The Ka Lae method for doing difficult things

by Andrew Malinak

[Originally published in Please Tap on the Glass at USMS Blogs on 24 June 2013.]

Years ago, I stood on the cliffs of Ka Lae looking south, out over the Pacific Ocean. Or rather, looking down at the Pacific Ocean. The rocky ledges at South Point, Hawai’i, are a great spot for cliff jumping if you can handle the rough, current-laden water below, and if you can work up the courage to send yourself flying off the edge of a cliff. Standing there at that point, I possessed at least one of the two.

As a swimmer (not even an open water swimmer, at the time), an expansive ocean, some big rollers, and unfathomably deep water didn’t scare me. Looking down, my thoughts were the same as they always are when I look at a body of water: “I want to swim in that.” I take this for granted, my absence of fear in swimming-related matters, my sense of invulnerability about the water. If there was any thought of perishing once I was in that water below, I wouldn’t be standing there with my toes curled over the edge, oh no.

So there I stood, toes curled over the edge, staring down at that clear blue water telling my legs to jump. 1, 2, 3, and…4.

1. 2. 3. Hmm.

Logically, there was nothing bad about this idea. No drowning to worry about. No rocks in the water to watch out for. No rocks on the cliff to avoid. And I’ve refined my cliff jumping skills since that first experience/injury at America’s Most Dangerous Water Park, so no worries there. Despite rationalizing the risk and assessing the cost (nearly zero) against the benefit (greater than zero), it wasn’t happening. Jumping off a giant cliff into a huge ocean was irrationally terrifying!

So I turned around and took a few steps away from the edge of the cliff. The equivalent of four big steps. Looking back at the cliff from my new vantage, the “down there” no longer visible, the fear of the fall subsided. It was just me, the wind, and the ocean on the horizon, and the thought of what I wanted to do. 1, 2, 3. That’s not me counting, that’s the sound of my bare feet pounding the sandstone ground, heading for the edge, too much momentum to stop. 4.

Over the next few years, I found myself doing the same thing in other places. Here’s a picture of me jumping into the cold, cold Hudson on Christmas Eve. Ah, here’s me jumping into the pool at 6:30am for the fourth day that week. It’s mostly pictures of me physically jumping. Oh, here’s one of my moving to London with just a duffel bag.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered metaphorical jumping. The rules are the same:

  1. Be sure jumping won’t kill you.
  2. Know how to swim.
  3. Full speed ahead.

Over the past few months, the planning of my Juan de Fuca swim would stall; knowing that certain parts would be hard, I’d push them aside and then days later pick up the phone and run at the challenge full speed ahead. That’s how I got my WA driver’s license: woke up one morning after stalling for months and went straight to the DMV before even having breakfast.

In chemistry, there’s the activation energy of a reaction. In physics, you’ve got your static coefficient of friction. Life just a bit of that, plus some selective blindness.

And if that doesn’t work, may I be there to give you a good shove?