Five minutes of absolute terror

by Dr. Anthony Paustian, the author of A Quarter Million Steps: Creativity, Imagination, & Leading Transformative Change

As someone with an intense fear of open-air heights, I’m not exactly sure how I rationalized standing, tethered to a “pilot,” in front of the open door of an aircraft 2 and 3/4 miles off the ground.  Although I took slight comfort knowing the pilot was one of the best in the world––a U.S. Golden Knight with over 9,000 jumps––I seriously questioned my decision in that moment. 

Perhaps I wanted to prove to myself I could let go of my fear.  Or, maybe, I felt baited into it by my Army friends who kept calling me a wimp, among other things. Whatever the reason, there I stood, terrified and mentally frozen, with my heart pumping like it would explode in my chest.

I had no choice but to trust my pilot, a man half my size. As I hung out the door while he held on to make final preparations, I resisted looking down for these few seconds as I had absolutely no control. I tried to ignore the sudden urge to clutch something––anything––to save my life; especially since grabbing something at this point could cause serious injury.

The pilot tapped my shoulder indicating we were about to jump.  After three forward lunges, we began our free-fall descent of 9,500 feet at about 120 miles per hour.  Breathing was difficult, and my cheeks flapped from the massive intake of air.  Because I was traveling so fast at such heights, I didn’t realize I had allowed myself to flap my arms like a large, prehistoric bird. Perhaps it was the lack of context. When I saw the curvature of the earth, the ground looked like a blurred mass of color and undefined features. At 5,000 feet, the pilot deployed the main chute. Our speed and descent slowed, which allowed us the freedom to circle, twist, and glide as the pilot wished.

Then came the most terrifying question I’d ever heard: “Would you like to take the controls and fly the chute?” 

When the main chute deployed, I had clenched my straps for dear life; the decreased speed and increased clarity of detail on the ground below reminded me of my fear of open-air heights.  No way was I going to let go and grab the steering controls.  Letting go of the straps would have meant abandoning my false feeling of security. I was convinced if I let go, I would certainly fall to my death.

Of course, that thought was ludicrous; I was skydiving with an expert. Yet we all struggle with “letting go” of what feels safe at times, whether we’re clinging to unnecessary fears, flawed thinking, insecurities, bad habits, or something as simple as a parachute harness.

Creativity is about making connections––sticking things together in new ways that frequently deviate from the norm. At its very essence, creativity is typically at the center of change, which often brings about a variety of emotions in people, not the least of which is fear and all of the “what if?” scenarios that come with it. Fear is typically a function of the unknown, and our inability to let go of it keeps us from experiencing new things or taking advantage of positive opportunities––in this case the opportunity to control the chute and the direction we were taking. Once we are able to take a first step forward, however small, the unknown becomes a little less so, and each step thereafter builds confidence to take the next.

While the skydiving experience didn’t cure my fear of open-air heights, I did grow as a result. If nothing else, I took another step (albeit a 2 and 3/4-mile one) toward facing—and letting go of—my fears, one of many steps to come.

STAY TUNED! Over the next few blogs, I will be addressing the various aspects of change and its relationship to creative thinking.

Practice Challenge:  What do you fear? What keeps you up at night? The next time you find yourself up against it, take a baby step. Challenge your fears one at a time by continuously reducing the unknown surrounding it. The more you know and the more experience you have with it, the less you will fear it.

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianLargeHeadDr. Anthony Paustian is the author of four books including his most recent, A Quarter Million Steps. For more information, please visit his website at


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