Fear isn’t something to be eliminated. It’s something to be managed. In my line of work, skydiving, fear is what keeps you from getting careless. A healthy amount of apprehension has helped me to stay safe over a 20-year career. I am cautious enough to plan each one of my jumps carefully and to reject ideas when the risks were unacceptably high. Fear gets problematic when it becomes your focal point, dominating your thoughts and distracting you from the task at hand.
Training for my Red Bull Stratos jump, I went through a period where I hated wearing the spacesuit. It’s something a lot of high-altitude pilots deal with. The suit creates a sort of sensory deprivation, and in my case its rigidity made it impossible to use techniques I’d worked my whole life to develop. Subconsciously, I think maybe the suit came to represent everything that could defeat me. It became a trigger for what was fear. As soon as I put it on, I was itching to take it off.
Photograph by Redbull/CorbisThat fear itself wasn’t irrational: It pointed out some significant operational challenges we had to address. What I needed was to get out of the endless loop of negative thinking. Our psychologists taught me some simple techniques. Sometimes in training they’d ask me a question totally unrelated to the mission, maybe a question that didn’t even make sense, just to break the cycle of negative thoughts in my head. Then I could come back to see the situation more objectively. Another technique was to actively look for the positives. At 24 miles above earth, where my blood would boil without protection, the benefits of that suit were going to far outweigh its drawbacks. Eventually the suit came to represent not potential problems but the technological solution that would keep me alive and let me accomplish my goals. We moved forward, and the program was a success.
Let your fear inform you. Get outside help if you need it. And be patient with yourself. Dealing with it might be one of the smartest things you do.
• During his record-breaking, nine-minute fall from a balloon more than 24 miles above the earth, Baumgartner broke the speed of sound, reaching almost 834 miles per hour.