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.
“We followed our training,” she modestly told reporters afterward. “I wasn’t really thinking, but my body just started carrying out the steps needed for an evacuation.”
The fear and trepidation most of us face in our daily lives falls far short of having to save trapped passengers in a burning plane or potentially free-falling to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Yet we routinely rig our lives with the kinds of safety nets that would suggest otherwise. If you wait to act in a situation until it’s risk-free before venturing a toe out onto your own proverbial high wire, what you’re really risking is a lifetime frozen at the starting line.
A woman creates a multimillion-dollar business she started online in her dorm room, while her ex-boyfriend shows up at the class reunion with a job he hates and vague proclamations about waiting to get all of his ducks in a row. Sound familiar? Perhaps you fantasise about taking salsa lessons but refuse to sign up until you lose 12 kilos because you want to look good. Or you’re heartsick over your town’s plans to level a small old-growth forest for a strip mall, but can’t summon the time, energy, and political savvy to fight it. Rolling over is a lot less painful than falling on one’s face.
Too often, our typical default setting is to fear disaster, rather than actually plan for it. And that, Nik Wallenda tells us, is the true catastrophe.
“It’s easier to settle for what’s comfortable than to push on and excel,” he explains. Too often, we live life avoiding what we fear, a hundred times a day. And what we fear often comes down to failure or rejection.
If you wait to act in a situation until it’s risk-free before venturing a toe out onto your own proverbial high wire, what you’re really risking is a lifetime frozen at the starting line
When hypnotist Jason Comely invented an online game called Rejection Therapy a few years ago, one of his stated objectives was to teach people “to be more aware of how irrational social fears control and restrict our lives.”
The game had only one rule: You must be rejected by someone every single day. In fact, rejection equalled success in the game. If your target didn’t reject you, and instead granted your request, it counted as a failure because you evidently didn’t ask for enough.
Chinese immigrant Jia Jiang came across the challenge after quitting his tech job in Austin, Texas, to devote six months to pursuing the dream he had hungered for ever since Bill Gates had spoken to his high school in Beijing: to become an entrepreneur. Four months into his six-month sabbatical, though, Jiang looked down at his vibrating phone in a restaurant to see a devastating text message from the major investor he thought he had on the hook to finance his start-up: No, was all it said. Jiang excused himself to go outside and cry.
“My choices were rejection or regret, and both stunk,” Jiang recalled in a TEDx talk that has since made him a YouTube sensation. Jiang considered cutting his losses and going back to a “real” job two months early. “But in the end, I chose rejection and kept going, and the world was never the same again.”
Intrigued by Comely’s game, Jiang decided to desensitise himself to the pain of rejection by challenging himself to endure one hundred days of rejection, and record it on a hidden camera for his video blog. He immediately began racking up points. Costco refused to let him talk to its customers over the store intercom. A stranger declined to loan him a hundred bucks. FedEx wouldn’t send a box to Santa at the North Pole. “But then a funny thing happened,” Jiang reported. “I started getting yeses.” He knocked on a stranger’s door and was granted permission to play soccer in the family’s backyard. A guard let him dance Gangnam-style on the building’s security camera.
Then there was the time Jiang walked into a random company and asked to speak to the CEO. “Why?” the receptionist wanted to know.
“Because I’m going to challenge him to a staring contest,” came the reply. And he was invited in to see the CEO.
[The CEO turned out to be a her, and she won.]
Rejection, Jiang discovered, had turned him into “a better communicator, a better negotiator.” And the customary sting he had experienced upon being rejected had been replaced by a feeling of liberation that he found exhilarating, pushing him to take ever-greater risks.
When Jiang strolled into a Krispy Kreme shop to request doughnuts customised to resemble the Olympics logo, an obliging employee said she’d see what she could do, then returned shortly to proudly display her creation—a box of five-interlocked doughnut rings in the Olympic colours. “It’s on me, get out,” she said with a grin when Jiang asked what he owed. Jiang’s hidden-camera video of that encounter drew so many viewers on YouTube that the media took note, and the rejected Jiang became a star.
His experiment, Jiang told his TED audience, “taught me to see rejection eye to eye and remain calm, and see it as what it is. It’s not this monster bag of hurt that I thought. It’s not some universal truth about who I am. It’s just someone’s opinion, and it says as much about that person as it does about me.”
There’s a big difference, Jiang pointed out, between remorse over not having done something, and rejection. Rejection is getting shot down and surviving; remorse is never taking flight in the first place.
He has yet to hear back on his hundredth request—an interview with President Obama—but Jiang did score a yes he never foresaw the night he received the text message that had crushed his dreams: he landed a deal to publish a book about the power of rejection.
Facing constant rejection can be devastating. But it can also be the impetus you need to work harder than you ever thought possible.
The customary sting he had experienced upon being rejected had been replaced by a feeling of liberation that he found exhilarating, pushing him to take ever-greater risks
Draw on your inner resources
Selling a cartoon to The New Yorker magazine takes a Herculean amount of diligence, dedication, stamina and grit. When Bob Mankoff first started out as a cartoonist, he submitted thousands of entries to The New Yorker before one was finally accepted for publication. Almost 30 years later, after penning some 950 New Yorker drawings, Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the magazine. He and his team laboriously sift through as many as two thousand entries a week, knowing that only 17 or 18 of them will make the cut. And many of the submissions are from regulars, talented artists who face an acceptance rate of only 10 per cent.
Yet they refuse to give up, drawing on a reservoir of creativity and wit that seems to be limitless. Mankoff believes their creativity is actually fuelled by The New Yorker’s low acceptance rate; like a gambler’s high, the artist never knows when, and which, of his drawings will be a winner. “Every so often,” Mankoff told us, “you will get that jolt of positive reinforcement to fuel your resilience.”
It is often exactly the motivation artists need to reach deeper into their creative imagination and spur their sense of grit.
Go with your guts
The hypercompetitive tech industry, with its take-no-prisoners culture, seems to breed a lot of introspection about grit. As a female engineer in the testosterone-driven Silicon Valley, senior Google manager Sabrina Farmer frequently battled self-doubt and harsh self-criticism. She realised that questioning or downplaying her capabilities had become second nature. When an acquaintance mentioned plans to run a triathlon, Farmer instantly responded, “Oh, I could never do that!” Later, she found herself wondering: Why not? What made me say that? She summoned the grit to sign up for the race, train and compete, then went on to run a marathon. It wasn’t, she confessed later, something she particularly enjoyed, but the insight it gave her was well worth the effort and agony. She realised that her habit of belittling herself served as an air cushion from failure’s hard falls. But that emotional safety mechanism was also holding her back.
Farmer attributed her tentativeness to what psychologists call “impostor syndrome.” In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Valerie Young writes that people with impostor syndrome tend to dismiss their accomplishments and abilities “as merely a matter of luck, timing, outside help, charm—even computer error… that they’ve somehow managed to slip through the system undetected, in their mind it’s just a matter of time before they’re found out.” And it strikes successful women more than any other group. It’s what prompted actress Jodie Foster to confess on 60 Minutes that she thought her Academy Award was “a fluke” and that “everybody would find out, and they’d take the Oscar back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me, we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep.’’’
Now, when Sabrina finds herself clinging to the safety net of self-doubt, she stops to ask herself three questions:
- What is the problem?
- What’s the worst that can happen?
- Is the worst-case scenario real, or just my perspective [an emotional response]?
She then pinpoints what it would take to fix the problem at hand. If it’s a tool or skill she doesn’t have, she figures out how to obtain it. Using this approach makes taking on something unfamiliar a challenge to solve instead of a humiliating failure waiting to happen.
Linda’s favourite impostor story was of the time she almost got her bough of holly decked one Christmas when she jingled the wrong bell. A struggling actor in her mid-twenties, Linda was just getting by on a string of part-time gigs, giving piano lessons, teaching music theory at City College of New York, acting in off-off and more-off Broadway shows, etc. When the extremely wealthy head of a yogurt dynasty offered fifty dollars—more than half Linda’s rent!—to play Christmas carols at the family’s annual holiday reunion, Linda grabbed the gig. But there was a problem.
“I was a poor Jewish girl with, shall we say, a limited repertoire of lyrics that included the words ‘Jesus,’ ‘saviour,’ ‘Christ,’ or ‘Bethlehem,’” she recalls. “But I was a pretty good sight reader and I needed the 50 bucks, so I took the job, and bravely walked inside an apartment so huge it had its own zip code.”
The yogurt patriarch turned out to be a formidable man in his early 50s who clutched a baton in one hand and a scotch in the other. He demanded to know if Linda knew all of the 37 carols he placed on, the beautiful Steinway concert grand she was about to play.
“Well, not really,” Linda answered, a tad too honestly. “But I’m a quick study.”
Scrooge McYogurt turned several shades of purple, he was so angry. “He leaned over to me—I can still smell the scotch on his breath—and warned me that if I played just one wrong note, he would bodily throw me out the door.”
Linda might have succumbed to the impostor syndrome in that moment and walked out. But she was so incensed by the guy’s attitude toward her that she decided to prove her competence instead of questioning her qualifications. And her inner sense of grit served her well. She played not just well, but brilliantly. Not only did she play every note perfectly, but she began to improvise and embellish the music, dazzling the party guests with her impassioned interpretation of each tune. “By the time we got to ‘Silent Night,’ there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Family members surrounded me at the piano singing with me and asking me to stay long past my allotted time. And the best part? Scrooge McYogurt gave me an extra 50 dollars!”
And she came home with far more than a bulging pocketbook: “What I learned that evening was that even when I took the risk of going out on a limb, doing something I wasn’t really qualified to do, I was able to step up to the plate, stretch my limits, and accomplish more than I ever thought possible. Instead of feeling scared, I felt emboldened. I ended up proving to myself that, just maybe, I had underestimated my talents and abilities.”
So our advice? When in doubt, ring those bells!
Take a Leap
Robin faced down her own imposter syndrome moment when she was approached in 2013 by a recruiter seeking a CEO to run the American Legacy Foundation, one of the nation’s largest non-profit organisations. Legacy, recently renamed the Truth Initiative, was the antismoking advocacy group that had been established in 1999 as part of the $206 billion Master Settlement Agreement—the largest civil litigation in history between the major tobacco companies, 46 states, the District of Columbia, and five US territories. The recruiter needed to know within 30 days whether Robin was interested.
Accepting the job would mean dismantling every safety net Robin had. It would mean leaving the advertising industry, where she had focussed her professional efforts for her entire career. It would mean leaving a for-profit enterprise for a non-profit one. It would mean leaving her native New York, her beloved friends, and a career’s worth of business contacts for Washington, a city where she knew almost no one. Robin’s husband, Kenny, would have to quit his job as a hospital administrator and find a new position in DC. Everything in her life added up to that one thing we all set out seeking: security. “It was absolutely terrifying to think about leaving all that, to take a step off the edge and challenge myself again.”
When the Kaplan Thaler Group merged a year earlier with Publicis New York, we went from an agency of 250 people to one with 700 employees. Much as Robin welcomed the chance to lead Publicis Kaplan Thaler, she realised that after many decades working in the same business, what she really craved, as scary as it seemed, was the chance to have a “second act”, one that would bring an opportunity to learn something completely new and use her years of marketing experience to do something that would have a positive impact on people’s lives. Linda assured Robin of her heartfelt support and told her to “go for it”.
So Robin picked up the recruiter’s letter, and with the deadline a few days away, wrote a passionate response. Going from selling shampoo to saving lives seemed like an unfathomable leap. On the other hand, Legacy’s “truth” public education programme for teens was legendary. The campaign had won every major award in the ad industry and had been proven to have prevented 450,000 young people from smoking in its first four years. As she drafted her response, it became clearer and clearer to her how strongly she felt about the organisation’s crusade. She saw herself as twice victimised by the tobacco industry, first as a pack-a-day teen smoker duped by cigarette manufacturers who hid the long-term health effects from the public, and second as a marketer whose entire field was tainted by the money and muscle of Big Tobacco.
Robin knew how hard it was to quit—she had stopped smoking for two years and then relapsed, before kicking the habit for good at the age of 28. Though we had never represented tobacco at Kaplan Thaler Group, no one in advertising could escape the shoot-the-messenger backlash from consumers who felt horribly betrayed by advertising campaigns promoting smoking.
She finished writing her letter and went to bed. You know what, Robin, that’s probably the end of that, she told herself.
But it felt good to convey how the tobacco companies had made people in advertising look deceptive, manipulative and dangerous.
“Of course they’re going to hire you,” Linda predicted when Robin told her what she did. And after a couple of gruelling rounds of interviewing, Robin had indeed beaten out more than one hundred candidates and got the job.
Accepting the new position was both liberating and terrifying, all at once. Peering down into that metaphorical career canyon, Robin steeled herself by flashing back to the toughest question that had been thrown at her during the final interview with toe board of directors, when she had been asked how she would feel about running a controversial organisation whose rich and powerful foes might well decide to go against her personally. It could, she was warned, get very ugly. Her answer, immediate and straight from her native Bronx roots: “Bring it on.”
Create your own high wire
Mentally fire yourself. Ask yourself what you’d do if you lost your job today or lost everything you had. Now write a list of the steps you would take. That simple act can take the bite out of the scary aspects of your life if it is upended—because you are mentally prepared. But it can also lead you to be proactive about making a change in your life. The answer may even be the key to your future happiness.
Stop the excuses
An excuse a day makes the goals go away. The next time you make an excuse for something you didn’t do or you did badly, turn the excuse into question. Ask, what could I have done differently?
Make a note of it. Then commit to doing it differently the next time.
Make yourself uncomfortable
Get out of your comfort zone. Try getting dressed with your eyes closed, or with one hand. Order something you have never tried before at a restaurant. Say hello to strangers in an elevator. Flexing those muscles will enable you to stick out uncomfortable situations. Research has shown that the brain craves novelty and that doing things that don’t feel automatic has a positive effect on neurological activity.
It can keep you sharp and can make you more creative.
Excerpted with permission from Grit to Great by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval and published by Crown Business