“What on Earth—or in the sky—was I doing?” I asked, staring at RwandAir’s confirmation email for my flight to the Kenyan coast to begin AFF. Instead of the excitement that accompanies a trip to white-sand beaches and warm waters, I felt trepidation. Fear.
Exiting during my tandem, I felt calm. I read others’ accounts of their first skydives and anticipated fear on the ride to altitude or when my turn came or when my feet dangled out the door of the aircraft. I waited for it, but it never came. I thought that if skydiving felt this natural — if any activity felt this natural — then I was duty bound to pursue it. And aren’t we all on a quest to become our most natural, true selves?
But now I couldn’t stop second-guessing why I signed up for AFF. I simply landed on the beach and decided that very instant that I would. There wasn’t any self-reflection or internal dialogue. I resolved to do it, picked an agreeable timeframe and accepted it as a fait accompli. Every activity I took up in the meantime, whether flying trapeze, climbing or tunnel flying, was motivated by a desire to remain outside of my comfort zone and prepare mentally for the sensation of extreme experience. I never looked back, and my baseline emotion all summer was excitement.
Until I booked my flight, this excitement had been about an abstract promise made to myself in the afterglow of an all-consuming physical experience. Was I even lucid when I made it, or was I under bliss-induced duress? Was the serenity of my tandem just a mental glitch that, on any other day and under any other permutation of synaptic activity, would have been replaced by debilitating anxiety?
But the promise had been made. In high school, I announced to my parents that I would work in Africa one day. It was just a nebulous expression of personal ambition then, and I had no idea how it would happen or when, but there I was in Rwanda doing what I said. So no confirmation email was going to call my bluff.
Fear is a motivator. I shared my doubts with my friend Rasmus, a BASE jumper from Denmark. He countered, “Fear is the only thing keeping us alive.” It’s how we evolve and select for adaptations that favor survival. It’s how we avoid getting eaten or take the better lit path home. It’s how we don’t get dead. In this sense, it is a shrewd companion to take with me to Skydive Diani in Kenya. Skydiving is not a casual sport, and I can’t phone it in. Being afraid of it ensures that I respect it. Without fear, we are complacent, and complacency kills.
After brooding most of the day, I realized that there was a reason for my snap decision on the beach. Our immediate gut reactions are usually spot-on because they reflect our subconscious minds making sense of myriad stimuli and ancillary information to resolve into the most logical possible outcome. Research into decision-making shows that the brain begins guiding our choices well before we become conscious of our plans. In other words, by the time we are aware of what we plan to do, our brain has already done the analytical work and determined our actions.
This makes sense. If we had to consciously work through thousands of data points to arrive at each conclusion, we would be immobilized by indecision. Our voluntary nervous system is just not fast enough. That’s why we drill and practice our skills: to achieve muscle memory. Involuntary memory.
Among the data points my brain computed on the beach was that I avidly seek challenging and unnerving opportunities to test my limits. It’s how I learn what I am good at and deepen my self-reliance. I manage a team in Rwanda. When we started the company, we were all terrified. We still are. It’s almost all risk in the beginning, and there’s no guidebook to help navigate the unknown. Most of the time, you have no idea what you’re doing, yet everyone is looking to you to figure it out. You can’t point to someone else and say, “I did as I was told.” When you’re the person people turn to, there’s nowhere else to look except inward.
I want to be better at this — at making scary decisions and following through. I want to practice this skill so that when I look to myself for the answer, I can give it with conviction. I want involuntary memory of leadership. My brain knew this even before I did.
Anastasia Uglova | A-84045