Nik Wallenda was a little more than halfway across the 1,400-foot tightrope he had rigged across the Grand Canyon when he felt his balance falter and the cable bounce. He crouched to sit a moment, hoping to steady both himself and the wire. The breathtaking stunt was being broadcast live [with a 10-second delay, for obvious reasons] by the Discovery Channel. With no harness or safety net, sheer grit was the only thing keeping Wallenda from plunging 1,500 feet to the canyon floor as the world watched. “It was just getting really, really uncomfortable,” he told interviewers afterwards. “I didn’t know if I wanted to get up at all, I just wanted to sit there and call out for Mommy.”
Wallenda’s feat—one of his seven world records—made us think about the purpose of the safety nets we so routinely seek in our everyday lives. Are they coaxing us forward, offering us the protection we need, or holding us back? So we asked Wallenda, a 37-year-old father of three, for his take on safety nets, and he graciously shared with us the wisdom gleaned from a legendary seven-generation family of high-wire artists. “Our minds are extremely powerful,” he told us. “You can learn to control what comes in, and filter out the negative. Fear is negative. You can either be overtaken by it, or you can overcome it.”
Performing without a safety net, to Wallenda, is more of an assertion that he is in control than a scary reminder of what could happen should he lose it. It’s not that he has a false sense of security, or a cavalier attitude toward risk. But we found that what Wallenda does applies just as much to those of us who prefer to view the Grand Canyon by tour bus—a grit mindset that can help us conquer the comparatively mundane risks each of us face in our lives. It comes down to becoming, in essence, your own first responder: identifying worst-case scenarios ahead of time, then training yourself what to do if and when they occur. Should that moment arrive, you will have the training—and the confidence—to calmly respond, rather than hastily react. This is where guts, resilience, initiative and tenacity truly payoff.
All it takes is mindfulness—an ability to zoom in on the problem at hand.
“Some are born with grit, and it comes easier,” Wallenda allowed. But, he went on, “we are all growing, all the time. You can gain more and more of it, or you can also lose it if you don’t practise it. Scary is not in my vocabulary. Fear is really just a deep respect. I clearly remember the first time I grasped this: I was six or seven years old and sitting on my father’s shoulders while he was riding a bicycle across the wire. I had been around wild animals in the circus all my life—elephants, tigers, chimpanzees—but I was never afraid of them. I was raised to respect them, knowing they could kill me. On top of my father’s shoulders that day, even though I knew it was something my dad could do in his sleep, I still felt this jolt. I understood that I could either sit there and shake and tremble, or tell myself to be calm and collected. I chose not to be scared. I realised that I’m in control of my mind—my mind is not in control of me.”
Although performing on the high wire has long since become second nature to Wallenda, he continues to respect what could hurt him. That keen awareness and respect, in turn, has taught him to prepare for the worst so he can do his best. He and his team spent five years studying terrain and conditions in the Grand Canyon before undertaking the stunt described at the beginning of the article. While there was no way to predict how much fine desert dust might settle on his two-inch-wide cable the day of his walk, or how powerful the upward drafts of hot air from the canyon floor might get. Wallenda prepared himself for those conditions and rehearsed manoeuvres he could do in response. Before the Grand Canyon walk, he practised for hours every day in his Florida backyard, using wind machines to create 91-mph gusts—stronger than any ever recorded in the canyon itself.
When Tropical Storm Andrea slammed ashore in Florida a week before Wallenda’s historic walk, he seized the opportunity to experience the unpredictability of the fierce storm by practising on a 35-foot high wire in the wind and rain. When the momentous day came and Wallenda found himself making his way across the gorge and feeling the wire bounce beneath his slippered feet, he reminded himself: You trained for 90-miles-per-hour winds, even though they never get above 60 here. You prepared for this; you know what to do. As he neared the other side, Wallenda broke into a sprint, and nimbly leapt back onto solid ground, before going home to ponder what challenge to take on next.
When confidence becomes a muscle memory, panic is replaced by peak performance.
Don’t fear disasters, plan for them
Flight attendants are trained to evacuate a jumbo jet filled with passengers in 90 seconds or less [in the United States, it’s a federal requirement]. Airlines and training academies drill trainees over and over again using realistic mock cabins and simulated emergencies, such as a crash or fire.
Lee Yoon-Hye put her training to the test on 6th July 2013, when Asiana Flight 214 hit a seawall on approach to San Francisco International Airport, broke apart, then cartwheeled down the runway and burst into flames when the jet’s fuel ignited. You might remember seeing news images of Lee: the petite 40-year-old cabin manager from Seoul, South Korea, could be spotted carrying passengers to safety on her back. What you didn’t see was the phenomenal grit she displayed inside the Boeing 777 cabin, where an emergency slide had deployed within the wreckage, trapping terrified passengers. Lee grabbed an axe so that a co-pilot could puncture the slide. Seeing flames erupting in the back, she tossed a fire extinguisher to another crew member as she began herding passengers to safety. All but three of the 307 people aboard the plane survived. And not surprisingly, Lee was the last one off. The San Francisco fire chief hailed her as a hero; doctors later discovered Lee had been assisting the evacuation with a fractured tailbone.
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