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What Felix Baumgartner Taught Me About Taking the Plunge


What Felix Baumgartner Taught Me About Taking the Plunge

Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner’s leap from a balloon 128,000 feet above the Earth was pretty unique. He broke records that had stood for more than fifty years, fell faster than the speed of sound and dropped further than anyone had fallen before. None of us is likely to come close to his achievement. But the way he reached his goal, the discipline and determination with which he accomplished a dream big enough for him to tell the world afterwards that he’s “done,” has much to teach freelancers and entrepreneurs about reaching their targets.

Preparation Counts and So Does Patience

The YouTube webcast of the event (which itself broke a record by streaming to 8 million people) showed everything. We saw footage of Baumgartner walking down the runway before dawn, watched the balloon inflate, saw the crane chase the capsule down the tarmac then sat through two-and-a-half hours of spacesuit and mission control as the balloon rose slowly to the stratosphere.

What we didn’t see though was the work that went into building for that rise. The jump was seven years in the making and followed two test jumps earlier this year from 71,581 feet and 96,640 feet. It was also the culmination of a career that had seen Baumgartner leap from the top of the Petronas Towers and the hand of Jesus’s statue in Rio. Few of the 8 million people watching on their computers might have heard of Baumgartner before the jump but he hadn’t come from nowhere. Before taking on a project of this size he had made sure that he had the experience and the preparation needed to make it work.

While we might not have seen his preparation, we did see his patience. For nearly three hours Baumgartner sat unmoving as his capsule rose above New Mexico, shot through the jet stream then reached its maximum height. There was no in-flight entertainment system, no stewardess with duty-free and no iPad to fling birds at pigs while he waited for the time to pass.

Both those aspects of the event — the preparation we didn’t see and the Zen-like patience we did — are vital to success at freelancing and business-building too.

When you begin offering your services or launching a business, you’ll need to be sure that you know what you’re doing and can meet your clients’ needs. You’ll need to build a portfolio that proves your experience and shows that you can hit the target.

And you’ll need patience to sit through those first months when work is light and you rise slowly to your peak.

You Can Always Learn from Others

All of the attention during the jump was on Baumgartner, the man who was putting most at risk. But it was also clear that he wasn’t alone. Like a space launch, the event had a mission control filled with people sitting in front of computers and keeping track of the capsule’s progress. Most notably, it also had a veteran: Joe Kittinger, the current holder of the longest freefall record and — at Baumgartner’s request — the only person allowed to speak to Baumgartner during the ascent and fall.

It was the 84-year old Kittinger, not Art Thompson, the project’s technical director, who took Baumgartner through the 40 different checks necessary to ensure that the capsule and suit were working and to enable Baumgartner to disengage from the seat and prepare to jump.

Although Baumgartner valued the help of specialists and experts, he understood that nothing can replace the experience of someone who’s actually been there and done that.

The same is true for freelancers and entrepreneurs. You might hire specialist designers or niched copywriters. You might depend on developers and programmers in the way that Baumgartner chose expert balloon makers and suitmakers. But when it comes to decision-making and guidance, you want to be talking to people who really understand you. You want to be at conferences mingling with other people in your field, and you want to be on forums getting advice from other freelancers and entrepreneurs who have risen and taken the plunge.

Something Will Always Go Wrong

It was during one of those early checks that the first of three problems hit the jump. As Kittinger was taking Baumgartner through the checklist, it became clear that the heater in the visor wasn’t working. It sounded like a minor problem — far smaller than the winds that had whipped away the balloon and caused the postponement of the first launch. But it meant that the visor fogged up when Baumgartner exhaled, obscuring his vision. He had to make a decision: to abort the jump and return to the ground or continue and hope that he could see enough to perform his checks and complete the task.

The second problem wasn’t a problem at all, but to Baumgartner it looked like one. To open the door, he had to decompress the capsule. Only when the pressure outside the capsule was the same as the pressure inside would he be able to pull the door open. But Baumgartner had no way to check the internal air pressure so tugged on the door too early. Watch the film and you can hear the concern in his voice as he reports that the door won’t open. It took Kittinger to assure him calmly that when the pressures equalize the door would slide back.

The third problem though was the biggest and the most dangerous. As Baumgartner approached the speed of sound, he began to spin rapidly on all axes. It was a moment that the daredevil later described as “like being in hell.” If he couldn’t stop spinning there was a good chance that he would black out. If he deployed a small parachute to reduce the drag, he wouldn’t be able to break any speed records. He had to make a decision and quickly: to bet his life on the experience and knowledge that would allow him to control his spin or abandon his attempt to break the sound barrier.

As you build your career, you won’t have to make a decision that momentous but you will face a series of crises, some more serious than others — and a few that could cost you your company.

Things will go wrong. Projects will fail, clients will leave, contractors will let you down and you’ll find that you’ve taken on more than you can chew. Sometimes it will be clear that you need to push on through. At other times, you’ll listen to the advice of a friend or mentor who will reassure you when the situation looks bleak. And sometimes, you’ll bet it all on your knowledge and experience.

When you’re ready to do that, you’re ready to launch your business and ride it into the stratosphere.


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