Free-fall and Personal Growth

I’m not a skydiver. I never got a license. It’s been ten years since I did my fifteen measly jumps.

But those few weeks of ground school, pre-instructed then video-analyzed jumps, and those several thousand bucks, provided both professional and personal lessons that I’ve thought about nearly every day since then – and hopefully put to some use. I’ll probably never skydive again, but the effect on my outlook has been long-lasting.

1. Slow down

Skydiving is as safe as the equipment and the mindset of the jumper. New students memorize how to methodically check the equipment before boarding the plane. We were told to memorize the motion for pulling the ripcord. We were taught to mentally visualize the landing pattern. Checklists are known to improve certain detailed processes, such as surgery and aviation. In skydiving, I felt safe because I could trust the equipment that I had methodically checked.

Skydiving is actually safe, and has gotten a lot safer in recent years. According to the United States Parachute Association (USPA), in 2018, there were 13 fatalities for an estimate 3.3 million jumps in the US. That’s 3.9 deaths per million jumps. And according to the USPA, tandem skydiving is even safer, with two deaths per million jumps.

Skydiving Fatalities Dataviz!

Data source: USPA

Skydivers are an enthusiastic group, and especially for the skydiver-tourists who have a limited amount of time at the dropzone, you try to maximize the number of jumps while the weather and winds are good. This means as soon as your feet hit the ground, you run to the parachute packing area, quickly pack, and get back to the plane before it takes off again. But if it’s a safe dropzone and they see you running to the plane, they will not let you board. And for good reason. Incorrect equipment usage is a major cause of skydiving fatalities, including some things so basic as not inserting one’s legs into the harness, or even mistaking video equipment for a parachute, multiple times.

“The harness McGuire wore for the video equipment is similar to that of a parachute. It has the same feel.”

My Takeaway: Being methodical in preparation is a valuable skill. Use checklists to decrease the chances of missing something small but critical. Checklists also decrease your overall cognitive load.

2. Relax in stressful situations

At some point, every student has to make their first solo jump. As soon as I exited the plane, my first subconscious reaction was Panic. My body went rigid. I spun out of control, rotating through free fall. If you open your parachute with this type of movement, there’s a good chance it gets twisted or tangled and you’ll have a hard landing. Opening is better than not-opening, but opening dangerously when you are not stabilized can often lead to serious injury or death. In my first solo jump, until I stabilized, I believed I was going to crash to the ground in an uncontrolled spin.

Here’s how it looks to not be stabilized:

not how to skydive

I had this exact internal dialog after 5 eternal seconds of uncontrollable aerial rotations:

What needs to be done?

     Stabilize the body.

How does one achieve that?

     The body must relax.

That realization was an electrocution. To survive, my conscious brain quickly took over from my flailing body. As soon as my body relaxed, it snapped into a safer, stabilized position (although still lacking technique).

My Takeaway: Try to regularly take measure of a “relaxation-status”. If not calm, don’t do anything else except take steps to achieve calmness.

3. Don’t blindly use technology

I was sitting at the pre-boarding zone, getting geared-up and ready to board. Skydivers wear altimeters on their hand, to easily monitor the altitude during the jump, so you know when to pull the ripcord. As I put the altimeter on my hand, it dropped from knee-hight to the ground. No big deal, right?

Wrong. An instructor happened to see the altimeter fall, and worse, he saw that I put it on after it fell. He walked over to me and asked me if I was planning to use it. When I said Yes, he asked me to give him the altimeter, and brought me another to use. His thinking, which was 100% correct, was that if there is a miniscule chance that the altimeter was broken or mis-calibrated in the fall, it could mean an accident. The instructor then wore my potentially-broken altimeter in addition to his own, and confirmed after his jump that it was still working correctly.

My Takeaway: Know when to not trust the technology, and when the technology needs to be tested. This is especially important on analytical projects, where a result needs to be understood in the context of the data. The worst thing one can do is to make a business case on a faulty analytical presumption.

4. Waiting may be better

The “stress” of skydiving actually causes a hormone response:

Higher post-jump happiness predicted faster cortisol recovery after jumping…

And it’s not even just beginner skydivers:

Intriguingly, even after hundreds of prior exposures, the experienced jumpers still showed a significant cortisol response to the jump…

(Source: Experience, cortisol reactivity, and the coordination of emotional responses to skydiving

After my Advanced Free Fall course was complete, I was on my flight back home from the dropzone in Spain. The buzz of new addiction was overwhelming. I did some back-of-the-envelope math to calculate how many jumps I could afford if I quit my job and cashed-in my modest life savings.

Thankfully, the hormonal response eventually dulled, and I wasn’t overcome by a skydiving addiction. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it.)

My Takeaway: Waiting to plan is not so good, but waiting to act is perfectly fine. Don’t feel pressured to act. It’s better to wait until all the information is known, or in this case, until the hormonal response has worn off.

An example from my professional life: I worked for an energy utility, and one task was the responsibility for the data-compliance of a European Union regulatory-framework. The deadlines were clear, but as they slowly approached, the exact implementation wasn’t getting any clearer. I decided to wait. We were a small player in the market, and I was confident the big Swiss players would iron out the details. The internal response was not so positive, and some may have said that I was procrastinating. But when the deadline arrived, we were fully compliant, and without an over-engineered solution.

Ten years later

We’ve packed ourselves like sardines, I’m nervously sweating in a roaring, ascending plane. The engine noise becomes slightly quieter: the climb is over. Light blinks from red to green. In floods the burst of cold air as the plane door slides open. Observe as the experienced skydivers fall gracefully from the open door. Wait for my turn (at the end with the other beginners).

Ten years later, these thoughts still make my stomach turn in knots – my moment to jump steadily approaches.

And for your entertainment, here’s the video of my first solo jump:

Why not go for a jump? You never know what you’ll learn about yourself once your brain has pushed your body out of an airplane!

Philip Shemella
Philip Shemella

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