To say that Felix Baumgartner isn’t afraid of heights would be a monumental understatement.
On Sunday afternoon, Baumgartner jumped from more than 128,000 feet, setting a skydiving record for the world’s longest free fall and breaking the sound barrier by traveling faster than 834 miles per hour. After dropping for more than nine minutes – at the tail end with a parachute – he landed safely in the New Mexico desert near Roswell.
On Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to be shopping for things for my son’s dorm room during a parents’ weekend visit to his central Texas college. But I checked Twitter on my smartphone getting out of the car in the Pier One parking lot and read a tweet that his jump, postponed from Thursday due to high winds, was back on. I got the live feed on YouTube, found a bench, and sat mesmerized for the next 30 minutes as Baumgartner checked his equipment, exited the space capsule that had been carried 24 miles above earth by a hot-air balloon, and launched himself into space. Looking at this picture of the split second after he jumped still gives me chills.
It’s an amazing accomplishment – one that has a few things to teach anyone who confronts risk on a daily basis, such as freelance writers.
Here are five things that writers can learn from “Fearless” Felix:
1. Shoot for the stars. Or at least the outer edge of the stratosphere. Baumgarten wanted to do something no one had done before. Your ambitions might not be as lofty, but they should be a stretch. If you’ve always said you wanted to write a book, go for it. Pitch a publication you’ve only dreamed of writing for. Sign up for a week at the writer’s colony you’ve been wanting to try. Push yourself.
2. Plan ahead. Baumgartner might be a professional daredevil, but he’s a daredevil with a plan. Before Baumgartner’s big leap, capsule communications chief Joseph Kittinger talked him through a jump plan that was more than 35 steps long. Before the big day, Baumgartner took two test jumps that were significant in their own right, one from almost 72,000 feet and another from almost 97,000. Moral of the story: the bigger the risk, the more you plan and the better your chances of success will be.
3. Create a support system. If you watched the live feed or video of his jump, you saw how packed the flight control room was: at least a dozen people (that I could see on camera) plus more in helicopters that followed him once he got close enough to the ground. You might not need an entire flight crew to get your job done, but you do need a handful of individuals you can count on, whether that’s a virtual assistant, writer friends who’ll read works in progress, an accountant to do your taxes, even your nanny to watch your kids when you need to go out of town on business.
4. Don’t let age stand in your way. Baumgartner is 43. That’s seven years older than fellow daredevil Evil Kneivel was at the height of his career in 1974, when he unsuccessfully tried to jump the Snake River Canyon a steam-powered rocket. As Baumgartner shows, age isn’t a barrier.
5. Be a mentor. Now that Baumgartner has accomplished his goal, he says he’ll retire from extreme skydiving to become a mentor and coach to other jumpers. You don’t have to be ready to retire to become a mentor to other writers. Join a writer’s group where you can share the benefit of your experience with members who have less experience. Join a nonprofit that brings authors into public elementary or high school to help kids learn to write. Become a volunteer mentor at the next American Society of Journalists and Authors conference. Talk about what it’s like to be a writer at a local high school’s next career day. If writing has been good to you, give back.
If you haven’t seen the video, you owe it to yourself to watch. Here’s a link: Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic free fall from 128,000 (YouTube)
[Flickr photo by matthewwu88