As a world-renowned BASE jumper and wingsuit flyer, Heather Swan knows a thing or two about risk-taking.
Not only has the Company Director of Icarus Films experienced corporate career success, she’s also set a number of World Records including one for the highest altitude wingsuit base jump.
But the BASEClimb adventurer hasn’t achieved what she has through bravery or luck. Her journey has been incremental, infinitely challenging and, when it comes to managing the significant risk associated with her extreme sport, calculated.
Heather shares some insights about risk-taking, including an overarching philosophy that applies not only in sport, but also in business and life.
Have an open mind
For Heather, calculated risk-taking requires an open and enquiring mind.
“My dream when I got married [to fellow BASE jumper, Dr Glenn Singleman] was to transform myself into someone who could be part of his team on incredible adventures,” she says. “But I had no idea how I was going to do that. I just understood where I was, where I wanted to be, and the gap looked incredibly big.”
In order to move forward, the corporate highflyer set about altering her thinking. “Instead of ‘I can’t’, think ‘How can I?’,” she says.
“‘I can’t’ is truly the frontline of our fear. ‘How can I?’ ignites our creativity and gets our subconscious looking for ways to attract what we need to achieve our dreams.”
Assess the risk
Heather is also a big believer in assessing the risk involved in any endeavour, rationally.
“One of the keys to succeeding is being able to assess risk rationally and ask, ‘What are the real risks and how can I best prepare for them? What is the line in the sand that I will not cross?” Heather says.
“Do the work” and also carefully assess any key factors that are out of your control, she urges – for example, in the case of BASE jumping, the weather conditions.
It goes without saying that Heather’s physical preparation for BASE jumping has been significant. But for the adventurer, mental preparation has been equally important – particularly when it came to training for her first ever skydive.
“[In my experience] women with a similar competence level tend to be less confident than men in any given situation… I’ve certainly found that in my sport,” Heather says.
It doesn’t help that men and women also have what Heather refers to as “a primitive fear system that can hijack our rational mind – the prefrontal cortex – not just when we’re doing obviously scary things like skydiving but any time we’re stressed, tired or pushed outside our comfort zone.”
But this is where mental preparation comes to the fore.
“I overcame my fear of heights using a combination of mental techniques, particularly meditation, mindfulness and breath control,” Heather says.
Value the journey (not the result)
Looking at Heather’s impressive achievements, you could be forgiven for thinking that her calculated risk-taking has paid off every time – but the reality is that she has also experienced crushing failure.
But it is through experiencing setbacks that Heather has learned the true value of effort.
“I hope that as a society we learn to value effort, as well as medals or records, because success is so much bigger than that. Value the effort that you put into things, as much as the outcome,” she says.
Interrupt, challenge, change
After overcoming her paralysing fear of heights, Heather has transformed herself from being a self-professed single mother with no background in adventure or athleticism, to a world-record-setting BASE jumper and wingsuit-flying grandmother.
“The last thing I am is naturally brave and naturally confident. But what I am is very determined and very well trained,” she says.
“It’s an ongoing battle, it doesn’t get easier, because the mind wants to run to the negative. But the more we practice thinking in a way that moves us towards our goal, that serves us, the better we get at it – just by thinking differently.”
Heather's advice for women who are struggling with nerves or self-doubt?
“Interrupt, challenge, change. Interrupt the thought, challenge the thought, and change the thought. I use it all the time.”
Her overarching philosophy applies not only to extreme sportspeople, but to all of us: “Do something today that your future self will thank you for.”