Breaking down risk: Steve Fisher at TEDxAthens

Breaking down risk: Steve Fisher at TEDxAthens


Translator: Michael Wilson
Reviewer: SungJoo Kim Okay. I’d like to present
a hypothetical idea. A way to practice taking risks,
because after all, practice makes perfect. Right? So I want you to picture a stadium.
The biggest stadium you’ve ever seen. and it’s got a huge arch
over the top of it, a hundred meters high. Now, most people think that that arch
is simply there for supporting the structure. But others believe that arch is also there
so that we can tie a rope to the top of it, we can stretch that rope
all the way to the rim of the stadium and do a huge rope swing
all the way across. And better still, we can do that
in a kayak. But wait! What if the rope breaks?
You could die! Okay, maybe you didn’t ask that question.
But I’m pretty sure that you did ask, “What’s a professional kayaker,
and what’s he doing on our stage?” I haven’t done much to change the world,
but I have made a career out of exploring remote rivers.
And the rivers taught me just about everything I need to know. Growing up in South Africa
was a good life, but a simple life. No TV, no video games,
but I did have a kayak and a river. I had the disadvantage of having
very few kayak mentors to teach me what could be done in a kayak,
but I had the distinct advantage of having nobody to tell me
what could not be done. I remember as a young teenager,
hearing about a French rafting expedition that had attempted to take on and navigate
the world’s biggest rapids, on the Congo River. I saw this old photocopy
of the Paris Match magazine, and this was the last photo ever taken of them. Right about the same time, I saw an old newspaper
with this photo of Marco Begni kayaking off a waterfall near my house. If you look at the top left of the frame,
you’ll see a kayak there. I clearly remember walking into the kitchen
and saying to my parents, “I’m going to kayak down
that waterfall one day.” And my dad said, “Well, son,
if you work hard and practice, maybe one day you’ll be good enough.” About ten years later I found myself
kayaking off that very waterfall. And about 15 years later I found myself
standing next to the Congo River on the very same spot where
that last photograph was taken. Now I think the best way for me
to introduce you to my Congo expedition is to play the trailer to the film that
I made about it. Have a look. Some call it a calling.
I think of it as an obsession. Inga. World’s biggest rapid. Almost every attempt to survive it
causes death. I’ve been kayaking my whole life.
But when is enough enough? I first heard the story, and seven people
died having their attempt. Now I’ve waited half my life for my turn. All I have to do now is call a team of the best, put my friends’ lives on the line… I’ve definitely been struggling with it.
I’ve woken up quite a few mornings and just almost felt like calling the boys
and saying, I just don’t know
if I’m in for this one. This is the obsession: to release yourself
by accomplishing the goal. Or by being stopped by something outside of your control. But once you start this journey,
even if you don’t want to go, you have to. (Energetic music) You can run all the big water you want,
but how do you prepare for something that’s never been done before? In a place where help is not on its way. Congo. A place where experience is just a word. The lesson that we learned today
is not to fuck with these rapids. Fisher messed up because he got off
to the side where whirlpools form, where all of this stuff goes down out here. I may have had the closest call of my life,
but I didn’t come here to die. I came here to win. (Helicopter noise) (Music slowly builds) -Steady bro!
– Fuck, they’re not gonna make it dude! (CONGO: The Grand Inga Project) All right, so. Spoiler alert: we survived. (Laughter) (Applause) So what you just saw
in the introduction there, is even us extreme sports guys feel trepidation
as we approach a new challenge. And in this case, it was fearing
that if we took the next step, the voyage itself would take on a life
of its own, and drag us along with it. It would be like faring out into a huge river
with a strong current, and you can’t stop.
It’s a commitment. So how, then, do we prepare for something
that’s never been done before? In my profession I have a small box that I start with
that has five tools in it. My equipment: I make sure
I have the right gear. My physical well-being: I make sure that
I’ve prepared physically for the task. The location: I make sure that I’m
in the perfect place to do what I do. And once I’ve checked those three off,
I use those to develop the other two, which are the skills and the experience. But you can’t use any of these tools
until you demistify risk. We can mitigate risks purely
by understanding them, and the way that we understand them is that we take a seemingly impossible idea
and we break it down into little digestible parts,
and we look at each step individually and see if that is attainable. What happens then is what we’re doing,
is that we find that many of our fears are unjustified, and very often we find
that what’s before us is far less risky than we thought. So… give me a second.
Might need some applause here. (Applause) So you know, as humans,
we are not inherently risk averse. We evolved by taking risks, so it’s okay
if there are risks in what we do. We simply need to understand those risks,
and once we understand them, we’re ready to take the first step.
So let me show you what I mean. Let me show you how I put that to use
every time I look at a rapid or a waterfall. As I paddle up to the top of a waterfall,
the first thing I do is climb out of my kayak and I walk down the side of the river
and I look at the pool below. That’s my goal, that’s where I want to be. And it’s only then that I turn back
at the rapid, and Oh my gosh! If I look at the whole rapid
it’s far too daunting. So what I need to do is break it down
into smaller chunks, into individual moves and see that I can do
each move individually, and only then do I figure out
how to link those moves together. So let’s zoom in on this photograph.
If I would have shown this top part of the rapids to even an intermediate kayaker,
they would say, “Okay. Well that looks fairly chunky,
but it’s good to go.” And if I showed them the next part,
they would say, “Oh, that’s a pretty straightforward job.
Yeah, let’s go do it.” And if I show them the last part,
they would say, “Okay, it’s pretty spectacular but it’s a straight shot. You don’t really need to do anything.
It’s good to go.” You’ll have to take my word for that. But the job is not done there.
Once we cut a problem horizontally, the next thing we need to do
is cut it vertically. What we’re trying to do
is establish the path or line that we’re likely to be on. And the reason that we’re doing that
is to eliminate the parts of the rapid that don’t affect us. The parts of the rapid where we will not be. Because if we do that, then we can look and see
if there are any deadly features. If those deadly features are in the eliminated part
we never have to think about them again. And if those deadly features are in our path,
and they’re unavoidable, well then we don’t go. It’s far too risky. That’s how extreme sport works.
Sorry to disappoint you guys. (Laughter) So imagine you’re walking along
a trail like this. You’re walking along
and you’ve got a cliff on your left side. You’re thinking about
what you’re doing while you walk. You’re not thinking about
the cliff the entire time. It’s only if you turn towards the cliff
and start approaching it that it becomes a real danger. And then you stop. Okay, so how do you know
if you’re on the right path, and what happens
if you’re on the wrong path? Well, in kayaking there’s no turning back. So what that teaches us
is not to panic when things go wrong. When the unexpected occurs
we have no choice but to solve the problem and keep on moving. But fortunately, as in life,
if we zoom back just a little bit, perhaps to where we haven’t yet climbed in the kayak
and made the commitment, we get to see that very often we can start down a path,
realize we’re on the wrong path, turn back and reset the plan. Let me show you what I mean. (Laughter) Have you ever heard the cliche,
“never give up?” Well tonight we’re canceling it.
We don’t say that anymore. From now on we say,
“Don’t give up too easily.” On this particular trip,
our plan was to use a rope to rappel down into the base of Victoria Falls and kayak through the rapids
at the very base of the falls. Once we got down there,
we found the unexpected. The wind and the spray
from the falls themselves were so strong
that it was impossible to kayak, so we had to fall back
on to our contingency plan and climb a hundred meters back up the rope and cancel the whole idea. But guess what? The TV show we were
making about it, turned out great, and we got this photograph. We gave up but
we didn’t have to feel ashamed of it. if you refuse to give up on an idea,
then you inhibit your ability to experiment. But if you’re willing to give up
after a good effort, then when you do give up there’s no reason to feel guilty. Okay, so I think that now
you’re starting to get to know me a little bit, so I think that we’re ready to talk about the stadium idea again.
How do you guys feel now? But wait! What if the rope breaks?
You could die! The rope is not going to break,
and here’s why. Right from the start,
we’re going to use a rope that is thousands of pounds stronger
than it needs to be. So we’ve used the right equipment
to eliminate the problem and we never have to think about it again. We’ve eliminated the “what if” factor.
It’s called “pointing positive”. We can now focus on the how,
and in this particular case, the more important question is, “How long does that rope need to be
to make sure that we don’t hit the ground on the way down?” And once we’re finished,
how are we gonna get from the end of the rope
back to the ground? Now, with a few simple
mathematical calculations, these are pretty easy problems to solve. So we’re ready to go.
Are you guys ready? Audience: Yes All right, let’s do it. (electronic music) (Wind noise) All right. (Applause) I can see you want to do that, don’t you? All right. So when we imagined
this idea, first of all, the idea sounds crazy. But once
we break it down and demystify the risk, then we suddenly find that it’s so safe
that this very swing has now become a fully fledged commercial operation. Yes. You too can go to Durban, South Africa.
You can pay your money, and you can go and do a giant rope
swing across a stadium. You can take a leap of faith.
And hundreds of people do. And guess what the most common thing
that they say is afterwards? “Man! It just really wasn’t as bad
as I thought it was going to be, and I feel as if “If I can do that, I can do anything!”
And guess what? They’re absolutely right. So right now, we all live always
at the edge of uncharted waters. And no matter that they’re something
meaningless like kayaking down a rapid, or meaningful like changing the world,
the principle is always the same: We need to buck up
and add our piece to the puzzle. It reminds me of a quote that I heard once. I was in the deepest gorge in the world,
in Tibet. One of the boys ad-libbed
a quote out of a book called “The Wanderer” by Sterling Hayden. And I’ll give you just one line. “Ive always wanted to sail
the seven seas, but I can’t afford it. What these people can’t afford is not to go”. End quote. Thank you very much, Athens! It’s been a pleasure and a privilege.
Good night! (Applause)

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