The Bristol police had been tipped about suicide attempts before. But this was different. Two sisters reportedly called the English branch frantic. Their brother was set to jump from the nearby bridge the next day. The dramatic details, however, overshadowed their hysteria. After all, the police knew about suicides. They were just a stone’s throw away from the Clifton Suspension bridge. A 331 foot engineering marvel that beckoned the forlorn and depressed. But on this day it attracted another class of men. And they came donning tuxedos, champaign, and a long elastic bungee. The very first of its kind.
Not far from the bridge is Oxford, the world’s oldest university. And in the 1970’s it was bubbling with disruptive anticipation. It was a place where students took advantage of their privileged birthrights while simultaneously rejecting the traditions of the queen, country, and class. This irony wasn’t lost to the outside world. But it made absolute sense to the select few who believed the friction actually stimulated a creative renaissance. And despite all of the university’s towering intellect, perhaps nothing was as creative as The Dangerous Sports Club.
Organized by David Kirke, the club was dedicated to performing the most outlandish activities. “What we hated,” says Kirke, “was the way that formal sports had all these little, important bourgeois instructors saying, ‘You’ve got to get through five-part exams to do this”. So to showcase their non-conformity, the club chose a wheel-chair dummy dressed in a full-body cast as their mascot.
After all the creative fervor of the past few weeks, he was faced with the dizzying reality that somebody had to jump first.
You didn’t join the Dangerous Sports club. You were drafted, but only after adhering to a strict—albeit ridiculous—code of conduct. First, dress appropriately for all dangerous events. This included tuxedos, cap, gown, or any hysterical costume to garner more attention. David himself was known to avoid any pretense of safety by replacing the helmet with a top hat. Second, drink champagne when convenient. Coincidentally, the DSC believed every situation was convenient. Whether skiing down a mountain on a grand piano or hang gliding off the cliffs of Mt. Kiliminjaro; nearly every tinted photo from the era shows members with a drink in their hands.
David and the group first called on their engineering members to design elastic ropes that could sustain the weight. After multiple meetings and a few crude drawings, a prototype was ready. Everyone assumed they’d use the dummy mascot first. But David didn’t want to test the bungee with a weighted corpse. No, such a course would blight the prestige of the DSC.
Risk is what made the DSC special. Even elite.
On April Fool’s Day of 1978 David found himself alone staring over the bridge. He covered his face with a scarf. Not because he didn’t crave the publicity. He really did. But the truth was he didn’t want his mother to recognize him on the nightly news “if things went south.” After all the creative fervor of the past few weeks, he was faced with the dizzying reality that somebody had to jump first.
There comes a moment in every creative journey just like this one. A moment of uncertainty—standing at the edge of a bridge asking: Should we make this jump? Were my instincts off? Did we actually think this through? Questions like these trigger a traumatic emotional response and can often induce immense personal doubt. (It’s no wonder entrepreneurs have some of the highest levels of anxiety).
Take for example, Galileo Gailei—a prototype for daring creativity and a target of continuous attacks from the church. But what surprised Galileo was that so many remained hostile “not so much toward the things in question as toward the discoverer.” Critics are quick to shoot the messenger because the novelty disrupts their own neatly formed schemas. Creatives, on the other hand, are on the road to a more beautiful way. And when their products go on trial, it feels like an intimate attack on themselves.
Interestingly enough, breathing deeply or telling ourselves to keep calm wasn’t the cure-all many have been led to believe.
But the greatest creators do two essential things. First, they pare away complexity and find demonstrative power in simplicity. Second, they make that jump.
How then do they get through the dizzying doubt that often overwhelms? The answer it seems comes from one of the most popular rock ballads of our day.
‘I’m Excited’ to Calm the Creative Nerves
Allisson Wood, a researcher from Harvard, didn’t really care if the subjects knew Journey’s popular tune Don’t Stop Believing. In fact, when she asked subjects to sing the song in front of a group she didn’t even notice if they sang the right words or sounded pitchy. No, what Wood wanted to know was how to manage the anxiety people feel in high-stress environments. Interestingly enough, breathing deeply or telling ourselves to keep calm wasn’t the cure-all many have been led to believe. Which is why Wood had a hunch. So before the karaoke nightmare began she asked a select few to reframe their anxieties by stating “I’m excited”. Sounds gimmicky. But after these participants were analyzed with a voice recognition machine they found that those that tried this intervention sang wildly better.1
What makes the excited state so powerful? Brooks explains that feeling anxious is “associated with a threat mind-set. We’re worried about how things can go wrong in the future.” But when people are feeling excited, they are “focusing on the opportunities, how things can go well and work out in their favor…by focusing deliberately on the positive potential outcomes, you actually are more likely to achieve them.”
It’s a simple hack of the amygdala (the place responsible for our fight or flight mechanism.) But instead of a threat, we assign “a positive meaning” to these chemical reactions. This reorientation of perspective is an easier shift—a lateral side step really—for the mind. Think of it this way, if your heart is going to beat with rapidity then the sweat stains should come from excitement rather than nerves. Re-framing the mind by saying “I’m excited” has helped people in public speeches, math tests, and business projects. And it can dramatically help calm the inevitable stress during the creative process.
Here are three ways to further specify how you are excited. The best approach is to write reflectively before a stressful event and then repeat it out loud with enthusiasm:
- “I’m excited…” for what positive outcome you may have not even considered?
- “I’m excited…” for what personal growth and learning even if things do go south?
- “I’m excited…” to get what kind of feedback? How will it be beneficial in the long run?
Whose idea it was to bungee jump from the bridge is up for debate. But the inspiration undoubtedly came after the group learned about the vine jumping tribes in New Guinea. Considered a ritual entrance into manhood, the tribe members would leap from 80 feet reaching speeds up to 45 mph. The intent was to see how hard they could hit the ground and still survive. Which means the bravest walked away with both concussion and social prestige. They were doing it for the ladies. And so was the DSC.
When David looked over the 331-foot bridge and said, “it’s really quite exciting” he wasn’t the first to redirect his nerves. The New Guinea tribe adopted a similar technique years before. As the original National Geographic explorer observed, “Each jumper had his own style, milking his time on the platform with songs, clapping, slow-motion pantomimes, dramatic posturing and speeches. Some pretended to lose their balance and nearly fall.” It’s was a comedy routine; an attempt to lighten the anxiety of a potentially deadly fall.
Their methods mirror the research from Dr. Woods. Retargeting our nerves may feel like feigned optimism, even a bit eccentric.
That eccentricity seems to be what excited Kirke and the DSC the most. The local police didn’t have a form to fill out as David and his crew climbed back to the bridge. They simply asked him to promise never to do it again. The local media was just as stumped. The following day reporters struggled to describe the act. They used fragmented description and words like: Yo-yos, Elastic ropes, and turned summersaults. The bungee jumping phenomenon was in its infancy, and finding the right words to describe something entirely new was a delight to the Dangerous Sports Club.
It may also be the highest honor for any creative.
- You may not know his name, but you know his music. Jonathan Cain spent years in Hollywood struggling to make his mark as a keyboard artist. When tempted to quit, he remembered the word’s of his father “Jon, Don’t stop believing.” So, when this anxious artist joined with Journey’s front-man Steve Perry, Jon pitched his new tune. Suddenly, a melodic anthem emerged and it became officially the most downloaded song in the twentieth century.