Overcoming Risk: Watch Steve Fisher's TED Talk Now

The South African kayaker explains how we can conquer any seemingly impossible challenge.
© Greg von Doersten/Red Bull Content Pool
By Scott Hart

World-class athlete Steve Fisher has taken on some of the most ambitious projects imaginable, including an expedition through the Congo River's Inga rapids, the world's biggest rapids. He faced an entirely different challenge recently, accepting an invite to speak at the TEDxAthens event in Greece, which you can watch in the video above.

We talked with Fisher to find out what he thought about the experience; check out our conversation below.

I’m not exaggerating here -- I was the most nervous that I’ve ever been, for anything, ever.

Red Bull Adventure: How did the opportunity to do a TED Talk arise?

Steve Fisher: The curator of the event said that he had watched the trailer for Congo and that he particularly liked one of the questions I asked: “How do you plan for something that has never been done before?”

I was excited to do it, but I became more excited after I heard the theme of the event -- “Uncharted Waters” -- referring to how we are, in this age, entering into uncharted water or territory; I’d argue that we always have been...

So, how do you plan for something that has never been done before?

My answer to that question is basically how I break down a challenge or problem, or as a matter of fact, how I convince myself to even embark on a challenge in the first place. [You] break a problem down into digestible pieces and once you examine them individually you find that many of the things you fear don’t really exist, and those fears that do exist are more understandable once you individualize them.

When I approached the Congo, I didn’t just say, 'What if we drown?' I said, 'How are we going to do this?'

That mindset works really nicely with the way that we break down an individual waterfall or rapid each time we run it. I call it “demystifying risks.” For me, that has been central to how I’ve lived my life and made decisions.

When I approached the Congo, I didn’t just say, “What if we drown?” I said, “How are we going to do this?” On a daily basis, I would break the entire project down into individual digestible bits -- essentially answering how we’re going to get from where we’re standing right now to that rock over there in the distance. We wouldn’t think about the rest of the river until we figured that one thing out.

What was the speaking experience like?

I’ve spoken to numerous audiences of that size, but they’ve always been very easy crowds. They are usually there because they know who I am and they came to hear what I have to say; typically, that’s associated with screening a film, like Congo.

As I got nearer to the time of the talk, I came to understand that each audience member at a Ted Talk goes through an application process in order to even receive a ticket. Approximately 3,000 applications will come in for the 1,000 seats that are available. That got me pretty nervous. How do you tell people something that is inspiring or in some way useful without them knowing anything about what you do?

When the audience applauded, it snapped me out of it. I managed to get going again.

I ended up writing six 5,000-word talks, which ultimately needed to be one 1,800-word talk. When I flew in to Athens, I didn’t have a [finished speech]. Three days before the event and -- I’m not exaggerating here -- I was the most nervous that I’ve ever been, for anything, ever.

More nervous than any of the expeditions you’ve been on?

Anything! I suddenly realized how ill-equipped and inexperienced I am at doing something like this. On the Thursday before the Saturday night talk we had a practice session. They bring in two speech coaches, put up all the lights and try to simulate it as much as possible.

The speech coaches basically cut me down and tore my talk to shreds, so I went back to the hotel totally depressed. I was literally considering bailing out of the whole thing. On Friday morning, I started writing from scratch and in about three hours I had finished it. I felt a lot better, but it was honestly a lot harder than I thought it would be.

How’d it go once you got on stage?

Once I got on stage I was okay because then it was more like a normal pressure situation; you’re not just imagining something, you’re actually in it. So I was okay, but about halfway through, I had the dreaded freeze-up, where you completely forget where you are or what you’re talking about.

Luckily, I’d asked the question to one of the speech coaches prior to the event: what do you do if you get stuck? His answer was to immediately ask the audience for applause. So that’s exactly what I did. When the audience applauded, it snapped me out of it. I managed to get going again.

So what’s next for Steve Fisher in 2014?

I’ve been a Red Bull athlete for eleven years, and in my first meeting with Red Bull, I mentioned the Congo as the Holy Grail of Kayaking. [Now] I don’t intend to paddle off Niagara Falls, and I’m not looking for a bigger rapid than the Congo because it doesn’t exist.

I’ve got a few first descents in the works -- one close to home in upstate New York -- as well as some special non-first descents that I really want to do. This year I’m actually focusing on a return to competition. I’ll be doing the Whitewater Grand Prix up in Quebec as well as a few other events.

The Congo was the end of a particular journey in terms of achieving a particular goal, but the making of the film was a step in another journey toward being a filmmaker. In the near-term, we’re producing some standard short web stuff, but I’ll also be doing a kayak film to be released in 2015. I’ve also got an instructional movie coming, which I’ve never done before but have always wanted to do.

Click here to own a copy of Congo, and for more action and info follow Steve Fisher and Red Bull Adventure on Twitter.

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