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Is the sky really your limit?

October 18, 2012

Sometimes you have to jump really high to realise how small you are. I’m going home now. And with that, he was off.

Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner smashed a number of records on Sunday with his ‘live from the edge of space’ stunt – with more than eight million watching him break the speed of sound via live streaming on YouTube, the largest number of concurrent live stream viewers in the website’s history.

Baumgartner broke the record for the highest free-fall, leaping from a tin shed 24 miles up in the sky, taken by a giant helium balloon with the thickness of a Tesco carrier bag. It took just nine minutes for him to reach the ground. Footage from a camera strapped to his chest captured an out-of-control spin as he plummeted at an estimated 833.9mph – that’s Mach 1.24 in Captain Kirk terms.

What a daredevil! Baumgartner has made a career out of pushing the boundaries, always seeking to go faster, higher, further than others. In the 1990s he moved from traditional skydiving to ‘Base’ jumping, leaping off fixed objects and using a parachute to break the fall. The ‘Base’ acronym stands for the categories of fixed objects you can jump from: buildings, antennas, spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs, mountains). Add another B to that, B for Bonkers.

In 1999, he set the world record for the highest parachute jump from a building when he jumped from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Next he went to Rio, completing the world’s lowest ever base jump from the 30m-high arm of the Christ the Redeemer statue. Having survived that, he became the first person to fly across the English Channel in 2003. Using carbon fibre wings, Baumgartner jumped from a plane above Dover, landing 22 miles away near Calais some 14 minutes later.  Quicker than Eurostar.

He says he is motivated in part by scientific endeavour, the desire to see what the human body can achieve, but also spurred by the desire to see what none of us have seen, to be alone at the highest reaches of the skies. It’s almost overwhelming. When you’re standing there in a pressure suit, the only thing that you hear is yourself breathing, and you can see the curvature of the Earth; you can see the sky’s totally black. His comments are reminiscent of Neil Armstrong’s when he looked back to Earth from the Moon.

I was intrigued, inspired and also partly flummoxed by Felix’s achievement for several reasons.

Ascending so high in a simple hot air balloon then jumping back down to Earth sounded like a gratifying, if slightly pointless, Sunday afternoon stunt, but each to their own. Of course we all have reasons for doing what we do, but ultimately, all that stuff stems from the essence of the trip: the almost mad-cap ludicrousness of taking a hot air balloon to space and then jumping out of it. I mean, why would you? It’s almost the stuff of Disney.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I became excited myself about the achievement, and Felix’s vision, passion and execution. When I researched the build up to the dive, it showed a project of extraordinary ambition. What I find most remarkable about the feat is Baumgartner’s struggle with claustrophobia. Most of us would have had legs of jelly stood on that platform, a touch of vertigo would be understandable, but Felix’s fear was claustrophobia. Imagine how he felt in the tight pressure suit. Here is a man who transcends fear, not a man who doesn’t feel it at all, showing extreme mental strength to push himself to achieve his goals.

I defy anyone not to be inspired. The project was five years in the making, it was a success, and Felix’s dream came true. For me, there is so much you can takeaway from such an achievement in terms starting or running your own business venture. Here are five reflections on what made Felix a success that I’ve taken into my thinking:

1. Big Hairy Audacious Goals – Jim Collins’ concept of BHAG, in this case Felix really did reach for the sky. Every successful person wakes up in the morning, has a shower and starts to think about the day ahead. They love what they do, have passion, purpose and focus. Yes, we have days when things don’t work out, but as long as the good times outweigh the bad ones, you have your dream to aim for.

Listening to the post-event press conference, it is clear that Baumgartner had a determination beyond anything and didn’t allow next to impossible, hurdles and challenges and get in the way. What is your equivalent to standing on a footplate the size of a snowboard, looking down on the world and rewriting human history?

2. Surround yourself with great people. Baumgartner spoke about the outstanding support from colleagues, friends and family, how they had been there, in ups and downs, along the way supporting his dream – we all recognise that you are actually only as good as the team around you.

We all have great ideas, however it rarely comes down to one person’s ability to plan, implement and execute. From Edmund Hilary, Roger Bannister, Neil Armstrong and Roald Amundsen, it’s about the team. Felix assembled a team of engineers, physicists, doctors, scientists, more than 300 folks in his gang. Every person had a role to play in that team. It didn’t just happen, he didn’t just show up, it was a team effort.

3. Seek out advice and learn from others It’s not just about having confidence in yourself and your abilities, but also making sure you listen to others and surround yourself with the best. At one level it’s pride and sense of personal fulfilment I did that, but that’s short-sighted, and on another level it’s arrogance and ego to try to do stuff on your own. Lots of competitive minded people fall for the testosterone-fuelled myth that they have to do it on their own.

Nonsense. Baumgartner went to the guy who held the previous record to mentor him. Learn from the person who has also done what you want to achieve. Joe Kittinger, who set the previous record in 1960, talked to him through the ascent. He drew inspiration and courage from the man. He also engaged psychologist Michael Gervais to help overcome his claustrophobia.

4. Jump when the time is right No doubt when Felix Baumgartner dreamt up his idea some five years ago, he knew that it would take time and effort to get it off the ground, so to speak. Once he was up there, he’d be anxious to do it. Contrary to popular belief, daredevils follow instruction. Joe Kittinger and a 300 strong Red Bull sponsored team helped guide Felix. In that tiny capsule and bacofoil suit, Felix listened to instruction and followed it. He didn’t know when the time would be right, but he trusted his team to guide his steps. When they said jump, he jumped.

Then his training and experience kicked in too. After problems with his helmet visor fogging, and falling faster than anticipated, Felix stuck with the agreed plan and pulled the chute early, which kept him from reaching the freefall time record – retained by Kittinger.

5. Focus on the process, not the outcome. Baumgartner had the audacity to go for the challenge. He didn’t let adrenaline takeover his preparation. He was competing with himself, pushing himself to do more and better. Successful people don’t focus on the result, rather the process – what do I need to do to make this happen?

When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon in 1994, it took the e-commerce company more than six years to report its first quarterly profit. He was in no hurry then and he is in no hurry now to boost profits at the expense of building an important and lasting company. Bezos has long resisted pleas from Wall Street to manage his company for profit instead of customer attraction, revenue growth and customer service.

Bezos has a process of sustaining the growth of Amazon by innovation, a fantastic proposition and service that is unique, and that attracts and retains customers, which grows revenue. Building a business is not about setting profit targets, rather the process of finding, winning and keeping customers.

At mission control, Roswell airport, 200 miles south east of Albuquerque, Joe Kittinger was Felix’s live radio link, calmly talking through step-by-step instructions. It was like eavesdropping on an easy-going conversation between work colleagues collaborating across a meeting table, with both men focused on the process, not the outcome, until the moment when Baumgartner saluted and stepped into the unknown before successfully plummeting to earth.

So as you step into the unknown this morning, what will Felix’s success inspire you to achieve? For him, the sky wasn’t the limit, as he came back down to earth faster than the speed of sound. When death-defying to most of us means a trip to the dentist. this line on his website really captures the moment: Everyone has limits – not everyone accepts them.

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