Achieving an optimal state of consciousness is essential to performing at your best. In high-risk sports such as skydiving, reaching that state of mind can be a life saver. Literally. Yet getting and staying there can be elusive and fleeting. However, three simple habits can help you achieve and maintain an optimal state of mind in any endeavor:
• The first habit is to remember why you are doing what you are doing. Staying true to your core motivation is more than just cultivating a positive attitude. It is a key component to operating in the now.
• The second habit is creating consistent and effective planning processes and sticking to them, especially if you’ve gone through them hundreds or thousands of times before.
• Habit number three is creating consistent and effective reflection processes, and again, being wary of the tendency to shortcut a process when it becomes exceedingly familiar.
The Flow State
Whether we realize it or not, we are all trying to find balance between risk and passion. Have you ever thought about why it is you do what you do? What it is that you love about it? Well, part of it is the unique state of mind that comes over us. It feels unlike anything else we do.
Do you know that feeling of being completely lost in the moment with no thought of past or future, when time seems to slow down? When, for a short moment, you feel almost superhuman? Of course you do. We all do. It’s a big part of why skydiving has changed so many people’s lives. Scientists have given this elusive state of consciousness a name: flow.
Author and speaker Steven Kotler describes it like this: “Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we feel both our best and perform our best. It is a transformation available to anyone, anywhere, provided that certain initial considerations are met.”
So, flow is not only about how we feel, but also the state in which we perform our best. Why is that? Because that's when we don’t let anything else distract us or interfere with a task. We are consumed with the action for the sake of the action. And because 100 percent of our concentration is on the task, we see things we normally wouldn't see. Our perception changes, our senses heighten, and we have an acute ability to see cues that are relevant to the task.
However, achieving a flow state will not make you impervious to danger. It simply means that when situations or conditions change, your best chance of reacting appropriately is if you are in this flow mind state.
The Paradox of Experience
In relation to canopy piloting, one might think that highly experienced jumpers would be less vulnerable to danger. However, this is not so. In fact, as you will see, there is a paradox at play that stands to pluck even the most experienced jumpers from our midst.
In his book “Deep Survival,” adventure writer Laurence Gonzales writes, "The word experience often refers to someone who’s gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have. If you’ve tallied a lot of experience in dangerous environments without significant calamity, it’s easy to assume that it was your skill and savvy that told the tale. And when that environment changes, your own experience might be inappropriate.”
Gonzales’ words resonate with me because, as a founding member of the Performance Designs Factory Team with more than 26 years and 19,000 jumps worth of experience, I’ve been a part of a number of huge skydiving successes, but I’ve also witnessed tremendous tragedies. The PDFT, for example, has lost three teammates in the last five years. And the humbling truth is that each of the three fatalities occurred to people whom we would classify as experienced. As tragic as each of their stories may be, there are valuable lessons to be learned.
Grab your tissues, because these stories do not have happy endings. Not sharing them, however, would be a disservice to the jumpers and to others who can learn from their mistakes. My intent here is not to offer a conclusive report on the details of each incident, but rather to share the story and context and to highlight some key takeaways. (Rest assured, I received approval from family members to do so.)
Jonathan Tagle died while aggressively steering his highly loaded canopy down the bottom of a steep mountain ravine. It was his seventh flight of the day down the same route. Point-of-view video illustrates the comfort and confidence he developed. At times, as he sashayed assertively from side to side, it appears that he banks his canopy well past the 90-degree roll angle on each side. Repeatedly his end cells narrowly miss the granite walls and small outcroppings of vegetation. At one point, the fabric indeed brushes a small bush as he continues to attack the valley. And then, the camera stops. Seconds later (and not captured on video) his left end cell snags a tree, swinging him into the left wall and over a small waterfall, where he comes to rest in the pooling water below.
As Tagle became more familiar with the route, his comfort and confidence naturally ballooned. On his final flight, he flew with uncanny precision, making audacious maneuvers in a physical space that provided zero tolerance for even the smallest of mistakes.
The takeaway: Treat each experience with the same care and respect as you do the first, and be wary of the inherent tendency to cut corners as you gain familiarity. Recognize that as you become familiar with something, your senses more easily detect the nuances. And that is part of the irony. This sharper focus allows more stimuli to enter your awareness.
We can never know what went through his mind, but we do know that it came down to missing something very small in a very crucial point in time. In other words—and I am speculating here—might it be possible that Tagle had become so aware of that route that he was pondering future scenarios? For example, as he banked hard around one rock jetty, could he have been contemplating how to improve that maneuver on the next flight? Or maybe, being that it was his seventh run of the day, he was reveling in the improvements he already made. Even if these were mere fleeting thoughts, it may have distracted him from an activity that demanded 100 percent of his attention (i.e., an activity that has no margin for fleeting thoughts).
Jessica Edgeington died while executing a routine, high-performance landing with a familiar canopy at a familiar drop zone. She was instructing a load of seven military jumpers. They were exiting at 5,000 feet and flying 360-square-foot canopies. Her job was to film their exits and to exit last. Because she had a smaller wing, she followed protocol: She steered clear of the seven canopies on her way back to the designated landing area and began her 450-degree landing maneuver. At somewhere between 300 and 500 feet, Jessica struck the top skin of an eighth canopy. The collision tore her canopy apart. She quickly jettisoned the tattered main and fired her reserve. It didn’t have the time or altitude to inflate.
As the jumpmaster of the load, Jessica clearly knew of the eighth jumper, a civilian who exited before the soldiers. After flying past each of the seven, she either forgot about the civilian or incorrectly assumed that he was either above her or flying to a different landing area.
The key takeaway: Use planning processes that allow you to account for the little things, especially the small details that may change from jump to jump. And, as in Tagle’s incident, be wary of the inherent tendency to overlook seemingly insignificant details as you gain familiarity.
Gage Galle died while doing a solo BASE jump off a giant wall. It was his second jump at that location. His friend exited before him with a wingsuit and flew and landed out of sight of the exit point. Nobody witnessed any part of Gage’s jump. Gage was found at the bottom of the wall with both closing loops severed, evidently from impact. We don't know with certainty what caused his inability to execute the most routine yet life-critical action (to deploy his canopy), but we do know he was jumping a relatively new and unfamiliar tracking suit. Likewise, while Galle possessed a disproportionate share of canopy piloting skills, the bulk of his freefall experience was accumulated as a tandem instructor. Thus, his body-flying skills, while adequate, were not proportional to the number of jumps he had accumulated.
On his final jump, there were many relatively new factors contributing to the situation: Freefalling beside a giant wall of granite, flying his body while wearing a new kind of suit and the powerful awareness of the earth’s surface quickly rising up to meet him (the thrill of BASE jumping).
Although not a skydive, this incident still has lessons to teach skydivers. The key takeaway: We will never know Galle’s mindset as he stood on the launch point. But we can learn from his unfortunate experience by reminding ourselves to always include an inventory of our internal environment (our experience, intentions, arousal levels, fears, ego) and our external environment (teammates, competitors, playing field, conditions) as part of every pre-jump plan.
An accident I experienced seven years ago nearly ended my life and serves as a vivid reminder that experience does not guarantee survival. The PDFT was on a two-week mission to fly team formations in the Swiss Alps and make high-speed descents of some of its biggest mountains. I was following a teammate on our second descent of the day, our seventh total at this location, when my body struck a half-inch braided-steel cable. It severed all the lines of my canopy and sent me freefalling to the trees approximately 150 feet below, then over two ledges before coming to rest approximately 400 feet beneath the cable.
I lost almost one month of memory and broke many of the bones in my body from the waist up. My spinal cord was mere centimeters away from being severed, and the swelling and bleeding of my brain caused justifiable concern for enduring brain damage.
The most common question people ask is, “Were you guys aware of the cable?” The answer is yes. And for seven years I have been rationalizing that answer with the fact that snowmelt on the trees and valley beneath the cable one week after our first descents of that route made the cable less visible; it blended in easily with the background, as opposed to the previous week when it contrasted sharply against the snowy backdrop.
The key takeaway: Although the above details are accurate, the fact is, my teammate and I deviated from the planned course. Being familiar and confident with the route, we exited from the final ravine of the giant mountain and instead of soaring over the remaining forest to reach the designated landing field, we banked left to fly the contours of the tree tops. Thorough briefings of the area a week earlier had clearly revealed the cable, but the conditions had changed, and we failed to perform an exhaustive pre-flight checklist that would have reminded us of the obstacle.
When Situations Change
These incidents show that achieving flow will not make you impervious to danger. However, you will have the best chance of reacting appropriately if you are in a flow mind state when conditions or situations change. So how do you access this? You can start by intentionally refining the three habits mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Habit 1: Stay Connected to Your Core Motive
Start by remembering that you don’t do this for the cameras, the sponsors, the magazine ads, the Facebook likes or the chicks! Those are all fantastic byproducts, but if those thoughts enter your mind during the activity—especially when the environment changes, even in the slightest way—then you risk momentarily losing that super-human awareness.
Our current culture’s common obsession is to capture and share all life experiences. The very nature of most activities in today’s GoPro generation stands directly in the way of flow. That’s okay. It’s okay to share and inspire and satisfy sponsors, but embracing the core reason that you are doing what you love will help you genuinely focus on the moment.
Habit 2: Create Consistent and Effective Preparation Processes
Preparation means knowing the plan, knowing yourself (your internal environment: your experience, intentions, arousal levels, fears and ego) and knowing your external environment (teammates, competitors, playing field and conditions).
But here’s an ironic truth: The more experience you have, the easier it is to neglect the nuances of preparation. Think again about Tagle’s accident. It was his seventh jump of the day in the same location. He was dialed in. He was getting more and more aggressive. Chances are, his familiarity allowed other thoughts to enter his awareness. And the margins were too small for even the smallest distraction.
Are you letting the small details of preparation fall between the cracks because you have too much faith in your experience? Or said differently, have you amassed so much experience that you are fooling yourself into believing that your skill and savvy alone are responsible for your success and survival? How much of your preparation is relying on experience and how much is relying on actually preparing or running through the checklists, no matter how many times you’ve done it?
Habit 3: Create Consistent and Effective Reflection Processes
Reflection means creating time and space to learn and grow so that every new experience builds on the last one. That means learning from mistakes and successes.
We all know the drill—we wake up early (or too late), eat quickly, get to the drop zone, small talk with friends as we informally manifest for an upcoming load, do a quick once-over of our equipment, get on the plane and go jump. Land, pack, maybe a short celebration as we watch the video, then relish in the moment as we plan the next jump and do it again. Long days, dinner, beer, sleep, repeat. Over and over. Sure, we watch a half dozen GoPro angles of each flight. But are we taking the time to maximize our learning opportunities?
Whether it’s human instinct or derived from a scientific culture, we more easily focus on our failures than our victories. While this can be a catalyst for tremendous growth, it’s often only part of the story. Wholesome growth occurs when we reflect not only on the factors that led to our errors but also those that led to our successes. Then we must ask ourselves how can we ensure more of the latter.
That's it. Stay grounded with your core motivation, create consistent preparation processes, and create consistent reflection processes. It’s that simple. If you truly love the game and if you are checking all the boxes before and after so that you can be fully present in the moment, then I believe that is when you will find the flow.
Shannon Pilcher, D-18803, is a founding member of the Performance Designs Factory Team who began flying high-performance canopies when they first entered the skydiving scene. He has more than 26 years in the sport and has made more than 19,000 jumps, most of them involving high-speed landing maneuvers.