What is Safety? Applying Lessons From Extreme Sports to Life and Business

November 11, 2022
In our previous episode, Joe and Brett talked about how seeing through limiting beliefs can be scary because we're not sure we'll be safe. This is an especially relevant concern in the realm of high-risk activities like skydiving and BASE Jumping. In today's episode, we explore how Brett's relationship with the idea of safety has changed over the course of a decades-long career in adventure sports.

Episode Intro:

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host Joe Hudson.

Joe: Hey, Brett. I want to do something different today. I want to ask you questions. I want to interview you. The reason I want to interview you is because your understanding and fear is I think so unique given both being a CEO of a company and doing air sports, losing friends, a lot of friends in air sports, that I wanted to go into your story of how you have processed safety and fear. I just think there is a lot to learn there for everybody. Also, I think it would be nice for everybody to know more about you and your story, so I was hoping I could interview you on safety and fear.

Brett: Let’s do it. We were just recording the second limiting beliefs episode just before this, and one of the things we were talking about was this thing on safety. We are afraid to try on different beliefs or see through our beliefs or explore different ways of being because we haven’t proven it is safe. This is something that has been really big in my life for a very long time, specifically in the world of base jumping, paragliding and air sports where the attachment to safety really shows up. I would love to get into that a little bit more.

Joe: Just out of curiosity, what does safety mean to you? That can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and I am wondering what it means to you.

Brett: First of all, safety is an illusion. Nothing is safe. We will call something safe if we feel comfortable, we feel like can be in flow, we feel like we are capable of navigating the environment, the jump we are about to do, building a company, or a relationship, and we feel like we are going to survive it or what we care about is going to survive.

Joe: When did you come to that conclusion? How did you get there? That’s a pretty sophisticated thought process. Safety just means I’m convinced I’m comfortable, basically. How did you get there? I am sure that wasn’t the way you were born. How did that happen?

Brett: Let’s go back to when I started base jumping. When I started jumping, reading all of the limited literature there was at the time and talking to people, they thought this is a very dangerous sport and there is nothing you can do to make it safe. You can make it less dangerous, but ultimately there is a very real risk that you will die and that you will have major injuries you will spend years recovering from and maybe never fully. That happens all of the time, and it is going to happen to some of your friends if you are in the sport for long enough. It might be you, and you are the friend people are talking about.

Getting into that, I still felt very drawn into the sport. I spent a lot of time meditating on that. I’d find myself sitting and imagining what it would be like if I broke my legs and injured my spine. I did the seeing through that negative outcome and that consequence and thinking if that happens, what would be left. Would I be someone in a wheelchair and then dedicate my life to studying neuroscience and solving spinal cord injuries? Would I be somebody who just gets up? I feel like I would be the person who continues doing something. I feel like I could continue to find meaning. Seeing through those things was enough for me to feel safe, going into that activity, which was to say that I felt comfortable that even if something were to happen to me, I would be okay with that outcome because the exploration was worth it.

Joe: Did you ever think you were crazy or there was something wrong with you? Why would I do something like this? Did those thoughts ever happen?

Brett: Yeah, all of the time. Sometimes I got off on it a little bit. Oh yeah, I am crazy. I am one of those crazy ones. You think I am crazy. Watch this!

Joe: Hold my beer. That’s interesting. To some degree, what you are saying here is you got comfortable with it and therefore it felt safe, but the comfort in it is on some level very individualistic. What you could find comfortable and what somebody else finds comfortable could be very different things, but also comfort to some degree is based on what’s happened in your past. The way you gained comfort here was looking towards your future, which is interesting. It is an interesting thing to note.

Brett: It is looking at the possible futures and asking myself if this is something I could be comfortable with, and like we talked about in limiting beliefs, it wasn’t so I would get myself injured and be in a wheelchair. It was so I could explore life feeling unconstructed and unconstrained, and one thing I learned about safety is it can become an idea that we use to stop seeing reality so that we feel comfortable. That can be helpful for us. The first time you are making a base jump, there are certain things you need to pay attention to, and there are also certain things that might be overwhelming if you consider them. You focus on the task. You focus on the training and on what you are about to do, and you try not to think too much about your mother crying when you die because that might be something that takes you out of the flow.

There was one jump I did in Europe where I jumped my wingsuit, and I was flying down a mountain. There was a section that if you were flying at a good enough glide ratio, you could then fly over another mountain and then have another several thousand feet of flight. I was going to make it. I thought I was going to make it. I was pretty sure I was going to make it. It flashed through my head. I had this imagining of my girlfriend at the time getting a phone call and that all of a sudden took me out of it. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I panicked and pulled my parachute, and I ended up landing in somebody’s background in the middle of France. I bailed and I survived, and I also did not do it very gracefully. I let in information that dysregulated me, and constriction occurred. Then I had to bail.

That brings it back to this point where I have learned safety is an idea that we use to feel safe, but it can bring us into contact with reality and it can take us out of contact with reality. If I am standing at an exit point and I want to feel safe so that I jump, let’s say I really want to feel safe and make this jump because I am with a group of people and I don’t want them to have to climb down this mountain with me that we just climbed up and I don’t want them to have to wait by the car while I climb down, so I am more afraid of disappointing people and not being seen than I am of the jump. I might just disassociate myself from some of the risks of the jump, so I reach this point where I am safe.

Joe: On that for a second, I would assume it is really important when you are on that, the base you are jumping off, so to speak, that you know which one you are doing. How do you know when you are using the idea of safety to detach from reality and to be more in contact with your reality? It seems like with base jumping being more in contact with reality in this moment is good. How do you distinguish?

Brett: That’s a good question. Something we have said a lot in the sport, and this comes from other places is the other side of the coin of fear is excitement. If I am feeling a grounded level of excitement and anticipation, and I feel like my body is amped in such a way that is metabolically prepared for what I am about to do and I feel that I am flow and that flow is accessible to me, and I am not just reaching that state because I am putting on the blinders. I am reaching that state because I am welcoming any red flags there might be and they are not to be found. Everything feels right. There is a certain kind of grounded excitement that occurs there.

Joe: Grounded excitement also sounds like if you notice any defensiveness in your system that that is a red flag.

Brett: Defensiveness in the system, or what makes me not want to talk about the wind conditions over that ridge over there? What is making me focus on it being a nice, bright sunny day and not on me being tired because we were out late partying last night and I’m not feeling on it right now?

Joe: The amazing thing is this is such a metaphor for business. The things that we don’t talk about usually get us in trouble. They are on the side of our minds. Something is not happening right right there, but let’s not pay attention to it.

Brett: Imagine in a boardroom. If there is a risk and you are assessing the risk and nobody in the room is willing to actually feel through the consequence of taking a wrong action in that risk or the consequence of the action you may have to take may be more difficult. You may not want to lay people off. You may not want to lay off somebody you have a personal attachment or relationship with, and since you are not willing to look at that, you are far more likely to give a story about how it is safe. We are actually going to be fine because of X, Y and Z rather than really seeing the deeper reality.

It has been a conversation around the base jumping community for a long time. People will start to identify as a safe jumper and that person is not a safe jumper. This is a safe kind of jump and that’s not a safe kind of jump. Is this jump safe for a beginner jumper like me? That answer is no to all of those things. What are the risks? How do you as an organism interact with your environment given those conditions? Do you have the experience? Does your body have the experience? When you are standing on the edge of this cliff and you are about to jump, does your body have enough history of similar situations that it feels like it has this, and it knows what to do? It is like jumping into a swimming pool. If not, that shows up in the somatic experience.

You asked what it feels like, and I spoke about grounded excitement. Another one is ungrounded excitement. If you are excited but that excitement is covering up some anxiety and you are not letting that anxiety move through and integrate into your excitement, then you are going to find yourself a little bit bouncy. Another way that can look is just straight anxiety. Another way that can look is anxiety funneling through to anger. Sometimes people get angry at an exit point if they are scared, or they will triple gear check someone else and be super sure that the least experienced jumper on the load is safe. There are all kinds of ways it comes out, but they are all a form of not being grounded in yourself.

Joe: Fascinating. How much of this is applied to your business? You are in a room with the people running your business with you, how much does that feel like sitting at an entry point? How much are you monitoring your body the same way?

Brett: Interestingly, my business is fully remote. Sitting in a room is an experience I rarely get with my team. A lot of my time with my business is actually spent with myself and deciding what to do next, which might be calling a meeting or doing some strategy or just getting some work done. If I am with a team and we are talking, it is the same thing. I find that for myself one way that I will leave the present moment, leave myself, will be to find something to get excited about. The numbers are scary, and the economy just tanked. Everything is a mess and look at all of this opportunity out there. Looking at the opportunity is a wonderful thing to do, and clinging to and grasping for the opportunity, there is a different feeling in that.

Joe: Not ground excitement is what it sounds like. That gives you the same signal. That informs whether I am going to jump or not.

Brett: It relates back to something we have talked about before. It is about the inner security. The more dependent you are on external security, then the more internally secure you are going to feel. Let’s say I am standing on a cliff, and I am about to jump. There is something that needs to happen performance wise, something I need to execute. I imagine jumping. I am visualizing this. I might visualize myself throwing the wrong access of rotation. I might visualize myself failing to get my wingsuit flying. I might visualize myself failing to outfly a certain ledge. Allowing myself to feel those possible outcomes as I am preparing to do something, allowing myself to feel what it would be like to have that occur and recover from it and have that occur and not recover from it, have that occur and that last oh shit moment before impact and just having all of that possibility moving through my body and integrating is something that allows me, when I actually make the jump, to know what to do if something goes awry.

An example is walking on a slackline. If anyone listening to this has anyone walk a slackline, it is this one-inch piece of webbing that can be tied between two trees or it can be set up between two cliffs, a thousand feet in the air. One of the things I love to say about learning to slack line is it is actually the art of learning to fall off. When you first stand on the thing, you feel so insecure. Your legs wiggle and shudder, and you fall right off. You ask yourself how you will ever be able to walk this thing. The line is not insecure at all. The line is perfectly stable. The only insecurity that’s being brought into the system is what you are bringing to it. It is your muscles over correcting. It is your top down trying to think your way through it. Initially, you are going to fall, but the more you do it, the more internal stability you develop and then the less overcorrecting your legs need to do. Then you find there is a natural point of balance on the line. The line wants to balance, and your body wants to balance. It will just do it. That’s when you start getting to the point where you can walk across mile long lines. I haven’t done that. Several of my friends have. People see it and ask how you do it.

That’s a really good metaphor for internal security. The more internal security you develop, and this can occur in physical reality, your social reality or in business. The more secure in yourself you are, the less you need any specific external conditions to be any certain way and the more you will be able to remain in flow through whatever conditions that end up occurring.

Joe: What’s interesting to me is somebody listening to this might think I have to learn to be balanced so I can be secure, which is in itself an overcorrection and a lack of security. They might have missed the point of what you are saying here, which is learning to be secure is learning to fall. What is a real story? In slack line, you have fallen a million times, but what is a real story in business or in relationships or even in base jumping where a fall has really taught you how to be secure?

Brett: Let me think about that one for a moment. In 2009, I was in South Africa, and this was a long journey. I had broken my arm skiing in Utah, and then I continued to go on an Africa trip anyway even though I had a broken arm. I was in Zambia with a friend. Then I rebroke the arm doing some refugee smuggling on motorcycles and having a crash. Then I got the news that my dad had lost his job and his health insurance. I had a couple hundred bucks. I was doing some freelance work online, web work, that wasn’t particularly consistent. I had a couple hundred bucks, a broken arm, and no health insurance. What am I going to do?

I went to South Africa. I took a bus down to Cape Town. They have got good medical care there. I was just going to figure things out from South Africa and get some medical care. I did that for a while, and I sank into the city. I really loved it. I was there for a month or so. Then I went to check my bank account and pull out some money from the ATM. It was empty. I looked and the exchange rate had halved almost in the month or two I had been there, and I hadn’t checked it. I was suddenly out of money. I didn’t know where my next money was coming from, and I was in a foreign country. Luckily I had already paid my rent for that week, so I had a place to stay.

I thought I’ve got nothing and I’ve no idea what I am going to do. I started walking around to different bars and businesses on Long Street, which is the main thoroughfare in Cape Town. I started writing down my name and phone number on napkins and I walked into businesses and said I was a web developer. Your website looks like it could use some work. I could help you out. I ended up getting one phone call from that. It didn’t turn out to be the best client, but that was the process where I was out of money. I still refer to that moment now when I think if I actually lost everything, it would suck and there is a lot I love and am attached to about material possessions and access to financial resources I have had in my life and I also know I can go back and write my name and phone number on napkins and do something from scratch in a brand new place and environment all over again.

That’s why I say walking the slack line you end up learning some internal stability and you build this experience over the course of your life. It is true that a newborn baby’s body has a biological stability and instincts, and it is also not going to successfully take care of itself, and then over time we do get our feet under us. This is one of the things where the process of letting go of limiting beliefs. Our identity lags behind our actual growth, and the more that we see that, the more that we see there has always been an internal security and an internal stability. That’s the kind of internal stability that might make us walk something new, like walking a slack line or starting a business. Often something happens that we forget that we have that innate security and stability and that we have the capacity to assess reality wherever we are and take steps.

Joe: Awesome. Thanks for sharing a bit of your life with us. I really appreciate it, and I love your perspective on safety. It is really wonderful. Thanks for sharing everything.

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