We have all been in a situation where we were scared to death. I too have been in many but one particular incident took it to the next level. I will never forget that day, November 19th, 2014.
To set the scene, let’s go back to the weekend before, four days earlier, when my friends and I had traveled from Nairobi to Mombasa, for business. A few months earlier, we had developed what we thought was a revolutionary way for high school and university students to make payments across all sectors that they were involved with financially. As luck would have it, there was a national conference for high school Principals in Mombasa and we hoped to make a pitch to as many as we could there so as to get a pilot project going.
I won’t go into the details of the pitch, that’s a story for another day. What was interesting though is that we got a few people to say YES and even got one Principal very interested in investing in the business. To show they were really committed, they offered a tidy sum upfront as part of their investment. We were already burning fast through our merger cash reserves so we were glad to have the extra boost; we weren’t giving up much equity for the same too.
With a cash boost in hand, one of the other two founders suggested that to reward ourselves, we should travel back to Nairobi by plane. “The tickets,” he said, “will only cost a fraction of what we had.”
We did not agree. For one of us, it was because he thought that might not be a very wise expenditure of the extra cash but for me, far beyond that, I was completely terrified of flying.
He was relentless though, and pretty convincing too. Within a few hours of back and forth, he had won me over with the promise that, “It really is super fun and I have flown many times. It is also much safer than any other form of transport. Remember the dangerous overtaking maneuvers the bus driver made during our journey here?” I reluctantly agreed.
Overpowered 2 to 1, our frugal colleague conceded and we proceeded to make the bookings. Within minutes, a confirmation email buzzed on my phone. That’s when the excitement really began. This would be my first flight.
My first flight experience.
As evening came, the excitement slowly started turning into anxiety. That it was a night flight did not make it any better. I knew that pilots can steer planes in the dark with the help of radar but the fact that it would be pitch black outside was not comforting at all. But I had signed up for it. I wouldn’t cower away now.
Our flight was scheduled for 10 pm so we started for the airport around 8 pm. The hour-long taxi ride from our hotel to the airport felt like an eternity. I fidgeted, clasped my hands, prayed, looked to the heavens, prayed again and repeated the cycle a million times. By the time we got to the airport, I was a sweaty mess.
Check-in was uneventful but the hour wait was anything but. I must have gone to the washroom 5 or 6 times. A splash of water on my face this time, a series of short breaths another time, a feeling of nausea the next. Finally, we were called to the boarding gates.
As though the universe was mocking me, I had a window seat, and so did all my colleagues. The person next to me refused to swap seats and I was resigned to my fate.
When all had boarded and the checks were done, safety announcements were made, seat belts were tightened, some more than others and then the plane slowly taxied to the runway. Then, we came to a complete stop. I looked out at the sky. Pitch black, not a star up there. I prayed again and almost on cue, the plane started moving. Slowly at first and then suddenly, I felt myself being pulled into the chair as it accelerated along the runway.
I closed my eyes, held firmly onto my arm rest and slowly felt everything tilt backwards. We were airborne. The tilt continued for another few minutes. At some point, the plane would jerk up and take a steeper tilting angle, then tilt back again to the previous angle. Not fun! I suppose the pilot didn’t get the memo about my anxiety.
After about 20 minutes of my heart being in my mouth, the plane levelled out horizontally. A sigh of relief. But that too didn’t last. I suddenly felt everything tilt forward and the horror cycle began all over. We were already in descent.
All this while, the air hostesses were moving up and down the aisle with their fancy trolleys but I wanted nothing to do with food or any fluids. I was already doing a great job holding a lot in. I must have drifted in my own thoughts and was suddenly started by an announcement over the P.A. system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be landing at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport. Please make sure one last time that your seat belt is securely fastened. The flight attendants are currently passing around the cabin to make a final compliance check and pick up any remaining cups and glasses. Thank you.”
A few minutes later, I could see the lights from the buildings below. We flew over a highway and the airport was now in view. 2 heavy breaths, hands firmly on the armrest, eyes now closed, a prayer to the heavens, sweat dripping down my back, I braced for impact.
The landing was not as scary as I had imagined, just a little less harsh than a speed bump. As the plane hit the ground, it wallowed and juddered a bit, gradually slowing down on the runway. A sigh of relief. Another prayer to the heavens. Then I slowly opened my eyes.
I had just had my first flight.
Suddenly, I felt a deep sense of calm sweep over me. All the anxiety was quickly replaced by joy and a strange kind of happiness for having faced my fear of flying.
I won’t bore you with details about finding my luggage or the taxi ride home. All I can say is I am grateful to have taken that first flight. It was a gateway to many more, each with its own share of events. However, I have noticed that with each one, I am less anxious about flying. The occasional turbulence will have me grabbing my armrest with my eyes closed but I don’t worry for days on end before boarding the plane.
My experience with flying, specifically the fear I have learned to master, is not unique.
What the statistics tell us.
About 33 percent of all humans have some form of anxiety about flying, that’s 1 in 3. But the same people have no problem zipping along highways at 100Km/h in their cars, myself included, although statistically speaking, one is more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash. In fact, the odds of an airplane crash are nearly 1 in 10,000, which is 3 times less likely than even one choking on their own food.
James Fallow, in a 2014 article for The Atlantic writes about this very subject, the difference between fear and danger. He presents a sound case with statistics showing that on average, shark attacks claim 1 life every year compared to bathroom accidents which claim at least 1 life every single day. Yet, many of us are terrified at the idea of swimming in the ocean for fear of a shark attack yet we all insist that the kids and ourselves take a bath every single day.
“Bathtubs should be 365 times as frightening as sharks but it’s the reverse. We don’t have ‘Bathtub week’ on the Discovery channel” Writes James to emphasize the point.
Why is it that so many of us are so bad at differentiating between things that present a real danger and the things that terrify us?
The reason is quite simple:
We are more relaxed around the familiar; around what we are more acquainted with.
Just a quick check. How many flights have you been on this year? What about car rides? And how many baths or showers have you taken in your entire life? How many sharks have you encountered in open water?
The number of sharks the average human has come across is so small that their rarity turns them into a mystery, which then turns into uncertainty. And most of us don’t do very well with uncertainty. We overthink. We worry. We fill that gap in our knowledge with imaginations of the worst-case scenario. We get scared, so scared in fact, that we refuse to even take the next small step.
Making the leap.
This is the same position that many first-time entrepreneurs find themselves in as they contemplate leaving the relative safety and security provided by stable everyday employment to start a new business. They are forced to face the uncertainty of being on their own, without a boss telling them what to do, without a regular paycheck and with no guarantees on the other side. For some, that gap in familiarity can look like a wide canyon or even worse, an abyss. Crossing it might seem like the most foolish thing they have ever considered doing in their life.
The same goes for those who have been on a certain career path for a long time and are thinking of making a shift to something they love but feel like they would be starting over in the wilderness without a guide or a clear way forward.
You might be one of them, at the edge of that cliff, hoping to make the leap of following your dream but the terrifying fear holds you back.
In my own entrepreneurial journey as well as my encounter with many people who run successful businesses or in careers they love, one thing is evident. Most of the people who have found their success after taking that leap, credit that single moment as what made the biggest difference.
They all talk about the initial anxiety and uncertainty but those concerns melt away when they reflect on even greater danger of squandered opportunity and regret, waking up at 75 years old only to realize they wasted their dreams.
As Jim Koch, who left a high-paying consulting job at the Boston Consulting Group to become the creator of Sam Adams Beer puts it, “It’s the difference in life between the things that are scary and the things that are dangerous. There are plenty of things that are dangerous but not scary, and those are the things that get to you.”
I am not saying it’s going to be easy, but just like the joy of having taken my first flight, it’s surely going to be worth it.