Doing something "impossible," like swimming 100 miles across open ocean or scaling a cliff without ropes, isn't about a lack of fear — it's about preparation.
Rock climber Alex Honnold performs feats that the average person could not survive. Even the best professional climbers wouldn't dare try some of his climbs, like scaling the nearly 3,000-foot wall of El Capitan in Yosemite without ropes or protective equipment.
Honnold appears to the rest of us to be fearless — and he's not the only person with that reputation. In October, Honnold gathered with several other renowned adventurers that most of us would consider extreme daredevils: skydiver and BASE jumper Roberta Mancino, tightrope artist Philippe Petit, who's known for crossing between the Twin Towers , and long-distance open water swimmer Diana Nyad. The group discussed "life on the edge" at a New Yorker Festival event aptly named "Fearless!"
These individuals described their relationship with fear, and how they determine if they're ready for some of their biggest challenges. Doing something "impossible" — like swimming 100 miles across open ocean or scaling a cliff without ropes — isn't about a lack of fear, they agreed. It's about adequate preparation.
"I personally think fear is part of the human condition," Nyad, who's credited with being the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, told moderator David Grann. "It doesn't mean when Philippe is on that wire or when Alex is clinging onto potato-chip-sized cracks or when Roberta is flying thousands of feet above the Earth that they are going to feel fear then ... But fearless to me means reckless — that you don't care, there's no preparation, 'I'm just going to go, I'm not afraid,' and I just don't believe that professionals like us are truly 100% fearless."
As Nyad and her fellow panelists put it, it's not that these challenges never scared them. It's that they prepared for them gradually, expanding their comfort zones until a task that previously seemed impossible started to appear in the realm of possibility.
"I think the feeling of fear is a pretty good indicator" that something is too extreme, Honnold said. "If you look at some objective and it fills you with dread, it's probably pretty inappropriate."
He said that for years before his record-setting El Cap climb, he'd though about doing it but didn't feel ready. "Starting in 2009, it was on my secret to-do list, and each time I'd drive into the valley and look at it and be like 'oh my God,' and feel kind of sick. So obviously it was not the year to do it. It was only in the past year or two that I could even look at it and be like, 'oh maybe,' I just need to do the proper work and put the time in and figure it out."
Honnold's brain was recently examined by a neuroscientist, who found that he didn't respond to theoretically "scary" stimuli in the way that other people do. But Honnold said his accomplishment just came down to gradually preparing over time.
"I know that I experience fear just like anybody," he said. "I used to be terrified of public speaking, there are a lot of things I've overcome over the years. So I know that the fear response exists ... but I think it's just been sort of dampened over the years."
Mancino, who has flown in a wing-suit over an active volcano, said that doing thousands of skydives prepared her for a time when she slipped and fell off a cliff while getting ready for a BASE jump.
"I went head down and I was very unstable and I recovered quickly my position because of all of the skydives," she said. "That's why you want to be prepared, you want to do as many skydives, you don't want to go BASE jumping if you don't know how to fly."
Petit said that he believes some attempts to protect ourselves with helmets and protective gear are giving in too much to fear.
"By creating those shelters, those carapaces, those armors, we are protecting ourselves, but we are negating ourselves, we are dying," he said.
Yet at the same time, he said that his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers took years of preparation.
"I am told by my friends I am an unbearable madman," he said. "Because on the high wire, even a little bold not properly set can cost your life. So I prepare and I am paranoid."