“Listen up everyone”, the race director yells into the microphone. “We are going to walk down to the boats now. Stay together and make sure you make it to the boat by 7:30am or we will leave you.”
Leave me? Not such a bad idea considering what we are about to do.
We all walk down to the pier 39 like a flock of penguins in our black wet suits. Some people don’t wear wet suits at all. These are the “au natural” folks who are fond of saying “I have a natural wet suit.” Crazy, I know but hey, it takes all kinds.
The march of the penguins lasts about ½ a mile. Just enough time to chit chat with your fellow crazies and give the newbies a hard time. Sure, they’re sharks. Sure the waters cold and yes, it tastes bad when you swallow it. It’s all in good fun. I mean, they did sign up for this, so all is fair game.
I remember my first Alcatraz swim. Man, what a nerve racking experience. I think the nerves were worst than the swim. Everyone is pacing around on the swaying boat. Eyes as big as saucers. The au natural’s lubing up with petroleum jelly, which they swear helps (who knows but they seem to like it).
The smells are the worst. Rubber from the wet suits, seagull crap on the boat, petroleum jelly, diesel fuel and inevitably someones morning breakfast. It’s a nice way to start the morning. Sometimes you just have to wonder — I actually paid to do this.
It’s kinda funny to see the penguins lined up at the boat door. No one ever wants to jump first. The crew waves you on but the amount of hesitation is palatable, almost like an invisible force field that repels you from the opening.
Once the first penguin jumps, then the rest seem to follow (it’s striking similar to what penguins actually do).
Once you jump off that perfectly good boat, you are committed. There is no looking back. That eight foot drop is the scariest thing you will experience all day and you did it. You made the leap. Now it’s time to get to work.
The Unknown Is Scary
Part of the reason jumping off a perfectly good boat is so scary is we don’t know what lies beneath. Even though we see countless others jumping off and doing just fine, we hesitate. We think about the downside. We get scared. We panic.
These are all natural responses to jumping off boats or leading a group, your company or yourself. Battling the unknown is one of the most challenging skills a leader must master. It’s also one of the most difficult because being comfortable with the unknown contradicts all of our natural instincts about self preservation, avoiding risk and our fragile egos.
Self Preservation, Risk And Our Ego
Risk assessment is the first part of making the vast unknown a little less scary. For our discussions, we will consider two types of risks: systematic and random.
This is the type of risk that’s inherent in what you are doing and has a high probability of occurring if not mitigated. For example, coal mining has a systematic risk of black lung since coal dust is part of the job.
Our swim from Alcatraz has the systematic risk of cold water. The bay will be cold no matter how hot it is outside.
This type is, you guest it, random in nature and cannot be mitigated easily. Being struck by lightening or hit by a random bullet. These risks are just part of life.
Mitigating The Risks
Risk mitigation can take many forms but the best form is to engineer your way to safety. This is usually done by creating some sort of assistance that eliminates or greatly reduces the risk. For our coal mining example, that would be wearing a respirator. For our swim, it would be putting on a wet suit.
Determining The Downsides
The downside of the risk can range from quality of life issues to absolute death and all points in between. Understanding the downsides means you can determine if your mitigations are enough to remove or reduce the downsides.
For our swim from Alcatraz, the wetsuit is our cold water mitigation and the downside from not wearing one is reducing our body temperature and being cold, maybe even hypothermic.
Assessing The Conditions
So once you have determine the downsides, your next step is to figure out the actual conditions you are in.
For our Alcatraz swim, we measure the water temperature, look at the tides and figure out the landmarks to navigate too. If the conditions are good, we will feel much better about taking the leap.
Taking The Leap
Once you jump, there is no going back. It’s actually the scariest part but once you fully committed, you have no choice but to swim to shore.
Adjusting To Reality
Your assessment of the conditions will most likely be wrong. Don’t worry. Everyone gets it wrong. Successfull people adjust to their new reality and move on.
Getting The Job Done
Now that you are adjusted and in the right frame of mind, it’s time to get the job done. You jumped so you are committed to seeing your journey through. That is tremendously liberating because now all you have to do is focus on getting the job done, which is the easiest part of all.
Go Ahead. Jump!
The next time you face a situation where you have to step out of your comfort zone or take a chance, remember to thing about the risks and mitigate them as best you can. At least you are not swimming from Alcatraz — that’s crazy.