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  • Writer's pictureGreg Bennick

Jumping Out of an Airplane Definitely Helps with Focus! Bucket list item: ✔️

Amidst all of our work and ambition, let’s not forget about pursuing adventure and joy. 

I have wanted to skydive for decades and finally made it happen. It was a journey to get there, because of immense self-doubt and fear along the way. But after YEARS of overthinking, I finally made, yes, the jump. And in doing so I learned a tremendous amount about focus. And about myself.

Bucket list item: ✔️

I had promised myself that I would jump out of an airplane someday.  It was one of those promises that was half rooted in fear and half in knowing that the jump might not actually happen. And not “might” not happen, but definitely wouldn’t happen if I could just derail it long enough until I didn’t care anymore.

Jumping out of a plane isn’t like ordering fries. You can order fries just about anywhere but to jump out of a plane requires a list of steps, any one of which as I learned, offering a chance to divert and change course. And how often do we divert?  I know about that better than anyone. Having ADHD means constant potential diversions away from a main goal, and countless chances to get off track along the way which can prevent the goal from being achieved.

I originally made plans to do this jump in the winter of 2021. I had taken the first big step and called the skydiving place and made my reservation for my birthday. They told me that the jump was dependent on weather, and while I agreed, I was secretly relieved as I knew - living in the Northwest – that inclement weather meant that my out was almost secured. It rains here from November until June typically, so that meant that half the year could see my terrifying jump delayed, or better yet, cancelled entirely with a full refund.

As it turns out a combination of Covid and weather did indeed seal the deal on that first planned jump day. And so, I went back to my life happy and relieved. It was enough to plan the jump…I didn’t have to actually DO it, did I???

The skydiving center told me that they would hold my deposit as a credit for a year and that I could jump anytime I wanted. Did I really want to do this? They recommended the summer. I thought that this would be fine, thinking summer of 2056.  I thanked them but immediately started to plan all the reasons I would be busy that particular summer. 

And so, that is exactly what happened. Once I had covertly decided to disrupt my own process, I manifested every single one of those distractions and that led to the entire year going by without me accomplishing the single task I had set out before me. It is not difficult really, jumping out of a plane. But I made it intentionally impossible, at every step of the way. Self-sabotage personified.

How often do we do that in other walks of life?  We set out on a task we know or expect will be challenging and then instead of rising to face the challenge, we divert or back up so far that we skip the challenge entirely? I have a feeling we do that more often than we think. I know I do, even if somehow you don’t.

The skydiving place let me know at the end of 2021 that I was running out of time for the year, and that I needed to redeem my deposit.  I asked if I could have into 2022 and promised I would jump that year. They told me that would be no problem, and yes, you guessed it: I made excuses all throughout the next year too about why I wasn’t able to follow through with my bucket list plan.

Finally, they called and said the deposit really was expiring and that I needed to schedule a jump time. I thought at first to just let the deposit go, and then reschedule for that illusory “someday” which would conveniently never arrive. Instead, I scheduled a date. Sure, it was a date at the very end of the season, but that still counted as an almost-jump, right if I wasn’t able to make it?  At least I could tell myself that I kinda, sorta, pretty much almost tried?

The day got closer and close and eventually arrived. I was terrified. I got into my car and started driving the 45 minutes north to the facility. About half an hour into the drive they called. They said that there was a 50/50 chance that we wouldn’t be able to dive because of the potential for cloudy weather. This was it! My relief!  They told me that if I wanted to cancel or postpone that they would honor my credit for another day.  I wanted so badly to say yes, but instead I told them I wanted to go for it. I was this far already afterall.

The dive itself is a bizarre experience. You sign waivers first, which indemnify the skydiving facility, its pilots, friends, grandmothers, and pets against any lawsuits resulting from the, and they name each one, million and one ways you might die. Then you meet an instructor. The instructor shows you a video of happy people not dying in those million and one ways. Then they, the instructor, has you suit up outside and stand near the plane which is going to take you up but not bring you back down. Nothing about this feels normal.

Most people I meet are out of their minds after the last few years, myself included. We all are a perfect amalgam of mental distress or illness for one reason or another, and yet, for some reason, in the moment I most need to trust another person I decided to put my faith in a person who jumps out of planes for a living. How is that rational? The instructor tells you everything you need to know for a successful jump.

But every step of the process feels overwhelming. Every moment holds an opportunity to quit. Afterall, no one is making you jump out of plane. It is entirely me against me, with no audience. In this case, I decided to keep going through the motions, figuring that if I did, that I would either succeed and have a perfect jump to tell stories about later, or, you know, die.

After you get the skydiving suit on, you’re led to the plane, and when that plane takes off, that’s when things get real. You quickly realize that there’s no jetway and arrival gate at the other end of the flight. There’s no snacks or chime at ten thousand feet to let you know that you can take out your laptop and watch the episodes of Andor that you downloaded for the flight. You’re going out the door.

And that door is right in front of you. In my case, it was a 5’ by 5’ door on the side of the plane, with each of the tandem pairs (each jumper strapped to their instructor) sitting facing the back of the plane in rows. I had paid extra, $50 for another 5000 feet of free fall, figuring why not. Hitting the ground at 120 mph or hitting the ground at 200 mph is basically the same thing, right? I was near the cockpit, and could see all the jumpers and instructors ahead of me getting themselves ready.

There was a red light above the door and when it turned green, the first pair of jumpers would make their way to the door, and then jump out. I watched six pairs before me jump out before the plane rose to 13,500 feet for my jump. It is an odd thing, flying in a plane with a door open all the while. That’s not supposed to happen.  Nor is the experience of watching all the other passengers on your flight leave through the side of the plane. Also, quite unusual.

I was once flying from a corporate event at which I’d been a keynote speaker when the plane depressurized and we had to make an emergency landing. That was a treat. But this was different. This was intentional, and everything about it felt weird. 

What I kept thinking was that there was no mathematical way, no possible chance, that the six pairs before me, the ones who had already jumped, had all jumped to their deaths. No way. So, if that was the case then maybe, just maybe, I would actually be ok?

I asked my instructor if anyone had ever just said “no” and that they weren’t going out the door. He said that in 2000 jumps, only one had. My mind raced. Did that mean that 1999 other people had died doing what I was about to do? No…it couldn’t mean that? Afterall, he was strapped to each of those other people. He seemed quite alive. But had he survived this 2000 other times? I started to rationalize myself back into clarity, and oddly, calm.

Then it was my turn. I inched up to the door and let my legs hang over the edge like I was sitting on a picnic bench. Talk about not normal: dangling ones legs outside a plane flying over two miles above the landscape.

The light above me was red. I had a moment to collect myself. But that’s hard to do when you’re sitting on the edge of a plane. Then, in an instant, that red light turned green. The instructor said, “Ready?” And I guess I was. And out the door we went.

There is a solid second where every four-letter word you’ve ever learned or imagined  goes through your head at the same time and you feel like you’re falling our of control. But then suddenly, you realize that this is exactly right, you ARE falling, though with a tiny bit of control, and this is exactly what is supposed to happen. You follow the instructions in the training video, and put your arms this way and your legs that way, and then you try to make sense of it. But as the world zooms closer at a gazillion miles an hour, there’s no way to make sense of it. It is all just truly and completely awe inspiring. You just assume the parachute will be fine. But even that isn’t a clear thought. All you can think is WOW.

Gone are the rationalizations and planning and excuses. You’re just entirely in the moment with no alternatives.  It’s not like you can just call your friend instead and go out for a pizza. Or take a quick bath and then go to sleep. You are falling out of an airplane…and that’s all you are doing.

What an incredible lesson in focus. There is one thing to do, and that is all you are doing. There are countless distractions. Some would suggest more than ever before. Is that a cloud? Am I higher than it?  Is that the earth beneath me? Am I really falling out of a plane? Can people on the ground see me? Nonstop thoughts…but nonstop focus too.  You are totally completely in the moment and the most incredible part of it is that you are fearless amidst it all. Even the aforementioned thoughts don’t have time to form and actually distract because they are overshadowed by the singularity of the task at hand. The falling itself.

And that’s the thing. I wasn’t fearless because I am superhuman, or because I was jumping solo. I was fearless because I had stepped up to the moment and actually trusted in the process and followed through with it. For sixty seconds I got to experience clarity of focus and specificity of intention. And that was one of the greatest parts of all of this.

After the free fall, when the instructor pulls the ripcord, and the parachute bursts open into the sky, the experience changes completely in terms of the noise of the wind and intensity. There is instant silence. I’ve only experienced silence like that when scuba diving, so that tells me that being on the earth, not above or below it, is entirely distracting.

Finding our focus comes from stripping away distractions. When our intentionality is razor sharp (in my case falling or diving, but realistically when we just set distractions aside and exist in the moment) it is truly amazing the experiences that can flow through us.

Landing that day after five or so minutes of parachuting was incredible, and you can see it in my face in the photo when I stood up for the first time, not the least bit dead.  In his book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, author Jon Kabat-Zinn discusses how a sense of mindfulness or paying attention to the present moment, on one’s purpose, provides a framework for us to avoid distractions. That was the skydiving experience through and through. It forced me to pay attention to the present moment.

What other gifts await when we keep our minds focused on the present moment and the task before us?  I hope we each get to experience a sense of joy like I did when I made that bucket list item, previously so feared, something instead that I had accomplished and checked off my list. I realized that I need to keep that freefall mindset solidly in place in other aspects of my life.

Keeping focus, maintaining immediacy, and being in the moment and letting distractions zoom by, instead of carrying me along with them. That is a path to a joyful existence. 

More jumping out-of-a-plane stories will be coming soon to a keynote speaker / emcee stage near you. I am looking forward to it!

PS: if you’re in the Seattle area, contact my friends at Skydive Snohomish. They are incredible.

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