Sunday, July 05, 2009

Rethinking derring do

I've done my share of stunts that scared the crap out of me -- skydiving (three times), hang gliding (one ill-advised venture), cycling down the side of a volcano (once). Having done those and more, I've come to think that the real satisfaction comes not in doing them, but in being able to say that I've done them, if that makes any sense. I'm reminded of something that software entrepreneur and former skydiver Tom Siebel said about his experience: after you've done it a bunch of times, it's no big deal. You leave the plane, you pull a cord and you float to the ground.

Usually, I bring a certain level of bravado into the experience, believing and telling friends that it's not such a big deal. Then I end up white-knuckling the entire thing, though most would say they were exhilarated by it. Think about it -- how many people go skydiving and just say 'feh' afterward? Not many. So what's the deal?

Recently I took a mule ride down a narrow path carved into a 1600 foot cliff face. I'd never ridden a mule before, the trail was anything but smooth, and the mule, well, what they say about mules being stubborn is true. In hindsight, my biggest issue wasn't about the trail or the cliff. It was that I didn't have control over the mule. Intellectually, I knew that she'd walked the route countless times and wasn't any more interested in taking a header off the cliff than I was. I just had issues with not being in charge. As soon as I mounted her, she'd started meandering over to the other mules, with me helplessly riding atop her, and the trail wasn't any better. After several of her attempts to prance the outside edge of the path to pass a slower mule ahead of us, I was thinking twice about taking the same route back to our origin. Yeah, I was considering hiking a steep and rocky three-mile path, rather than riding the mule back up. Ultimately, I decided to take the chance with her, and I'm glad I did. When I tried my best to just go with the flow, she took charge and expertly got us back to the trailhead.

After that trek, I came to a realization. Maybe it wasn't the experience I thought it would be, and maybe I'm a bit more of a wimp than I'd like to admit. Maybe I was really uncomfortable, even a bit scared, but it did teach me something. Sometimes when you take a risk, even when it doesn't feel good and you had no control, you can at least get some satisfaction from having given it a shot. You just keep moving along, and you survive. And maybe once in a while, you realize that giving up control isn't so bad.