If you haven’t heard of Felix Baumgartner you may suffer from vertigo or maybe you’ve never wasted time on the obscure video-streaming site known as YouTube. Best known for jumping to earth from the edge of space in late 2009, Baumgartner’s supersonic freefall video has had 35m hits so far. It’s not quite as many as Gangnam Style, but Baumgartner is an internet sensation. He’s also reached the apotheosis of risk taking, and has such made a recent appearance at Goldman Sachs, where he shared some thoughts on risky behaviour with the firm’s staff.
We caught up with Baumgartner, who now wants to pilot helicopters and procreate and asked him what he has to teach financial services professionals about taking big risks wisely. This is what he said.
Q: You’re a sort of super-risk taker. Do you get a lot of admiration from other people in risk taking professions as a result?
Well, I feel very fortunate that Red Bull Stratos struck a chord with people from all walks of life. Everybody on our team was blown away by the amazing response that the mission received worldwide. But I’ve never really liked the label of risk-taker because I’ve planned each one of my projects very carefully to minimize risk as much as possible. I don’t think admiration is due just for taking a risk – if anything, it’s earned by how the risk is handled.
Q: You recently gave a talk at Goldman Sachs. What was your reception like? What do you think you can teach finance professionals about taking risk?
The event at Goldman Sachs was great – they gave me such a warm welcome and I really enjoyed talking with everyone there. As to why they might have been interested in my perspective… I guess we all like to hear about places we’ve never been or things we’ve never experienced. That sense of curiosity and adventure is part of human nature. But also, Goldman Sachs is a team of professionals working toward goals, and that’s what all of us working on the Red Bull Stratos mission were, too. I myself am always inspired to learn the approaches others have taken to challenges in life, and I’m sure the team at Goldman Sachs is no different. What we accomplished with Red Bull Stratos was a good example of what can be achieved with persistence, innovation and dedication.
Q: Assuming you have persistence, innovation and dedication, what differentiates a wise risk from a stupid one?
My mentor Joe Kittinger, who made an incredible freefall from the stratosphere back in 1960, always told me that to succeed I needed to have confidence in my team, in my equipment, and in myself. And I think those three factors apply in a variety of situations. If you surround yourself with good people who have valuable experience – and if you truly listen and absorb what they have to say – that’s key. To this day I feel lucky to have had the expertise of that elite team around me. And equipment – well, of course for me having cutting-edge equipment in the stratosphere was the difference between life or death. But even back here on Earth I always appreciate the advantage of having the right resources for whatever I’m doing. And as for confidence in myself, that came with planning, patience (like building up to my Red Bull Stratos mission with two decades of progressively more difficult parachute jumps), training, testing, seeking help when I needed it, and – ultimately – in following my dreams and doing what I loved.
Q: Do you think it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking a stupid risk is worth taking? How can you make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of taking unnecessary risks for the thrill of it?
I can only speak for myself, and it’s just not in my nature to take unnecessary risks. To me, the thrill is in planning something meticulously and then executing it as perfectly as possible. If it doesn’t feel right, I walk away. But if I decide to go through with something, I prepare carefully, and then even if there are difficulties along the way – like beginning to spin while freefalling at supersonic speed – hopefully I’ve got the background to figure out how to handle them.
I will say that in regard to Red Bull Stratos, it was extremely inspirational to know that the mission had potential to help improve aerospace safety. The goal wasn’t just to break records, but to supply information that researchers had lacked (like physiologic data from a human being falling faster than the speed of sound, which we’ve now been able to share with the space medicine community). But even with such huge motivation, we attempted the jump only once we had conducted a multi-stage test program that addressed the risks and proved that we had a good chance for success.