On Jan. 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 out of New York encountered a flock of birds 90 seconds after takeoff. Pilot C.B. "Sully" Sullenberger had no time to take evasive action. Soon the plane rocked, and Sully could hear loud thuds as the birds were being sucked into the engines. And then there was silence. Both engines failed. Sullenberger knew he could not coast a powerless aircraft back to the airport, so he attempted to put the plane down in the one place where there would be the fewest ground casualties -- the Hudson River. As you might remember, he was able to land the plane in one piece and all 155 people on board survived.
When many people heard this news story, I'm pretty sure they wondered, "How the heck did he stop himself from freaking out as the plane was going down?"
I'm sure Sullenberger was freaked out to some degree. Of course he felt some nerves. He was quoted as saying that the moments before the crash were, "the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling." If he didn't experience such sensations, he wouldn't be human. He probably interpreted those sensations much differently than a fearful person would interpret them. The fear response can actually be quite helpful during a life-threatening situation. Sullenberger's was. It gave him exactly what he needed in that moment: more strength, better eyesight, and the ability to think and react quickly.
But Sullenberger probably didn't freak out for at least another reason: He was a highly experienced pilot, one who had flown for more than 40 years and who had accrued 19,000 hours of flying. He'd flown F-4 Phantoms for the U.S. Air Force, and he had investigated aircraft accidents. He knew what to do, and he did it.
You might not be able to safely land a huge airplane on the Hudson River or even on a runway without freaking out, but that's because you haven't practiced or trained to perform such a feat.
Similarly, you might not feel comfortable running into a burning building to save someone. A firefighter, on the other hand, does feel comfortable doing so and that's because the firefighter has trained to do this very thing.
As you can see, fear loses its power when you prepare yourself to meet it head-on. If you walked out onto a stage without preparing for a speech, of course you would be scared! But if you walk onto a stage after preparing -- practicing your lines and learning your craft -- the fear won't be quite as strong.
Think about it: What in your life do you least fear and why? Have you forgotten what you've mastered? Think about all of the things you do and don't even have to think about because you are already an expert at them. It might be riding a bike, cooking a gourmet dinner, or even running a marathon. Some people find these activities scary because they have not mastered them yet. But you have. You can master more skills, too. The more you do, the weaker fear becomes.
For more by Jonathan Alpert, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.