Wired For Extremes

Chris McNamara stood at the overhang of what would be his final wingsuit BASE jump (parachuting or wingsuit flying from a fixed structure: building, antenna, span and Earth). A 1,500-foot drop was a conservative risk in a community that saw around 30 deaths last year. “After I took flight I had never realized how much physical strength was required in wingsuit BASE. I wasn’t nervous at all when I jumped, but I was shocked to realize that my fatigue was affecting my flight balance,” McNamara said.

Within seconds, a rock outcropping approached; Chris hardly missed it at full flight speed. Startled, he knew he would not make his target landing area, so Chris attempted an emergency water landing. “What I didn’t know at the time was that parachutes don’t float, my chute pulled me to the bottom and I nearly drowned. In that one jump I almost lost my life, twice.” Chris had nearly died a number of times before, so that jump was only the catalyst for retirement. He actually quit BASE after nearly 300 jumps because it was no longer exciting for him, and was therefore no longer worth the risk.

After his retirement Chris poured his intensity into his longtime passion of rock climbing and his new love of entrepreneurship. It may seem as though someone like Chris wouldn’t make a great businessman, but in fact the brains of entrepreneurs and extreme athletes may be more similar than you think.

According to Dr. Keegan Walden, who earned his PhD in clinical psychology from Northwestern University, extreme athletes and entrepreneurs may have similar brain function in the domain of what psychologists term “approach motivation.”

“Some individuals have a much greater reward response than others,” says Dr. Walden. “What this means is that the positive feelings linked with brain activity related to the neurotransmitter dopamine are greater for some people. It’s unclear exactly why, but it is clear there is a relationship.” Failure plays a key role here too, because intermittent gratification within the dopamine system is a tremendous reinforcement of behavior.

The brains of entrepreneurs and extreme athletes may be more similar than you think.

And in the context of approach motivation, both extreme athletes and entrepreneurs may be taking on bigger challenges to get the same level of satisfaction. “What seems to be happening at the level of the brain is that a repeated behavior no longer produces the same level of endogenous opiates,” says Dr. David Block, a psychiatrist who trained at Brown University. “As a result, the individual is often looking for new activities and challenges to trigger feelings of excitement, pleasure and satisfaction. The downside of all of this is that what goes up, must come down. When that activity is not available, we see people experiencing serious depression.”

With each failure, the emotional trough grows deeper, and with each success, the emotional high, that much more elusive. These fundamentals of behavioral science may provide some insight into why athletes and entrepreneurs are so incredibly ambitious.

Clearly there is something more psychological than financial gain playing out in Silicon Valley startup culture. Successful founders often see big financial rewards, only to move on to the next challenge. Garry Tan of Mountain View-based incubator Y Combinator supports hundreds of founders, and has seen this cycle play out over and over. “There is just something exciting about startup founders, they are like pirates. They thrive on the uncertainty, the risk, the lean resources. When these pirates get acquired by a big company, they find themselves in the Navy, things are far too stable for them, and they get bored. Often times they hang in there for a year or two and then move on to start a new company so they can be pirates again.”

There is just something exciting about startup founders, they are like pirates. Garry Tan

On the level of behavioral science, these founder “pirates” are people wired for extremes. They thrive on the reward-seeking intensity of entrepreneurship, but once they defeat the galleon and seize the treasure, they are compelled to do it all over again.

Steve Huffman, chief technology officer of online travel company Hipmunk, has co-founded multiple startups, including the social networking and news website, Reddit. “Money isn’t the main motivator for what I do. When everyone on the team is working together, supporting one another and performing at their best, that is what’s exciting, that is why I keep doing this. There is just nothing more exciting than a team win in which everyone has contributed to major victory.”

Maybe for some founders it is about the money, but if that were largely true, we would see many of them quit after a big payday. What we see is quite the opposite. It may not be the money, but in fact the emotional reward system that leads to so much innovation in Silicon Valley tech.

Many extreme athletes become entrepreneurs because it is natural fit for how their brains already function. Reggie Crist, a professional downhill skier, competed in the 1992 Winter Olympic Games for the U.S. Ski Team. “I regularly moved at speeds greater than 80 mph, sometimes with limited visibility, feeling my way down the course more than seeing it.”

Crist, who now owns an adventure ski company, explains his retirement from competitive down-hilling as a progression into his backcountry ski and media business, Stellar Adventures. “I never really retired. Now I own an adventure company and I take people by helicopter into the most extreme ski terrain in North America, and film them.” Business doesn’t get any better according to Crist, than dropping out of a helicopter in Valdez, Alaska with a group of clients.

Avalanche risk is not foreign to Reggie, who has known many people who have died in the backcountry. “The risks are very real especially now that I have a wife and children. My wife is very patient, but I know she wishes I would get into a different line of work.”

Chris McNamara, the retired BASE jumper, founded Outdoor Gear Lab in 2011, an equipment review site that sees over 1.3 million views per month. “I love entrepreneurship because things are always changing. I am not a guy that does well with structure, I didn’t do well in school for that reason. I thrive on change, on challenge, that is what I enjoy about running a company.”

Crist and McNamara alike have found a way to sublimate their need for intensity into their work. Like many other entrepreneurs, both of them are quite content with charting their own course, surviving on daily rations of failure and triumph.

According to Hebbian theory, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more risk-reward cycles that founders and athletes go through, the more neurological bandwidth for the behaviors. What this may suggest is that “hanging up the skis” is very difficult from a psychological standpoint. When the neurological pipes are set to dump natural opiates into the synapse, it can become really difficult to quit that behavior during any part of the cycle. Just about every entrepreneur and extreme athlete will tell you about the depressive feelings that come with the territory.

Ryan Seelbach is a big wave surfer who has spent his adult life chasing down giant waves. He is an annual competitor at the Maverick’s surf contest, where he paddles into waves in the 40-50 foot range to compete for the Billabong XXL Big Wave Award. But the problem for big wave surfers is that conditions are only right a few times a year. Seelbach knows all too well the deep lows as much as the 50-foot highs. “Every surfer knows about depression. At times it has been so tough emotionally that I have spent all my money, broken up with girlfriends, and been irresponsible at work in order to chase a perfect swell and get that natural high again.”

After his company was purchased by ShareThis, Daniel Odio was expecting the elation to last. Much to his surprise, he had a different experience. “Selling a startup engenders complex emotions — you put your heart into it, and then you lose control over its destiny. Everyone around you is really happy for you, but the best way to describe the feeling is a sense of loss,” said Odio.

The fact is, quitting something is really difficult when doing so means existing in a depressive state. Entrepreneurs and extreme athletes are less likely to retire during a low state; but then again, who wants to quit when they feel incredible? The brains of this unique group of people are just rigged to keep going for it.

There may be a healthy way for founders, tech executives and athletes to find balance in all of this. Gabriel Stricker, chief communications officer of Twitter, Inc., has found solace through a mindfulness practice. “Silicon Valley is a professional community that attracts and sometimes celebrates extremism. That kind of bold, audacious, and extreme thinking is part of what leads to the incredible innovation of the startup world. That said, in some practices such as communications or public policy, I think it’s important to balance that extremism with an approach that’s much more equanimous — more grounded and mindful and methodical. That’s what can lead to finding a calm amid the storminess of the technology world.”

Like Stricker, some extreme athletes tout the benefits of meditation as a solution to emotional intensity. Greg Long, the most decorated big wave surfer in the world, relies on meditation to manage the extreme emotions that arise when competing at the highest level. “I was fortunate to be raised in a family that encouraged me to adopt a mindful approach to living. Managing fear is incredibly important for a big wave surfer, and meditation is one of the most important tools I have in doing just that. Through regular practice I have learned to stay calm in the most severe of moments.”

The climbing and BASE communities are still reeling from the May 16 death of their beloved Dean Potter. It is said that Potter was attempting to fly through a notch off Taft Point in Yosemite National Park. One way to view it is that bigger risks are taken when an athlete must keep ratcheting it up to keep things exciting. But just as the quantified self movement may reduce some of the joy of living by turning bodily function into data, perhaps a behavioral science lens reduces some of the wonderment from entrepreneurship and athleticism.

When asked why he kept taking greater risks as a BASE jumper, McNamara explained, “I never thought of it as risk you see. I saw it as passion, as living, as pushing the edge of what was previously thought to be possible. I mean after all, who has never dreamed of flying?”

The difference about people wired for extremes is that they take something everyone else only dreams about and they actually do it. Perhaps this elite group of athletes and entrepreneurs serve a greater function of humanity to keep it forever evolving, and forever cool.