Breaking Through Uncertainty - Welcoming Adversity
We all question our ability at times. Uncertainty plagues us. It
is even more intense if the ability we are questioning relates
to something we have never tried or not succeeded at in the past.
Set backs are common, but we rarely welcome them. We are
inclined to respond negatively to adversity. It may be time to
revisit that reflexive response.
I had an experience recently that caused me to reconsider
whether a negative response to adversity is always justified
when I was confronted with a life-threatening situation.
It was mid-morning on a warm and pleasant Saturday. I was in the
midst of my first skydive of the day. It was my 2,123th jump
since having taken up the sport fifteen years ago.
After about one minute of freefall and 5,000 above the ground, I
parted ways with my fellow jumpers to get far enough away from
them to open my parachute safely. I initiated opening around
3,000 feet above the earth.
My parachute opened with some twists in the lines between the
parachute and me. This is not that uncommon. What was different
this time was that I was not able to clear the twists.
The twists in the lines caused my parachute to take on an
asymmetrical shape. Receiving asymmetrical inputs, the canopy
did what it is designed to do and initiated a turn -- that's how
it's steered. The problem occurred when the turn quickly became
a rapid, diving downward spiral that was spinning me a full 360
degrees about once every second. This was a problem.
I looked up to assess my canopy and saw something I don't often
see - the horizon clearly visible ABOVE the trailing edge of my
canopy. This meant my canopy and I were now on roughly the same
horizontal plane. In that I could see the horizon behind it, I
was actually above my parachute and it was leading our fast
spinning parade rapidly towards mother earth.
My first need was to acknowledge that I was not going to be able
to solve this problem. This is not as easy as it seems. Having
successfully completed over 2,100 jumps without having to resort
to my second parachute, it was hard for me to believe I had
really encountered a problem I could not solve. I had a natural
inclination to assume I could fix this problem as I had all
those in the past.
Sound familiar? It's always easy to lapse into denial when
confronted with a problem. Until we acknowledge the problem and
our possible inability to solve it - or to use the methods we
have used in the past - we don't have a chance of making things
Fortunately, the urgency of this situation caused my hard-headed
nature to yield much quicker than usual. That decision probably
took a second or two. The next step, having accepted the need to
follow a different course than in the past, was to determine the
course. Fortunately fifteen years of training and practice
before every day of jumping took hold.
I looked straight down at the two handles on either side of my
chest - one to release me from my malfunctioning canopy and one
for deploying my reserve parachute - and realized I needed to
quickly get them in my hands. I could not help but notice when I
made eye contact with them, as had been ingrained in me during
my First Jump Course way back in 1988, that by now the rapid
spins had turned me back to earth and there beyond my toes was
once again the horizon. This was bad!
Time was of the essence at this point not only because I was now
rapidly progressing toward the horse pasture below me, but also
because the centrifugal force I was starting to experience would
soon make it impossible to get my hands to those two handles.
With my hands now securely on the handles, I was confronted with
a bothersome question, "Now, which one goes first." The wrong
order could cause my reserve parachute to deploy into my
spinning main parachute which would result in an incurable
Fortunately, ingrained training once again took over and I
pulled them in the right order. First the handle on the right
side which released me from my spinning main parachute followed
by the handle on the left side to deploy my reserve parachute.
This brought on a wonderful experience. My malfunctioning black,
teal and magenta canopy was replaced with a bright, yellow never
before used reserve parachute. What a lovely sight! And all this
by 1,700 feet - plenty of time to spare.
Many years ago, I read a book about the challenges and
responsibilities of Secret Service agents. One of the sad
aspects of that profession is that agents who never have the
chance to validate their years of training by responding to a
threat sometimes struggle severely in retirement. They are faced
with not knowing - with certainty - how they would respond when
faced with the paramount challenge their career can deliver. For
this reason, agents who have faced such a challenge successfully
are admired within the culture of the Service.
That Saturday morning, I had the privilege of facing a similar,
life-threatening and I now realize life-defining challenge. I
faced what Secret Service agents call "the dragon."
For all of us the greater dragon is not the external threat,
whether it be an assassin's bullet, the unforgiving and fast
approaching earth or another challenge. The real dragon is the
self-doubt we carry within us.
For those few splendid moments after landing safely, I was able
to put my foot firmly on the neck of the dragon ... and it felt
Keep this in mind the next time you are confronted with
adversity. On the far side of the experiences the adversity
presents, there could be a valuble gift - a renewed confidence
(c) 2005, Jim McCormick
Permission to publish or post this article is granted provided
copyright is attributed to Jim McCormick and the above
information about the author is included in its entirety.