STORY INLINE POST
At the end of 2021, I had a goal: to get better at something that would improve myself as a leader. Combing through articles, lists and unlimited Coursera curriculums and Ivy League online programs, I wasn’t feeling excited at all. All of those, although clearly useful and well made, were lacking something; they were all limited to the theoretical realm, and as I have learned through the years, theory has very little to do with actually doing something. I needed to get practical. The Greek philosopher Epictetus, in typical Stoic fashion, warned his students not to confuse academic learning with wisdom, or to waste too much time on abstract, academic topics. Action trumps theory every time.
What practical skill could have the most impact on me? Looking back on my life, I could trace one thing in common among my biggest moments of growth, which was some kind of “leap” into the unknown ... and fear.
Fear, I realized, is the ultimate foe. It is on almost every corner, especially with the new and the unknown. Human software relies on fear as a primal survival tool. For our species, the unknown has meant death more often than not. Straying away from the pack, embarking on a quest with no clear path or destination, evokes in us our most primal instincts – don’t do it, your brain says. Uncertainty means death. Now, if fear comes from uncertainty, uncertainty comes from feeling uncomfortable. To get better at fear, I needed to get better at being uncomfortable.
The most uncomfortable situation I could think of? Jumping out of a plane.
Getting better at something means gaining actual skills, not doing something once and checking it off the bucket list. It means putting in time and effort and having something to show for it. For the lesson to really stick, to be able to access it in the future, it meant not skydiving once or twice, or as a strapped passenger, but by myself. The only way you can skydive by yourself legally is to have a license, the most accredited one being a USPA License (U.S. Parachute Association).
The starting base for that meant a License type “A,” with 25 (solo) jumps and 18 levels to pass to be accredited. The thought of doing not one, but 25 jumps by myself scared me out of my mind; it made my gut literally clog up in fear. But I gathered the exact criteria I was looking for: new + very uncomfortable, commitment, effort and time. It was also a certification.
Stoics saw the myth of Hercules as an allegory about the virtues of courage. As Epictetus also asked his students: “What do you think Hercules would have amounted to if there had not been monsters such as the Nemean lion, the hydra, the stag of Artemis, the Erymanthian boar, and all those unjust and bestial men for him to contend with? Why, if he had sat at home, wrapped up asleep in bedsheets, living in luxury and ease, he would have been no Hercules at all!”
Mythology, myth, and religion have left us clues for thousands of years, converging on a single message. Fortune favors the brave. Being brave is being afraid, being uncomfortable, but endeavoring anyway. We can also take similar lessons from the animal kingdom, where a lot of times growth is equated with danger. My favorite example: the lobster.
Lobsters are soft, mushy animals that live in a hard shell that doesn’t expand. As the lobster grows that shell becomes very confining and starts to put it under pressure. The only way for the lobster to continue to grow is to let go of the shell – its armor – and render itself completely vulnerable without the ability to grow another one. The most uncomfortable moment for the lobster is when letting go of protection. At the same time, it is the only way to grow. If it doesn’t let go, it stays stagnant.
A stoic lobster.
I wanted to be a lobster. To teach myself to be calm during the storm and allow growth constantly. In physical exercise, resistance is a way to make the body stronger, and it is the same with the mind.
Fast forward to February 2022, after months of studying and skydiving, I’m already at 50 jumps, fully licensed before 2021 ended. You never stop being afraid of willingly exiting a plane at 12,500 feet and diving at 250km/h toward the ground hoping that a piece of fancy cloth saves your life, but it was a mission accomplished. An experience of power. I was now comfortable doing something extremely uncomfortable and, therefore, I was better at being uncomfortable – I am better at fear. The best thing is I now can access it whenever I want. A recurrent dose for keeping my fear in check. A new universal and powerful skill: a Harvard online course on X wasn’t going to do that. In the future, when faced with any challenge, like a business decision, the odds of me getting overwhelmed are much less.
Once you understand that your brain is an (amazing) piece of hardware, that provides you with information but that it’s not actually you, and you can listen to it or not, you acquire a veil between your thoughts and your reactions. At my very first solo jump, my brain was screaming tons of information at me about why what I was doing made no sense. “Don’t do it.” Sweating, heavy breathing, all the wrong scenarios in my head. Pure fear. But I was invested, I was doing it and not even my very brain was getting in the way. Exercising personal power is being able to look at the uncertainty, the fear, and the data from your brain trying to protect you from failure/the unknown/death and doing it anyway.
For most entrepreneurs, this might resonate. Being vulnerable enough to do something for the first time, to fail, to fall on your face, is the only way to grow, and with growth, comes fulfillment, happiness. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but the fact that you had the guts to jump is a skill that will forever be in your favor. It is the worthiest investment in my book. All the failure, rejection, all the fear, doesn’t even pail to the thrill of the jump.
“The Cave you fear holds the treasure you seek” – Joseph Campbell