The Big Risk

7 Strategies for Quantum Leap Risk Taking

“Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices.
Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”
—KATHERINE MANSFIELD, British short-story writer

I invite you to watch this three-minute video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/8oH2me1GoQE

There was that one moment when I felt my entire body go into frozen horror. I was staring down 13,000 feet, and then I was hurtling out into space. The leap out of the plane may have been only two or three seconds, but in part of my brain I had experienced death.

I had toyed with the idea of skydiving for more than six years. I wanted to do a project on risk taking that would both teach the process of taking a risk and inspire people to take risks. I knew I would have to do something extraordinary, and whatever I chose must pit me against my own fear.

My inspiration came from the those who attended my seminars. I saw that most of them were reluctant to leave their personal comfort zone. They resisted taking risks. But I learned something from them. Only about one out of every ten said risk meant opportunity; to most it meant something dangerous, scary, or stupid. Yet the consensus was that most things worth having involved taking risk. It was an interesting paradox.

I figured that if I could demonstrate the nature of taking a risk, perhaps people could identify what risks they might take to enhance their lives and then develop a strategy for taking massive action. For the next four years I tried to promote the idea, hoping I could get outside financing for the project. There was mild interest, but no financial help.

I called a television producer friend of mine in Los Angeles and told her about the concept. She thought it was a terrific idea and agreed to check on costs and location. By the time she called me back, I had already decided to fund the project myself.

I had the first tingling of real fear on the flight to California. I have always been afraid of extreme heights. I focused on rehearsing the script. I visualized speaking into the camera. I pictured myself being brave and vulnerable. The more I thought about it, the worse it got.

The day began early at a skydiving school. I met the crew and we set up for the straight camera shots. I was to jump in tandem with one of the instructors. We would free-fall 7,000 feet before the parachute opened. But first I had to sign my name to four pages of release forms and read a prepared statement into a video camera absolving the school of any responsibility should I be maimed or killed. My nerves gave a little warning tick. We taped for five hours and took a lunch break. I watched ten jumpers, their parachutes explosions of color in the sky. It was beautiful. Some landed gracefully, and some did not. My knees began to ache.

Following lunch, the crew set up to record my twenty minutes of personal instruction. I put on a jumpsuit and a harness. I was instructed to watch the altimeter attached to my chest. When the needle reached 5,000, I was supposed to signal with a broad motion of my arms and pull the rip cord.
I felt something akin to excitement. Fear? I lay on my stomach in the grass with my arms spread wide, back arched and legs elevated, simulating the position I would assume in free fall. I decided it was definitely fear.

Instruction finished, the crew broke down the equipment and we began the trek to the plane. On the way I rehearsed the arm signal and the pulling of the rip cord.

Suddenly a police car raced out to the landing field. We all watched, and a fire engine joined the police car, followed by an ambulance.

I froze in my steps.

The instructor walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘‘Don’t worry,’’ he said. ‘‘One of the school’s cameramen landed wrong. He just hurt his leg. Nothing serious.’’ Why didn’t that console me?
The camera crew recorded me boarding the plane, followed by several seasoned skydivers. Eight of us lined up in a tight row on the floor of the plane like dominoes. I leaned back, resting my tense body against the person behind me, and the person in front of me did the same. I was cramped and uncomfortable.

There were three camera operators on the plane with us. Two would jump with me, and the third would record my reactions as I left the plane. The engines fired and we began to taxi down the runway. I felt extremely hot. One of the cameramen was perspiring so much he couldn’t see through the lens. Watching him trying to wipe the perspiration out of his eyes while juggling his huge camera made me even more miserable.

I felt sick to my stomach. A thought hit me like a thunderclap: What if I chicken out at the last minute?

‘‘You’re going to change your mind,’’ said some unidentified voice in my head. ‘‘That’s okay,’’ my mother’s voice said. ‘‘Better safe than sorry.’’ I saw all that planning and money going down the drain.
We made one pass over the field. My instructor shouted at me that we would jump on the second pass. I watched as the first two jumpers saddled up to the open door. The noise was deafening.
The first skydiver disappeared just like a magic trick.

Pull yourself together, I thought to myself. Another one disappeared and another and another. The door closed.

‘‘What are you feeling?’’ the cameraman asked.

I looked straight into the lens, searching frantically for an emotion. ‘‘Nothing.’’ ‘‘Three minutes. Let’s buckle up.’’ My instructor attached me to his harness and repeated the instructions about the rip cord. The door opened again. Air rushing. I looked into the camera again, searching for some feeling, and found it: terror. I turned away from the unblinking eye of the lens. We duck-waddled on our knees to the door.

‘‘On the count of three, lean out the door and fall forward,’’ the instructor yelled over the sound of rushing wind. ‘‘One.’’ He rocked me forward and backward. I felt faint. ‘‘Two.’’ I started to hyperventilate. ‘‘Three.’’ I fell forward into nothingness. I was convinced I had died.
After the first three or four seconds of feeling I had died, I realized that I was in free fall. I looked around. Unbelievable. The earth appeared as a quilt of brown patches. I looked at the altimeter: 9,000 feet. I looked out again. I was a sponge soaking in magic. The ground now appeared to be divided into symmetrical plots. I was flying. The camerawoman floated in front of me, smiling. ‘‘This is great!’’ I yelled at the top of my lungs and gave her a thumbs-up sign. My voice was lost in the rushing of the wind. I reminded myself to check the altimeter: 6,000, 5,000.

I gave the signal, reached blindly to my chest, and pulled the metal handle. We bounced up in the air.
The instructor screamed in my ear, ‘‘You did great! How do you feel?’’

Joy swept through me like a flush of warmth. We floated down, playing with the controls of the parachute. Turning, spinning. I felt dizzy. ‘‘I don’t want to do that,’’ I yelled. ‘‘I don’t want to spin.’’
We steered the chute straight ahead. Down below, I could see the camera crew running like a cluster of ants to the landing site. We closed in on the ground, pulling the handles of the chute just before we hit. I landed gently on my toes.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt light-headed and shaky. The camera moved in on me. Bubbling up from some primitive place, I let out a triumphant cry of victory.

‘‘How do you feel?’’ my instructor asked me again. Tears sprang to my eyes. I choked; I couldn’t talk. I tried again. Nothing. I turned away from the camera, exposed and raw.

In retrospect, I realize that I accomplished everything I intended and more. I never really believed I would get so much out of the experience. My goal of making the documentary on risk taking was accomplished, but the experience had far exceeded my goal.

It doesn’t matter how small or how great the risk may seem to others. The payoff, like mine, will more than likely exceed your greatest expectations.

“Take calculated risk. That is quite different from being rash.”
—GEORGE S. PATTON, American general

Saying ‘‘I love you,’’ ‘‘I’m sorry,’’ or ‘‘thank you,’’ or giving someone a hug are risks. Telling the truth or saying no, changing jobs, starting a new business, getting married, or getting out of a relationship that doesn’t work—those are risks, too.

SOMETIMES TAKING A RISK INVOLVES CHANGE.
SOMETIMES TAKING A RISK MEANS COMMITTING TO REMAIN IN YOUR PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCE.

Risk taking is a subjective experience. One person’s risk may be another’s hobby. Sometimes risk is forced on you. Your mate of twenty years suddenly demands a divorce, or your job is terminated after thirty years. Imposed risks are often perceived as negative.

We would prefer to choose our risks. A chosen risk may be to tackle a new job or enter a new relationship or opting to stay committed to a challenging job or relationship—a risk without major change.

It is vitally important to understand that how you perceive a risk, either imposed on you or chosen by you, can be the determining factor in whether it is an opportunity or a disappointment. By reframing your perspective of an imposed risk, you can turn it into an opportunity rather than a trap.
One thing is certain. Risk taking is the spice of life. Risk taking means growth and innovation. Taking risks is stretching to meet your potential.

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To dare is to lose one’s self.”
—SOREN KIERKEGAARD, Danish philosopher and theologian

Sir Laurence Olivier said that you could never be a great actor unless you were willing to make a total ass of yourself. The ultimate challenge is to risk the possibility of criticism. I put myself on the line to teach what I believe in, even if it does not match the opinions of the company who hired me. I must. How could people believe me otherwise?

“Risk takers are . . . extremely cautious people.
An extraordinary amount of intelligence goes into preparing for their activities.
They have analyzed every factor that can operate against them”.
—DR. BRUCE OGILVIE, sports psychologist

Here are seven steps to empower you to move beyond idea into action. While the steps to risk taking are like the steps for managing change, there are subtle differences.

1. Define What a Risk Is for You.
Before you rush out to take your own metaphorical skydive (change a relationship, invest your money, form a partnership or make a commitment, take a moment to consider what taking a risk means to you. No one else can define for you what you experience as dangerous. Give yourself credit for the smaller, demanding risks you have taken already and determine how any risk can enhance your life before jumping into a situation that may do more harm than good.
2. Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario.
This tip comes from NASA. Before taking a flight into space, astronauts are asked to imagine their worst fears. They repeat the process over and over. The more the astronaut imagines the worst, the more he or she desensitizes his or her mind. Astronauts who are not able to accept the worst-case scenario are not allowed to go into space.
By consciously asking yourself or others what’s the worst that can happen, you perform a reality check. Often the imagination will conjure up something far worse than reality.
3. Seek as Much Information About the Risk as Possible.
Risk takers prepare. They play out every possible outcome. They do their homework. The more you know about the risk, the better you can prepare. The more you prepare, the more confident you become. The more facts you have, the less chance for failure.
4. Talk to Others.
Ask people whose opinions you trust. Open yourself up to feedback but be cautious. We all tend to advise others about what to do and what not to do. Don’t let yourself be manipulated. The purpose of feedback is to allow you to see as many different points of view as possible before you make your own decision.
5. Create a Safety Net.
A safety net is anything that keeps you from feeling your choice is irreversible. Plan options to cover yourself if your risk does not work. You may wish to take a leave of absence as opposed to quitting your job, or you may arrange a trial separation instead of getting divorced.
6. Reframe the Outcome.
You can take one small step at a time; you don’t have to do it all at once. Focusing on the ideal-end result can increase the fear and cut off action.
This was evident to me when I started skiing. I got my ski legs on the beginner’s slope and then took a lift to one of the more advanced runs. I shuffled to the edge of the run and looked down to the bottom of what looked like the steepest mountain in the world. I panicked, took off my skis, and stumbled all the way down.

An instructor suggested we go back to the top, where he had me take one simple turn and stop. He then asked me to do another. And another and another. I gradually reached the bottom. We went back and did it again. That time I stopped
only three times, and on the next run only once. By changing my focus, I changed my performance.
7. Seek Support
Find people who have beliefs like yours. Seek out those who will hold you up when you need courage, people who genuinely care about your efforts, your growth, and your happiness. Support encourages you to live up to your highest potential.

I believe we are born risk takers. Think about it. How did you learn to walk or to ride a bike? We learned more and faster in the first five years of our lives because we had not yet been taught fear. The word impossible did not yet exist. We made mistake after mistake, shook them off, and gave it another try. Watch children to learn about taking risks.

Not taking risks is far more dangerous than taking them. Not taking risks accelerates the aging process. We feel helpless and hopeless, trapped in a world without choices. You can see it in the body and feel it in the soul.

But our lives can be daring adventures if we understand how to orchestrate risk taking, to articulate adventure. Adventure creates relationships and relationships give life meaning. Risk taking promotes vibrancy, energy, and good health. You learn and you grow. Your days become more rewarding, vital, and fulfilled. In your own way, you walk on fire.

James Mapes is a best-selling author, transformational coach, international speaker and award-winning performer.
For booking or product information: james@jamesmapes.com 203-261-1200

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