of single women in New York City. Still, his knowledge of that fact didn't help him one bit overcoming his fear. What's going on here?
Fear is is a deeply hardwired human emotion. I could cite loads of evolutionary psychologists, but I'd rather quote 50 Cent and Robert Greene in their book The 50th Law (the 50th law is fear nothing), since they put it so well:
In the beginning, fear was a basic, simple emotion for the human animal. We confronted something overwhelming -- the imminent threat of death in form of wars, plagues and natural disasters -- and we felt fear...Fear is the oldest and strongest emotion known to man, something deeply inscribed in our nervous system and subconscious...
Over time, however, something strange began to happen. The actual terrors that we faced began to lessen in intensity as we gained increasing control over our environment. But instead of our fears lessening as well, they began to multiply in number. We started to worry about our status in society -- whether people liked us, or how we fit into the group. We became anxious for our livelihoods, the future of our families and children, our personal heatlh, and the aging process. Instead of a simple, intense fear of something powerful and real, we developed a kind of generalized anxiety. It was as if the thousand of years of feeling fear in the face of nature could not go away- we had to find something at which to direct our anxiety, no matter how small or improbable.
On a recent plane ride, I watched a Channel 4 documentary called Daredevils, The Sky Walker about Dean Potter, a famous slackliner. A slackline is typically made of nylon. While it's a form of tight rope walking, it's very different than tight rope walking; instead of a steady and taught rope or wire, a slackline is very unsteady and dynamic, constantly interacting with your body and your current state of balance. Also, unlike tight rope walking, slackliners rarely use physical support like a balance bar. Highlining is extreme slacklining: slacklining long distances high above the ground. Dean Potter is a true trendsetter highliner.
Here's a picture of Potter walking a 100 foot long, 1-inch thick slackline at Taft Point in Yosemite Valley, about 1000 feet off the ground with NO SUPPORT. He falls, he dies. No question. Holy shit. (My heart sinks just looking at this picture.)
I was so in awe of his accomplishments that when I got home I digged deeper on these highliners. I realized there is much we can learn about life from these brave souls. In fact, I came to realize that life really is just one long slackline. I see no difference, except for the consequences of failing: in highlining if we fall, we die- but for most situations in our daily lives, if we fail, we only get stronger. This is a hopeful message: it means we can apply many of the lessons learned by highliners down here on the ground, without worrying about the same potentially dire consequences.
Here are 12 of those lessons.
1. Fear Can Be An Obstacle Or A Driving Force To Succeed: The Choice Is Yours
What drives highliners? It appears to be their desire to control their fears, the adrenaline rush of doing so, and the immense sense of satisfaction and accomplishment they feel when they get to the other side (the concrete measure that they overcame their fears).
The fundamental human drive to control fear can be just as strong as fear itself. For these brave highliners, their drive to overcome fear trumps their fear of action.
In Dean Potter's words:
"When I go out there untethered, the feelings that I slip I die totally overwhelms me. I am after the feeling of total control. I'm after that in all of life, and for now that's how I find it."
In Balcom's words:
"It is an incredible feeling getting to the other side. And stepping on the rock on the other side. It's a wonderful feeling of victory. The greatest feeling in the world."
According to 50 Cent and Robert Greene:
Fear creates its own self-fulfilling dynamic- as people give in to it, they lose energy and momentum. Their lack of confidence translates into inaction that lowers confidence levels further, on and on. If you view everything through the lens of fear, then you tend to stay in retreat mode. You can just as easily see a crisis or problem as a challenge, an opportunity to prove your mettle, the chance to strengthen and toughen yourself, or a call to collective action. By seeing it as a challenge, you will have converted this negative into a positive purely by a mental process that will result in positive action as well."
Fear can be a strong inhibitor or driving force for greatness; it is up to you to decide how fear is going to affect you.
2. Great Disability, Loneliness, and Isolation Can Be A Great Driving Force For Greatness
"I've always been somewhat of a loner. I seem to take more alone time that the average person." - Dean Potter
In addition to his feelings of isolation and loneliness, Potter experienced a great social disability growing up:
"Coming to these events is pretty much, ya know, one of my worse nightmares. We all have our special challenges. Some people might think it's the life threatening stuff. I've just always been terrified of having to speak in front of people. When I used to go in school and then I had to do a report in front of the class and speak, I would freeze up, sometimes i would even like tear up almost and start crying and stuff.. couldn't' deal. Other people learn these skills in maybe 6th grade and you know, I'm learning them at 36."
By "these events", Potter is talking about the convention he is attending, where he has to socially interact with people. To him, this fear is perhaps even greater than his fear of falling off a highline!
Perhaps his feelings of disability in the public speaking realm and his fear of social engagements is a major driving force for him control his fears.
3. We All Have a Draw
While the drive to succeed is deeply rooted into our genes, humans vary in terms of what compels them. There are many opportunities for each of us, every day, to overcome our fears in whatever domain we feel most compelled. For some, it's engagement in sports. For some, it's martial arts. For others, it's production of peer-reviewed journal articles. For still others, it's seducing women, playing a banjo, singing opera, jumping out of an airplane, or even climbing tall buildings (you must watch this video below).
Once you look around you, you realize just how deeply ingrained the desire to overcome fears and win at something is in people. The drive is present everywhere.
For Potter, he was always drawn to nature:
"Growing up I would always see the tight rope artists in magazines and on TV and it was always in my mind...Most of the time I grew up, I never really felt like I was fitting in. When my Dad retired, we moved back to New Hampshire where his family was from and there's a cliff next to the house and I was just drawn to the rocks. And then, when I went to Yosemite, I felt way comfortable in that environment....all the walls are just glowing there and this natural feeling inside me is that I want to climb those walls..."
Here are is a collection of some different ways Potter has described his compulsion:
"I'm in love with the rock- like moth to flame, I can't help myself...Something drew me to cross that line...I'm drawn towards these obsessive goals...I'm kinda helpless to the pull. I need to do it...I feel it so strongly. Needing to go towards that unknown, that fear and pushing those levels of control. It's as cool as it gets."
4. Predispositions Exist, But Abilities Grow
There is no doubt that Potter's pull to nature put him in just the right frame of mind to slackline. I believe that we are all born with a certain set of predispositions, that when activated by the proper environment, increases the chances that we'll find a particular domain comfortable and familiar and which enables us to learn faster than others in that domain (see Could Michael Jackson Have Created Twitter?).
The evidence suggests this idea also applies to Potter. Charles Victor "Chongo" Tucker III has been a mentor to many slackliners, over a span of 20 years. Like those he mentors, he too lives a reclusive lifestyle, sometimes even spending stretches of his time homeless.
Out of all the slackliners Chongo has mentored, he admits being shocked by how far Potter is willing to push the limits. In Chongo's words:
"I got to watch him the very time he ever tried it. And sure enough, he was a natural right off the bat. I was pretty amazed. I thought uh-oh, he's going to be able to do it. He's got the gift."
How well did Potter do the very first time he tried to walk a slackline (note: obviously, like most slackline beginners, he started on the ground)? Here's a conversation between Chongo and Potter:
Chongo: "Yea it's cool, I think you stood up on it the first time-like the third try or something like that...
Potter: No, I walked on it the very first time.
Clearly Potter, through a combination of genetic predispositions and early life experiences, was very well prepared to walk the line and it showed the very first time he attempted to do so. Even so, it would be misleading to think this means he was instantly capable of walking a 100 foot slackline high above the ground with no support:
"I remember first starting out, I could barely walk across a 20 foot highline and now i'm at a level where i can solo a 100 foot line. Makes me feel psyched."
There is no doubt Potter put an extremely intense amount of deliberate practice and dedication to his art. Even he admits just how obsessed he has been by his drive to overcome his fears.
5. Sometimes It Takes A Few False Starts Before You Can Enter Flow
"I always thought I'd go there and just strut across it. But then I went, set up the line and was uncontrollably brought down to sickness."
These are Potter's words, just before a big crossing.
Check out this video:
Around 2:15 is when Potter begins his walk, fully aware that underneath him is 2,600 feet of pure air. Note how hesitant he seems at first; his body language and attitude conveys this.
"I'm pretty terrified out there most of the time."
Scott Balkan describes the same feeling:
It takes a tremendous among of effort. And I'd step out a little bit and jump back. And I'd step out a little bit and jump back. And then I'd fall and catch the line. The 1 inch wide line that I'm so used to walking on the ground, it seems so wide to me, because I've walked narrower lines than that, when you get up high it feels of a sudden very small. And the nylon feels very weak, even though I know it's strong. You feel like your'e gonna die. Just having a pole seems like it would help. Just to be able to hold on to anything. I so badly wanted something to hold on to.
In the video, you see Potter has some false starts, sometimes slipping and luckily catching the line and literally hanging by a thread way high above rocks and water. You see him stop and start, stop and start. However, as he gets farther, he gets more confident:
"I'm not ever sure I'm making it or not, as I go further and further I get more and more confident."
Note that there is a point where he gets in the zone, and then it's clear sailing from there.
"I'm lucky I come into that zone and hold it. I'm focusing on my breathe and I'm really trying to stay calm and balance my way across the line...That's all that's really going on in my head. All i'm really thinking about is catching that fucking line. It's the only way I make it across."
The heightened state of awareness that enables Potter to get across the line is often referred to by psychologists as flow. This state is often crucial to success in many areas of our lives. The flow state of mind is a mindful state in which the inner critic is gone, there is no judgement or anticipation; just being. Potter has mentioned that he does a lot of meditation and soul-searching while on the ground, and that surely helps him when he is high above it:
"Slacklining is the closest I feel to human flying. When I'm out on the line, I'm pressing against the air, I can feel it. When i'm really in my most heightened states, I actually see the air a little bit. All of my senses come together, the clarity I feel for all the things close to me become way more attuned."
It is interesting that neither Potter nor Balcom described starting in flow. They had to have a few false starts first before they could reach a certain threshold and then flow from there. Perhaps the difference between those who succeed and those who fail in life may sometimes come down to those who are willing to keep pushing after their false starts and those who give up too soon.
6. A Change In Mindset Can Open Up A New World of Possibilities
It is so interesting to see the transformation from the hesitant Potter when he starts the walk to the tranquil, focused, and in control Potter once his brain and mind clicks into the flow state. Potter describes his change of mindset as he gains more experience:
"The idea, that I once had, that falling off the line was death, now falling is control, and that's a great thing to be able to change. Instead of dying, I'm flying...For me, a big door is opened. I'm seeing the world through different eyes."
This idea of the possibility of seeing the world through different eyes is echoed by 50 Cent and Robert Greene:
"We are the animal that cannot get rid of its fears and when so many of them lay inside us, these fears tend to color how we view the world. We shift from feeling fear because of some threat, to having a fearful attitude towards life itself. We come to see almost every event in terms or risk. We exaggerate the dangers and our vulnerability. We instantly focus on the adversity that is always possible. We are generally unaware of this phenomenon because we accept it as normal.
Sometimes you may just have to plug your way through something to gain the requisite experience. Then, that experience can cause a change in mindset that ripples through the environment and changes what is actually possible. You are literally seeing through different eyes.
7. You Are Your Own Worst Enemy
I've recently been reading a rather good book by Ken Christian called Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking The Habit of Adult Underachievement. The book describes ways people can get into their own way, through self defeating thoughts and behavior. Those principles equally apply to slacklining. Some more Potter quotes in this regard:
"It's just this mental game, you know...I made it happen. Nothing but my stripped down body blocking my path."
The idea of 'making it happen' is really important. Most of the things we are scared of doing in life can in fact be accomplished if we take control of the situation and make it happen. That is, if we act. Even baby steps count.
The late, famous extreme sport practitioner Dan Osman, who used to jump off mountains with just the support of a rope, would stand out of his own way by doing as little thinking as possible:
"The only thing I want to thing about before I step off is my body. So I do a triple check, from top to bottom, up and down one more time to make sure that everything is OK. Other than that, I don't wanna be thinking about anything else."
I like this technique a lot. Check to make sure you'll be OK if you fail, and then don't worry about the consequences and go for it.
8. Crazy Is Relative
Anytime you are as 'out there' as Potter, you will inevitably attract haters- people who don't approve of your unique vision, or who simply think you are crazy. Most of the time, haters are frustrated that you are overcoming your fears and accomplishing the very things they are too scared to go for themselves.
It's important to remember: Crazy is relative. In a room full of people who all think in exactly the same way, no one in particular is going to be considered crazier than the next.
Potter puts this in perspective:
"There are probably people who think I'm crazy for doing what I'm doing and they're probably right. Compared to them, compared to the way they think and feel and are so bound by norms then I am crazy, but insane or enlightened, it's all pretty close. I would say it's just how you look at it."
9. Keep Pushing Your Limits
Even within the extreme sports domain, Potter still stands out as one of the more 'out there' ones.
What sets Dean apart from other slackliners is not only his talent but also his attitude and spirit for pushing his limits (an attitude some do say is mad!). He is constantly pushing his own limits, and in the process redefining what is possible for others. In the beginning of the BBC documentary that I saw, the narrator notes that Potter has built up a reputation for doing things others wouldn't even dream of.
Referring to Potter, Balcom notes (with what I detect is a tinge of jealousy in his eyes but which Balcom tells me is his conflict with advocating such extreme, risky behavior):
"He does things people haven't done, and that expands the human experience for everyone. Those who push the boundaries will eventually find them. Dean has been pushing those boundaries for a long time and he's still alive."
Even Chongo is shocked by how far Potter is willing to go:
"I used to think there is a limit on how far you can go, and surely there is, but I didn't think it was all that far."
Potter himself notes:
"I wish I could find that heightened awareness without risking my life, but right now it's the only way I know how...doing these things, and walking across the lines, and breaking barriers, each time it's pushing myself beyond where I've gone."
10. Know Your Current Limits
It's a fine line between madness and genius. One reason no doubt why Potter is still alive today after being so daring is because he has at least one foot in reality. While he is constantly pushing his limits, he does know his current limits. When his fear is too great, and the consequences are too big, he isn't completely foolish. For instance, there a period in which Potter was heartbroken from breaking up with his wife. He spent some time where he was not in the right frame of mind for highlining. The fear didn't drive him like it once had. Until the drive came back, he took a brief hiatus.
It's prior experience with overcoming different gradations of fear that allows us to anticipate the extent to which fear will hold us back in the future. Through overcoming a series of baby steps, Potter was so in touch with his fear that he knew when to make the call whether it could get the best of him. At this point in his career, he can no doubt tell the difference between the "I'm totally psyched to take control" kind of fear and the "I really don't feel good about this" kind of fear. I imagine a big warning sign for Potter is self-doubt. If there is too much self-doubt, he probably won't be able to cross the line successfully. This is because our mind partly dictates what is possible (see number six). Potter's conscious mind and his subconscious fears are constantly in communication with each other; they are one with each other.
The importance of watching your fears was recently mentioned by PT Blogger Jeff Wise in his article "Are You Brave Enough to Watch Your Fear?". Wise refers to Alec Wilkinson's New Yorker piece about about Swedish Explorer S.A. Andree who attempted to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon with two other explorers in 1897. The trip ended in tragedy, as Andree was not aware just how strong his fear would be until he was up in the air and it was too late.
What we admire so much about extreme sport practioners is their willingness to constantly test their limits and push boundaries. Unfortunately, limits do exist, and some may bump right up against them, facing their mortality in the process.
As a precautionary tale, take Potter's friend Dan Osman. Dan Osman holds the Guiness Book of World Records for jumping off a 1000+ foot cliff just before being caught by a safety rope (an extreme sport activity referred to as 'rope jumping') . He is also known for climbing mountains without ropes or other safety gear (referred to as 'free-soloing').
Like Potter, Osman lived a reclusive lifestyle. He loved nature, rarely worked, and was known to live in a tree house for months at a time.
However, even Osman pushed right up against his limits- exhaustion. After a series of rope jumps off a cliff, he decided, due to exhaustion, to leave the 100's of pounds of ropes, anchors, and pulleys in place and return later to retrieve them. According to the narrator of a video I saw about Osman's last jump (http://fliiby.com/file/344286/k5bmml5ont.html), Osman may have sensed that even he couldn't continue to cheat death. In Osman's words:
"I've really been going at a high rate, basically Mach speed for the past several years doing this rope flying stuff and a little relaxation time, and give my guardian angels a little time off because they've been doing a heck of a job."
Osman, returning three weeks later to retrieve the equipment, still felt compelled to jump. At the age of 35, he attempted a "controlled free-fall" jump from the Leaning Tower rock formation in Yosemite National Park, despite a warning from his friend:
"One of the last things I said to Dan on that last day I saw him was 'that's enough. park it. put your toys away, give it a rest, spend some time with your daughter. enjoy your life.'"
Compelled to jump, he did. The rope snapped; some think it was weathered by the weather. He screamed and then a thump. The jump would turn out to be his last.
Sometimes it's important to listen to what others have to say, as well as being attune to your own bodily needs. Osman sensed he was going at Mach speed, and may have sensed that even he was testing his limits, but he still persevered. Indeed, testing such limits is most likely precisely what gives him such a thrill in life.
Nevertheless, God Bless Osman for constantly testing the limits of the human experience for all of us.
There was a startling similarity between Osman and Potter though, and that was their incredibly strong will to live. They both loved life, indeed, slacklining allowed them to feel most alive.
According to Potter:
"Doing things with serious consequence, death, mangling myself, puts myself in the hyper aware state, has became somewhat of an addiction for me."
In the words of Osman's friend referring to Osman:
"People always used to ask him if he had a death wish and his most common response was 'no!' he had a life wish and it was just pushing the edge of life and finding out what happens there, at the edge of life and death, the edge of fear and joy."
11. Inner Peace Comes From Overcoming Fear
After all these years, it seems like Potter feels less of a compulsion to prove himself to others. During the end of the BBC documentary, he seems tranquil when he says:
"I feel like I climbed out of a darker place...My main focus in life now is being happy everyday and not needing to do these big achievements or prove myself to be happy and that's what it's taken all my life so far...Something about me still has this will to live that is way stronger than anything else and that's pretty much my highest energy is you know, stay alive."
Interestingly, it seems as though Potter's constant attempts to prove himself have mellowed, and he has reached a mental state more conducive to inner peace, happiness and fulfillment. I presume it has been his many successes controlling his fears that has resulted in his lower drive to constantly prove himself.
12. The Key to Life is Balance
It probably goes without saying, but balance is not only the key to walking a highline, but so it is the key to dealing with any of the many possible harsh conditions life throws at us. Knowing your current limits doesn't mean that you can't eventually push beyond those limits. It's the cycle- from (somewhat) sensible risk-taking, to listening to feedback, to self-improvement and transformation back to (somewhat) sensible risk-taking again that is the cycle of life. Life is one long slackline.
So How *Do* We Overcome Our Fears?
The simple answer is: ACT WITH THE FEAR. This may be the single most important lesson we can learn from the highliners. PT Blogger Wayne "Juggler" Elise notes in his blog post How to Deal with Approach Anxiety:
OK, now I'm going to tell you what I think you ought to do about approach anxiety. Nothing. That's right. Nothing. The problem is not the anxiety. The problem is the lack of action...don't look for a way to magically reduce your fear. Instead, I want you to do something revolutionary that most "experts" would never recommend. I want you to suck it up and go talk to that hot guy or girl anyway. See the hottie, feel the fear, go approach anyway, act nervous and stupid, be rejected (maybe), chalk a victory up to action, become better at tackling a fear.
Remember, for most of the things we do down here on the ground, there are no dire consequences for just acting. This point is really important. Times have changed since our distant ancestors.
I'll leave the last word to 50 Cent and Robert Greene, whose insights have greatly influenced my thinking:
"Understand: we are all too afraid - of offending people, of stirring up conflict, of standing out from the crowd, of taking bold action. For thousands of years our relationship to this emotion has evolved -- from a primitive fear of nature, to generalized anxiety about the future, to the fearful attitude that now dominates us. As rational, productive adults we are called upon to finally overcome this downward trend and to evolve beyond our fears."
© 2010 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved