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This piece was originally published on August 28 for WeWork Magazine. It is by Michael Raybman.


Steve Fisher, one of the world’s most accomplished extreme kayakers, gave my favorite talk at WeWork Summer Camp 2014. Steve’s job poses extreme danger to his life every day – so he’s become an expert at managing, assessing and ultimately, taking risks. Here are some insights he shared with us on the quaint shores of Raquette Lake, not too far from one of his record-breaking adventures at the rapids of the Hudson River Gorge.

Preparation can make you or break you.

The first step to mitigating risks you can’t control is eliminating risks you can. That means meticulous preparation, getting the best equipment and team behind you, talking to people who have done it before, and scouting your routes beforehand. When you’re dealing with a 60-foot waterfall, you need to make sure your kayak won’t break. All this preparation will give you confidence to concentrate on your own performance.

Keep calibrating fear.

Our aversion to risk is often determined by a fear of a negative outcome — no matter how prepared we actually are. People who have no fear die. People who have too much fear never try. Finding the sweet spot where fear motivates us to achieve our peak performance without incapacitating us is key.

Find yourself in a mental state where fear turns into focus by increasing your comfort zone incrementally. For example, if you want to jump off a 10-foot cliff, you have to jump off a 5-foot one first until you don’t feel the nerves anymore. Then notch it up.

After you’ve done something for a long time you will eventually become desensitized to risk. To train your mind, pick up a challenging activity outside of your main pursuit. (Steve goes mountain biking when he’s not kayaking). If you get too comfortable and fearless in your main pursuit, it can get dangerous. Keep doing something you’re less comfortable with to maintain a healthy amount of fear.

Once you’ve chosen a stream, commit to it.

There may be many paths to your goal, but once you choose one, you’ll have to commit 100 percent. Second-guessing yourself in the middle of a concentrated effort will hinder your chances of success. So once you take off, operate on the assumption that you will arrive downstream safely. Trust that all your hard work, preparation, and training will lead you to the correct course.

Giving up can be the smart thing to do. Just don’t give up too easily.

Once you commit, you have to put in every effort to achieve your goal. Whether you’ve reached your goal or not, you eliminate the concept of failure and you will learn something in the process. Because you’re better prepared for next time, you’ll start off again as a stronger competitor. Giving up and looking for another way after you’ve exhausted your efforts can be the smartest move to succeed.

Photograph by Lucas Gillman for Red Bull