In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
Edward J. Stieglitz
We're making history together today!
This episode is part of a successful world record attempt where 100 skydivers, each over 60 years old, jumped out of an airplane and created a formation on the way down. Check out the video version of this episode to see the clip that has raised the bar for what a podcast intro can do — and how age should never stop you from experiencing what you want:
Norman Kent has forged a reputation for walking the road less traveled. Throughout his extraordinary life, two passions – his search for adventure and love of photography – have been his constant companions.
Norman embarked on his first jungle expedition at 14 years old where he developed a strong desire to capture the beauty he saw and share it with the world. At 19 years old, Norman made his first skydive – a moment that would change his life forever.
Since that time, Norman has worked on blockbuster films like Cliffhanger, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Godzilla. He’s also made his own skydiving films, consulted to special forces units, and helped facilitate record-breaking feats all over the world – as well jumping into ceremonies of both the summer and winter Olympic Games.
As a skydiving pioneer, Norman has more than 30,000 jumps to his name, including the first expedition to ever jump onto the North Pole, a joint exercise with the US and Russian military. In the skydiving community, Norman has earned the respect as the world’s best skydiving cinematographer.
In this episode:
- What drives Norman’s continued love of adventure
- How to summon courage during your most fearful moments
- Some of the most fascinating moments from his acclaimed career (including the mindset that makes Tom Cruise perform at such a high level), and
- What Norman’s time at the coalface of death has taught him about life.
Before we begin, the right bit of inspiration can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, so if there’s a friend or loved one who needs to hear this episode or could use some help to Win the Day, share it with them right now.
Let’s WIN THE DAY with Norman Kent!
Norman, great to see you, my friend. Thanks for coming on the show.
Thank you for inviting me. It's always a pleasure to have an opportunity to chat about interesting things.
I guess we need to start by talking about the intro of the episode! Walk us through the successful world record attempt that you filmed.
Well, you asked me to do something interesting for the intro, and I thought, "Well, I'm actually doing this world record attempt," which was skydivers over 60 trying to build a formation with over 100 skydivers.
And I thought if I can just talk them into not listening to what I'm saying and not getting confused about thinking that I'm saying, "Let's go"! because at that point we're listening to the commands of going, and if I can get my mind to say these things and say the intro without really getting too distracted. Because I was also waiting for the command to go, and it could have happened in the middle of me saying the sentence. And at the same time, I'm doing a selfie with a GoPro, which I rarely do. I'm getting more into it now. So I thought, "Let's try it."
It was kind of an overwhelming thing, trying to handle all those things. But it was awesome and I really had a good time doing it. Luckily it yielded a world record and there's going to be a documentary. I'm one of the people featured because I am over 60, and it's a documentary that's going to be on PBS, and it's Skydivers Over 60: A World Record. I believe that's the working title, or it's going to be the end title, that's what I was told. So, it'll be released in May of 2024.
You nailed it. And I guess it's hard to do a second take when you're up there skydiving!
Yes, it is. It's also hard because I have a reputation of injuring myself when I'm on camera! I start thinking too much about the camera, and then realize that I get distracted. So, it was really great fun to not get injured, and do my job, and do a good job, and at the same time be wondering if the camera in my hand was pointing in the right direction, and all these other things.
Well, speaking about cameras, you have this helmet in front of us that I know you have quite an amazing relationship with. Describe your helmet and how it’s changed your life.
When you're a skydiving cinematographer or photographer, you're using your limbs to fly. So, therefore you can't really take a camera in a traditional way, and handhold it, and look through the viewfinder, and change the settings and all of that.
So, what we do is we put it on a helmet, and with a helmet you can point it in the direction you want, and position yourself, as you fly you position yourself in the angle you want to have, and the background you want to have, and all of that. So, the helmet actually changes configuration quite a bit. I came up with the concept of the full face helmet many years ago, right around '80 or maybe even '79.
It's kind of a long story that I can't really get into here because we don't have too much time, but it is something that I came up with as a fluke, as a mistake. Originally it was a looks thing that I was interested in. I thought the full face helmet would be a cool look, and then it was kind of a disaster. It wasn't working practically. So, I started modifying it, and modifying it, and then I broke it. And then trying to fix it I discovered that if I could design a helmet that was tight around the head and it didn't have a hinging point, like straps and things like that, you could carry more weight safely. And that's when I started developing more and more the full face helmet, the shape of the front chin and all these other things.
It's just been a lifetime of changes, and improvements, and discovery, and it's just I'm passionate about discovering these things and inventing things. They're usually just for me. I don't invent things for somebody else, they're things that I need for myself to perform. But it's been quite a journey to develop the helmet to where it is now. I'm already developing a different helmet, and again, you can change the configuration, which cameras go on it. In this case, it's got a RED camera and it has a still camera, and it also has a couple of GoPros. And this is a pretty standard thing that I jump for commercials, feature films and things like that. I used to jump with a 35 millimeter movie camera, which was a lot more cumbersome and more taking the film up and everything. But I'm very passionate about my helmet.
Also, I have quite a relationship with the helmet. I actually named her; her name is Marcella, and I have a very, very strong relationship with her. And the reason why I say that is because at one time I remember there was a couple of things that happened. One was that I was walking by the helmet fully loaded, and I hadn't used it for a month or so. We hadn't been filming for a while. And I kind of got scared. I kind of looked at it and went, "Wow, I jumped that? That is scary." And I started looking at it with a little bit of intimidation. And then I thought, "I haven't really been with the helmet for a while, so maybe I should have a little talk." And I started talking to her, and then thinking of her as an entity, something that's alive that we do something together.
The second thing about that is that unlike a shirt that you put on and now it becomes you, it's kind of like a different color, a different look, but the helmet is too heavy to just pretend that you put it on, and it's you, and you're comfortable with it. It seems to have its own life, its own physics that it has to be exposed to.
One time I found myself where the action in front of me was going at a certain speed, so I had to slow down to that speed but the helmet wanted to go faster than that speed. So, I literally was battling the helmet, trying to hold it up, and it was quite the muscle workout, and pain, and I was finding myself at the end of the jump when everybody was going away for safety, I was having to just roll over and sit for a couple of seconds just to get that pain out of my head, out of my neck so I could then properly deploy and not get injured.
It's kind of like when your legs are gone from skating too much or running too much and you need it, even if it's just a few seconds to get it back. So I found that, and that's when I started realizing that it's more of a dance that I do with the helmet than it is a you wear it and now you become the superhero or something. It's really more of a relationship. And if I have to turn in a different direction, I need to negotiate that change of direction with the helmet, with Marcella.
I think of her as somebody that I love and somebody that I dance with, and we have an understanding, and she doesn't hurt me, and I've been able to make many, many, many jumps with this relationship and be completely safe. A lot of it is because of the design, and a lot of it is because respecting the physics of the helmet and respecting how she wants to go, and where she wants to go based on physics, and really negotiating and dancing with her instead of forcing things and ignoring that.
An example would be when you open your parachute and your parachute wants to stop you from going at 120 miles an hour towards the ground, and the helmet would like to just keep going because it has inertia. So, you have to negotiate that deceleration, and you have to do it in a way that's not going to hurt you.
How many times have you had to pull for your backup shoot?
Right now, 21 times.
How is that feeling when you do that? Are you instantly scared in the moment, or is it just you've done it that much now that you're focused on what needs to be done?
You're more scared before you've had a reserve parachute ride because you're wondering if you're going to do the right thing. And then when it happens the first time, you realize that you've had it on your mind all along. If you're doing the right thing, you have the current emergency procedures – which is important to go through every time you jump. That way, if something happens, you go through the procedures in your mind and go for it.
For example, once I had to open my reserve, I was going high speed, and I didn't actually have a parachute out, and it malfunctioned completely so the pack wasn't even open, which had been most of my reserve parachute rides. And then I found myself wondering what my altitude was, but not having the time to look at my altimeter, because the logic was what if you have a half a second that's going to make the difference between life and death, there’s no point wasting any time to look at the altimeter.
If you have a half a second that's going to make the difference between life and death, there’s no point wasting any time to look at the altimeter.
So, now you just learn that you're too late and now you may be injured or killed. Whatever altitude it is, you just got to get things done, and there's no need to find out where you are. And it also opens up the need for the awareness of knowing where you are without looking at the altimeter, which is something I learned in photography.
A long time ago somebody taught me that the light meter was not to read the light, it was to read your decision on what the light was. Once you made the decision through intuition, and looking, and experience, then the meter was to measure you and see how accurate you were.
If your reserve parachute fails, are you trained on how to signal to other skydivers that you need help?
It happens sometimes, but usually what happens is that we go into this magical world. It's like Peter Pan. I'm actually working on a project right now, and I'm really analyzing what happens in that moment when you're stepping on the edge of the door and you leap into this world.
When we skydive, I know we're falling, but we as skydivers do it because we have the sensation of flying. We can go up and down, and we can travel 500 yards in no time, flying in that direction and stopping. And it's all because we're relative with other people that are going at the same speed. So, if we go slower than them, it looks like we're going up. Just like when you're driving in the highway and you're going maybe 80 miles an hour, and you're going next to somebody that you can see in their window, and you can see their face, and they're right next to you a few meters away, and they're not going at all, they're not moving at all because you're moving with them so it doesn't look like they're moving.
So, if they are ahead of you and you want to get ahead, you just go faster than them and you catch up. If you want to go slower, you slow down and go away. It's the same thing we do in the sky. We are in that world and focusing on that world until our time is up to wake up, come back to reality and realize that we're getting closer to the ground.
That’s the point when you find out if you have a problem or not. So, that's when you find out if you're going to need to do something about it. When you deploy your main, then you find out there's a problem, or “Wow, something went wrong and I didn't notice it,” or whatever type of malfunction you have, that's when you have to get down to business.
And at that point you're by yourself, and you've gotten away from everybody else precisely so you can deal with your parachute and not tangle with anybody else. So, a lot of the end of a skydive is to separate and find clear air so you can be perfectly alone and not be crashing with somebody else or something, which is one of the concerns.
Do you still have fear when you're jumping out of an airplane?
Yeah. I do have fear. I have fear of performance. I want to do a good job.
And what are we talking about there? Is it the mechanics of the dive, or in terms of the photography?
The mechanics of the dive, and the equipment, and my decisions on photography.
Going back to the helmet, it's because you don't have it in your hands, you don't have the luxury to make changes. So, you have to almost predict what's going to happen. If the sun's going to be behind clouds, if it's not, especially when you're descending, it's like the sun is going down faster than it normally is because you're descending so you have a different perspective. You may all of a sudden find yourself behind a cloud that gets between you and the sun.
A lot of this for me is intuitive. It's something that I have to make a guess. I have to try to read into the future, which I've gotten really good at. It's something I learned through Deanna, my first wife, and you kind of want to read the future and make a prediction, and then you make that decision based on that. Then at that point you're committed, and you're really hoping that you've made the right decisions and the right choice. So, that's very, very important there.
Your relationship with Deanna has been such an important part of your life. What did that relationship teach you and how did it help you grow?
Well, first of all, I really owe the best of me to her, to my little Skydancer, Deanna. I met her, and it was funny because I met her when I was doing my first jump and everybody was talking about her, and showing the newspaper where she was published. And it was like, "Oh, here she is!"
She was doing parachute jumps, demonstration parachute jumps for the president of Mexico. She was a lieutenant in the Air Force in Mexico. And I was like, "Oh, I'm sure she's just a bitch!" So, I totally judged her. And then the next weekend when I came back to make my second jump, I met her and I just, my jaw dropped. She's such a simple, beautiful, loving person, kind, and she was just so attractive. And I don't mean physically, I just mean her energy.
We got to know each other, and we fell in love. We started doing things together. And in time we married, and moved to the United States because this was in Mexico. I was raised in Mexico. And so, I learned to skydive in Mexico.
There was a point in our lives where she really demanded, she kind of said she had had experiences before with energy, and exchange of energy, and being aware of that energy, and telepathy and things like that. And I was not really into that. I didn't really believe in anything. And she really wanted that in her life, and it was something that was going to cost me my marriage if I didn't really engage. We were about 22 years old maybe.
When she made it very clear that it was important, I decided to engage and seek help from a friend who was very connected in all of this. And the first thing he did is handed me this little book called A Book of Life by Robert Collier. It's written in 1925, a seven volume little book. And it is about things you can do with your mind, how powerful the mind is and all of that. And he taught me about telepathy, he taught me a few, and then our lives were just so enhanced.
So at that point, Deanna started doing so many other things. And she invented something called freestyle. At the time, back in the early '80s, people were only skydiving on their belly. There was nothing else, anything other than being on your belly was considered being unstable. And she started wanting to dance in the air. And I remember I was challenged by a lot of it, and I was actually pushing back on it a lot. I remember her telling me, "Well, I'm going to do this, and then I'm going to try that, and all these things."
And I'm going like, "Well, that's just the dumbest idea I've ever heard." And she was like, "Why?" And I went, "Well, I won't be able to do that with you because I won't be able to follow you to shoot it, because you're going to be changing fall rate, and all of a sudden it's descending really fast, much faster than I can," because of her body positions, all the three-dimensional poses and stuff and just beautiful stuff.
And then she said, "Well, I guess I'll have to do it without anybody seeing it then." And I was like, "I can't believe I said that. I cannot believe those words came out of my mouth," because it's not how I felt at all. In fact, I had moved from Mexico because I felt we were pushed down, and to push somebody down because you couldn't keep up, it's just a crime.
But obviously I caught myself, and it was like, okay, now what I'm going to have to do is get better. And just like that, the intuitive side as well as that side, it became things that I learned from her because now I had to become better at something so I could keep up with her, and I had to become more intuitive, which is what she wanted, so I could keep up with her creativity and her being so to the moment.
The pre-planning was never part of it. For example, one time I remember jumping with her, and it was always like this, when you skydive you plant on the ground, and once you're outside the airplane you go, "Ready, set, go." And you kind of have this sink that you go with this count. And one time she goes, "Ready." And then she left.
I was like, "What the hell happened to set, and go? And I said, "You just sucker punched me. You just went." And then she said, "This ready, set, go stuff is for you. I really don't need it. I just want to go when I want to go." And I was like, "Oh, here's another one of those lessons, isn't it?"
So I knew that if I really want to capture her, I'm going to have to learn when she's going to go, even before she knows when she's going to go. I had to learn to read her, use those things that she taught me that she demanded I learn from the beginning of our relationship, and enhance those skills to be able to read a future, even before she knew when she was going to go, so when she could feel that she was going to go, I already knew that, and we could go together.
Because if you are looking at something, and watching it and going, "Wow, that's great, I should go to it," by the time you react, you see it all come into your mind and your mind makes the decision and your body reacts physically, you're way living in the past. But if you have the intuition to read that, and live that future, and meet it in a moment in the present time, you're now in sync. You're now in a very powerful state. And that is one of the things I learned from her.
There's just so many. We could do hours just talking about her. I actually want to do a documentary on her and the relationship we had with this. So, she pushed me and my photography through those skills grew, and I matured and all of that, just thanks to being involved with her. And I grew as a human being and I grew as a photographer, just tons, just from being exposed to that, from being challenged by that and from being exposed to her.
So, my little Skydancer, I love you. I always will. And she's so present in my mind, and I am so thankful for everything she taught me.
I love that.
As a photographer, your mission is to get the perfect shot of the day. How do you balance being present and enjoying the experience versus trying to capture the perfect shot?
That's an interesting question, because a lot of times you kind of miss the experience, or the experience of what's happening in front of you. But I've traded for a different experience that's more powerful.
For example, some of my work happens in a state of mind where you really can't be thinking. You have to get out of your way, you have to be almost unconscious. The first time it happened to me, it scared me. I was developing these skills and these senses, and one time it's like I was not there. The jump ended, and I was like, "What happened? Well, where was I?" And then people are celebrating a world record, and I'm going, "I missed it. I missed it. I went to sleep. What happened?" And then later on, the people, the photographers that were conscious per se, didn't get the picture.
I was the only one that got a picture, and I was like, "I don't know if I can even put my name on it. It's like I wasn't there. How did it happen?" And what it was, I learned that I was going into a stage where in order to really see and live in this future that I was describing earlier, you had to really get out of your own way. You had to really stop thinking. You have to be willing to go there. So, in a way you may be missing something, but you're trading it for a connection to a different world.
It's kind of like you're missing one thing, but you're capturing something else and you're living something else. It's no different than if you look right, you miss what's on the left, and if you look left, you miss what's on the right. And you do that by choice, and you embrace that choice. And for me, I relive the moment based on the photography, and it is super interesting to then see what I captured, especially when it matches that future that I visualized, because I visualized the images.
Also, I went to a stage where I started going beyond and was actually not getting what I visualized, but it is almost like capturing beyond what I could visualize. I interpreted it as something that I was missing, that I was not capturing accurately what I wanted, where in reality it was more beautiful than I imagined it. But I had to get out of my own way even to allow the concept that this was even more beautiful. That me, my visualizations and my being in this state was simply a vehicle to see even beyond what I could see.
What do you think about social media where people are putting filters to artificially manipulate what they’ve got?
Yeah, that's interesting because the very first time I saw that and had an opinion about it, I almost didn't have an opinion because I was so biased and I had to just let go, was when I first saw scratches, and dots, and stuff like that, which is like a plugin that you can add scratches so it looks like film scratches. And I'm going, "I worked a whole lifetime to get around the scratches and to make sure my film wasn't scratched, and it didn't have dots, and hairs, and things, and now you have a plugin to put them back in!?"
But I think that we're so busy trying to do something different that we're missing the point of the essence of it. For me, the essence is in what message you want to provide. And if it's just more, wow, that looks more wild so it captures your attention, now you're in the world of look at me, look at me, look at me in the social media side.
For me, the essence is in what message you want to provide.
But if it's a message you're trying to portray, or a beauty and love that you're trying to portray and share, which is what I'm about, then you try to use more of the artistic and creative look that makes people go, "Wow, how did he do that?" Or, "What is that?"
I've been in jumps where I captured images that the people in the jump asked me, "What jump were you on? This did not look at all what the jump we were on," because they're so focused on their job, they're focused on getting to the formation, the place where they're going to grip somebody else and dock in a specific place that's very preplanned, and they're not looking at the surroundings. And for me, I'm looking at children in a playground, surrounded by clouds and beautiful manifestations of nature, and how we fit in it.
And the best way for me to share that beauty, especially for a non-skydiver who isn't necessarily interested in skydiving, but could perhaps be interested in a powerful image of people doing their thing, of children in their playground, then I have to capture that essence. And that essence, and that feeling, and that intuition, and all of those things we were talking about then live in the image. And people look at it special that way without an effect, without distorting it, without adding hairs and all the other things.
So, it's valid if that's the goal at hand and it is effective, but it's just not my world. I'd rather be more of a purist in that sense. But that's just a personal choice.
Two big phases of your life that put you on the path you're on were when you were 14 years old and you had that jungle expedition for the first time, which instilled your love of photography and filmmaking. And then at the age of 19, when you went skydiving for the first time.
How did those two events open your eyes on the world and your role in it?
When I was very young, I want to say eight years old or something, I used to ask my mother for bus fare. And she would go like, "Where are you going?" And we lived in Mexico City. I said, "Well, we're just going to go get lost and then try to find our way home." And she was like, "What!?" Then she tried to give me money for cab fare just in case we couldn't find our way back, but I said to her, "No, that defeats the whole purpose!"
So, we would get in a bus and not pay attention to where it's going, not read where it's going or anything, and then get in different buses, and hitchhike, and whatever, and end up in this just crazy opposite part of town, not being familiar with it. And then our goal was to get back home, to figure our way back home, and always through asking and using your intuition.
In the jungle it was a similar situation. It was a beautiful expedition. We were very young. It was just three of us, two 14 year olds, I was 14, and an 18-year-old. And we formed this organization to bring something to the Indians and study them, and bring some supplies for them, and help them in whichever way. And it was just a pure interest in helping and being intrigued, and that was it.
So, we went into the jungle, we're totally over our heads. We started all kinds of problems because they didn't want anybody from civilization. This is the border of Guatemala in Mexico, and the Mayan Indians, Lacandon, which are the descendants of the Mayans, and the nearest sign of civilization was 75 kilometers away.
We found ourselves there, and the older kid got malaria. And so we were like, "We have to get him out of here." We didn't know it was malaria at the time, but we had a fever and he was just hallucinating, and all the stuff. And so, we were like, "We got to get him out of here." And the Indians were like, they didn't speak Spanish, but one of them did, which was our host. And he was like, "I can only take you so far. I'm not going to civilization. There's no way." And so, he put us in our journey and said, "Just go that way."
But there's no trail, just a jungle. And you got to work your way through it with a machete, and dodging snakes, and things that want to bite you and hurt you. So, pretty soon we found ourselves lost, and we weren't prepared. We didn't have food, didn't have weapons, they had just banned weapons in Mexico so we went in there without weapons. And scared, we were super scared.
After a long two days, the other young kid started hallucinating from lack of food and exhaustion. And I was like, "I'm alone now. I got to get both of these guys out of here." And then I started hallucinating some time shortly after that. And so, it got really, really scary. So, I decided that even if we were going to be eating at night that we needed sleep, and just started taking risks on what to eat, plants and things, because a lot of the things we weren't eating because they had told us there were a lot of poisonous things.
And again, we knew nothing. So, somehow we found our way out of there and found our way to a little farm or a little tiny hut where a farmer was, and he saw us and was like, "What are you guys doing here?" And helped us out. So, it was quite the experience. And I remember all these intuitive powers, that's when I first really started using them. But again, then I remembered my eight-year-old experiences getting lost on purpose. And then I remember clearly going, "I have to come back and shoot this, and share it with people."
I was not a photographer. And I became a photographer, I got a $25 still camera with one lens used in a pawn shop, and a movie camera, Super 8 movie camera, and did a lot of more research, learned about photography a little bit, not through classes, just self-taught.
And how did you want someone's life to be changed after watching what you would've shot there?
Well, the thing I wanted at the time, that what I thought I would contribute with sharing what I saw, was not only that there was a beautiful world that was pure, that was not contaminated by society, by the comforts of modern society, and all the aggressions, and all the things that the city life, Mexico City is quite a big city.
The contrast between that and living in a hut that's a dirt floor, and it's eight by eight feet, and sleeping in a hammock so you don't get bit by stuff. And I loved the simplicity of the thinking of the Indians. And there was just more connection with the earth and more connection with life, just from that simplicity. There was no rat race, there was no nothing like that.
So, I promised the guy I would be back, and two years later I went back as a 16-year-old. Now, these other two guys were not interested in going back!
They're like, "You're on your own!"
Yeah, and I had met a girl and she went with me, and I don't know what our parents were thinking now! I was 16. So, we went back and this was a reverse situation, which was we worked our way in there walking, and I could feel the same sensation of being lost, but this time I had a level of confidence that was like, "I can find my way anywhere." And it was just an intuitive thing. I don't know how else to describe it.
We kept pushing through, and pushing through, and pushing through. And 75 kilometers of jungle, you could veer off just one degree and be off completely. But we kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and I was starting to wonder, but it was just like the self-confidence kicked in. And a couple of days later of being in the jungle, pushing through a lot of miles of walking, I saw this Indian. And all of a sudden he's clearing this field with his machete.
He looked up at me and it was my host from two years ago. How in the hell do you find somebody in the middle of the jungle, and the first person you run into is him!?
I was just in the neighborhood!
He looked at me and went, "What in the hell?" we were so out of place. And I said, "I told you I'd come back, and I'm here to stay to do this shooting, and share about you."
So, we stayed for three months in the jungle. And we learned language, we recorded the language. I did a documentary on it. I didn't know anything about film, so it's really crude and it's very non-professional, you should say. But it got me started in my career, and it was all the motivation, which is still what drives me today, is to capture the beauty that I see and share it with the world.
I completed that task and I returned safely home. I was so alive to have done that, to have just not let the fear stop me and not let the apprehension. It was a crazy thing to do, but it was what drove me. It was like I just wasn't going to let anything stop me. And when I look back, I have no idea other than I was 16 and I felt invincible. And it was the same as when I was 14, and I just powered through anything, and now I have the material to show for it and such a great experience.
Now with the perspective of the years that you have been able to live and the crazy experiences you've had, why do most people feel that fear and not take action? And what can people do to make sure they take action in spite of their fear?
You asked me if I had fear and I said, "Yeah, I have fear of performance. I have fear of what could happen to me. Maybe this is the last jump I'll ever do."
There's a lot of things, and then people ask you, "Why would you do it?" You can even ask yourself why would you do it? But there is an incredible amount of reward on the other side of fear. Courage is not the no fear generation. It's not not having fear. It's having fear and pushing through it to not let it stop you, to find the things that are on the other side, all the rewards.
One of the clear rewards I can see that you can find on the other side is self-confidence. Now, who doesn't want a piece of that? When you take that fear, and just manage it, and you learn to manage it, which is what we do in skydiving, you learn that if you turn that fear into panic, now you're paralyzed. Now you're stopped. Now you can't go further, and now you're having a bad experience.
There is an incredible amount of reward on the other side of fear.
But if you decide you're going to go through and nothing's going to stop you from it, and you're going to have this experience, now you look at the fear and you do it more as a self-preservation kind of fear. You use it for preparation. You use it to, in my case, to make sure my reserve handle is in place, my cutaway handle is in place, my harness is in place, that everything is in place so when I need it, it's there. And that I trust the people that packed my parachute, or I trust that I know how to operate the camera and that I'm not going to get hurt, and that Marcella and I are going to dance successfully, and all of these things.
Lack of knowledge converts fear into crippling panic. And on the other side of the non-crippling panic, which is the panic that just keeps you alert and the panic of what could possibly happen, there is an incredible amount of reward. That's what people are missing, and that's the correlation between skydiving and real life is that I live this in every jump, and I get to do it anyway, and I get to, on the other side, go, "Wow, I'm so happy I did."
If you notice, because you've done it already, on the other side of that fear, just before you exited, there was this complete reward of happiness, of not stopping because of the fear, and also of doing something unique and completely crazy that you now have as an experience. But managing the fear and doing it anyway is a wonderful source of inspiration, and love, and on, and on, and on.
Conversations like this maybe will help people realize that the reward is really worth the risk, especially if you turn the risk into something that's not just dumb risk, like unnecessary risk. It's not like you're going to go do something completely irresponsible. You're taking the precautions necessary, you're going with experienced people and all of that.
But I think if you don't do it, if you wait too long, like you say, and then you're just too used to saying, "No, no, no. I think at this time it doesn't feel right," or all these things that stop you, all these inner chatter that convinces you that it's not a good idea, I think the harm is greater than any kind of harm that can be on the other side.
Absolutely. The harm of staying where you are.
Yeah, you're not going to avoid that.
I mean, you may avoid the harm of an injury or something like that. It's not like something couldn't happen. But in the words of Jimmy Buffett, “I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead.” In one of his songs, the lyrics say that.
Why would you want to hide from life so you can have more of it? Why don't you spend it? And if you spend it and you're done early because you spent it all, then you spent it. But you could live an entire life and not live.
Dr. Jeff Spencer came on this show and mentioned the importance of being able to trust in your preparation. And all the elements that you spoke about there, it sounds like you're just perfectly prepared, so that enables you to be present and confident for the jump.
Yes, absolutely. I actually listened to that podcast, and I remember those comments.
And think about it, some of the preparation is the research and all of that, and becoming experienced at what you're doing, or trusting somebody else's and so on. But also, some of the preparation he was talking about involves perhaps the mental preparation that an athlete goes through prior to performing.
Imagining himself winning, imagining himself going through what he's going to do, even if it's something unsafe and just going through it safely, the visualization part. And so, then imagine that no matter what happens, if you exercise that you already won even. You see what I mean?
Lack of knowledge converts fear into crippling panic.
You already won. You won a state of mind in which you got to visualize those things, and believe in yourself, and really prepare, and train in whichever way is necessary. And then the rest of it is just the outcome.
But that journey, nobody can take that away. So, even if it's for that reason, the excuse is the jump in this case, or the competition, or whatever record you want to break, or whatever it is, that's the vehicle. But the important part is what you gain in the process to that moment. That's really where the gold is. That's where the gold medal is.
If you were going to train someone to be confident in doing a solo skydive as quickly as possible, what are the steps that you would take them through?
You would take him through exercises on managing the fear, the self-confidence part, because the rest of it is not hard. So, it's not something where you go, "This is so hard, only a few people can do it," which is the case in some things. Like only some people can pick up a certain amount of weight with their bodies, and even through training, and at a certain age you slow down.
Skydiving is one of those things that you can do even at a later age because it doesn't require a lot of physical strength. What it requires is that you stop getting out of your own way and to allow the mind to connect with the body so you use your body for whatever it is the task is at hand, including the flying to achieve a world record like we were talking about earlier.
Why would you want to hide from life so you can have more of it?
So, I think that's the part you would want to prepare people on. That way when they get to the scary part, they have already gone through the self-confidence journey.
An example is one of the most amazing people I've ever met is Tom Cruise. He has a level of confidence, and I'm sure he experiences fear, but he has an incredible amount of confidence, and he wants to do his own stunts. He wants to fly the helicopters, he wants to do the jumping, the skydiving, he wants to do that.
Although I wasn't present when he was training for one of the films where he did some skydiving, and I actually was only a consultant and a friend of mine did the shooting, the stories I hear and the times that I've met Tom, the things I've noticed from him is he learns at an incredible rate, because he doesn't have time to waste. He just knows.
He’s like, "What do I have to learn? What information do I need to penetrate in my mind?" And then he'll do it, and do it, and go, "Okay, I just got to do it better. I can do it better, I can do it better." And then pretty soon he's doing in a fraction of the time what other people take longer to do, because they're tormenting themselves with, "Oh, I'm not doing it right," or whatever.
So, a lot of that is, again, that's the part of it. And ironically enough, like we said before, when you take somebody and prepare them that way for something like that, you've actually given them already the biggest part. The rest of it is just so they don't walk away and go, "Oh, I got scared at the end."
But really the preparation is the journey itself. So, that is why you want to be powerful. That's where you want to connect. That's where you want to be invincible. Like I say, going to the jungle and back alive after I was lost is nothing compared to the state of mind I had to put myself in, even though that wasn't a training situation, that was just an intuitive survival situation.
But I had to have a level of confidence. I truly thought I could never die. I couldn't die. It was like, "What could possibly happen? I'm going to die? I'm not going to die. I'm obviously not going to die." Why did I think obviously wasn't going to die? I have no idea. But it was the mentality I had, and somehow it played a role. And that is something that I always want to be present in my mind.
I want it to be like I can't lose. I can lose more if I don't do it. I can lose life. I want to be alive, and being alive is doing those things, taking those chances. So, I encourage people to really pick something, even if it's not dangerous, pick something that's over your head. Pick something that's completely out of your safety or your comfort zone, and engage in it, and look at the fear and learn to embrace the fear, and not push away from it.
Welcome the fear. Say “thank you” when it arrives. And I've been in situations, for instance, where I was on the verge of turning fear into panic, even with my experience, where you're in a situation where you're under a parachute or something, and you're going like, "I should have not done that," or whatever.
Tom [Cruise] learns at an incredible rate, because he doesn't have time to waste.
And you're going, "Here I can totally make the wrong decision and hurt myself." And then you have to talk to yourself and you go, "Remember what you know. Remember what you know. All your training comes into place now. Do not visit with the panic side of fear. Do not allow that in. Keep the fear of making the right choices, but do not let that one creep in. It's not invited."
When you feel it coming in and you go like, "Uh-uh, we're not ready for that part yet." And then when you come out of it, you go, "I was totally prepared for this. I was just scared because it could have gone wrong, but I was totally prepared for it." And that interaction, that moment when you saw the sabotage part that was creeping in, and push it away and go, "Uh-uh, I know you, you're not invited in this moment. I'm not going to have a conversation with you."
And you just push it away, and power through and get to the other side, that was the golden part of it, was noticing it, watching it come in, pushing it away, staying with whatever, and not allowing things to get in your way. So, that is what you want to live for. You want to train for that.
So, the challenges that I speak of, whether it's skydiving out of an airplane, or whether it's challenging yourself to do something that's out of your comfort zone, it's just a vehicle to go visit this kind of thing. Because everybody that's done something out of the ordinary has to experience that. And they can all tell you the same thing, that it's the journey, not the destination. I know it's a cliche, but it is really true.
Absolutely. It's not fearing step three or four in the journey, it's executing the step that's right in front of you. It's exactly what I've got from the special forces operators that I've interviewed as well. They notice that if they worry about something that's a few steps away, they're not going to come home to their families.
Absolutely. And it's the same thing like looking at the altimeter, it's one of those things that you were asking me if there's time where you just focus on it. You are just focused on it.
If you focus on it and if you go like, "Oh, what could happen? How high am I?" That's letting your mind distract you from the task. That's wondering what's going to happen. Do you have time for that thought, is the question, not do I have enough time? You don't have time for that thought. You have time for everything else. And then if it goes wrong and you went trying, but don't waste the time thinking about whether you have time or not.
You mentioned that danger bit there – Is that when you're pulling your chute? Is that where 80% of things that are going to go wrong, will go wrong?
Yeah, there's many different things. Some of them, for instance I had a parachute jump where I was tangled. I was in a tandem jump, as a matter of fact.
We were doing some shooting, I was facing the tandem master because I wanted to shoot a handheld camera over her. It was a friend of mine, over her shoulder at another parachute behind us. And I could never get a front view without flying with my parachute right at him and at a fast speed where you're going in opposite directions.
So, this was an experiment, like, "Hey, what if I go and handhold my camera and I go passenger?" And I ended up with part of the small parachute that you float from that slows you down, I ended up with that wrapped around my ankle. And so, we were spinning, and spinning, and spinning, and all I could see is this green blur in the background.
Now I'm thinking, "Okay, I have to cut this thing." I had a knife, and she's looking at me like, "Oh, my knight in shining armor," with a big knife or something. I was cutting, and cutting, and cutting, and cutting, and she was helping me. I'm going like, "You help me by looking down there and taking care of the altitude, and I have no way, so I'll just take care of cutting us loose."
And the idea was that if you don't cut that loose, then your reserve can tangle with that. So, you always want to get rid of the problem before you go into your next parachute. And pretty soon we're going, and going, and going, and intuitively I'm going, "We've been in free fall too long, and I have to do something."
You have to talk to yourself, “Remember what you know. All your training comes into place now. Do not visit with the panic side of fear.”
So, then my choice was to open the reserve regardless of not taking a chance. And I choked. I actually choked because I looked at the handles and then started thinking, "I'm backwards," which means the handle on the right is now the handle on the left, you know what I'm saying? And in that moment, I was too late and she pulled the reserve for us.
In the moment where I was like, "Wait, what am I pulling?" And I wasn't aware of the tandem system anyway, because I wasn't a tandem master, so I'm just merely a passenger, and she was doing her part and saved us both. And I saw the deployment hit that part but not get tangled and deploy. So, that's one of those situations where you do that.
I had another one where I had a parachute wrapped around my camera helmet, and I couldn't release the helmet, I couldn't release that, and I had to open my reserve into that mess.
I remember thinking, "If I'm going to die, I'm going to shoot what's happening behind me." And I looked behind to look at the mess and how the parachute hit next to it. It was a round parachute, back then that was more dangerous. And I opened at about 500 feet, which was about three seconds from impact. But I made the right decisions in the right moment, and I had three seconds to spare.
Imagine if I had thought, "Hey, do I have enough altitude to ... I wonder if I should look the other ..." That could have been the three seconds.
Are you just trying to get as horizontal as quickly as you can so you're not going straight down?
Yeah, you're basically trying to stop, the parachute to stop you, the parachute to deploy, and then you stop. And now you're going at the parachute fall rate. So, there's situations like that where you just got to make your choices, but the training allows you to really make the right choices that way.
Yeah, and when you get scared is once you land, that's when you go like, "Wow, that was scary." And then you may be overwhelmed, you may need to sit down, but in the moment, even when there's pain, you land, everything's okay, and then you start hurting. Or then you go, "That doesn't feel right," or whatever. But again, there's wonderful lessons in handling that fear, and focusing on the task at hand. And again, when you focus on those things, you learn that energy of being so focused that not even danger distracts you.
You realize the priorities of focus, focus, focus. It doesn't matter what, you just know you got to keep going. You can't worry about whether you're going to get caught by somebody, or something, or whatever. If it's a, I don't know, a war situation or something, you almost have to keep going and trust your training.
You've experienced pain very closely, obviously personally, but also very closely with what happened with Deanna. You've also captured pain in your role as a photographer and cinematographer. You've watched that pain transition to death.
What is the lens through which you view pain today, and its role in either breaking or defining people?
Well, there's a lot of things that are encompassed in that.
I even had the experience with Deanna. It's almost like the 22 years that we were together, all the training on this intuitive stuff that we were talking about earlier all came to a final moment when she invited me to stay connected to her as she passed to the other dimension. And I can't think of a more beautiful invitation that somebody can do.
When you have a connection with them where you can feel them, and feel their energy, and see the transition between the physical to energy, and see them depart their body and stay connected through that transition all the way to the other side, and see what's there, there's no better way to do it and no greater privilege.
I’ll tell you a quick story about that moment when she transitioned that puts it into perspective. We are there, she's taking her last breath. First of all, I called the hospice people, so their instructions were don't call 9-1-1 anymore, we had prepared to die. And I come back from the phone and she's there gasping for air, and I see my camera. And I was like, "No." And then I went, "Yes. This is who I am, and this is who we've been." I've been shooting her all of my life. She was my best model.
It is no tragedy to die. It is by design. We are all going, so why are we hiding from it?
I was shooting what she created and I said, "She's not going to have a problem with this." And it was not a lack of respect or anything. And I shot a single picture, and then put the camera down and went to her. And then in that moment, a car comes to a screeching halt. We were on a balcony or on a deck, 18 feet up, and a street right down there.
A car comes to a screeching halt with these young kids coming out of it all excited, and going, "Hey, hey," yelling up at us. And it was there, and two friends of mine and my son, and I'm going, "What could possibly be so important, or more important than this?" And they go, "Hey, did you see our kite? We lost our kite." And I'm going, "Really!?" But of course they don't know what we're going through.
In that moment I could see that the pain of passing, and losing somebody, and all of that, it's all by design. We're all going. It's a matter of how we're going to spend life, it's not a question of how we're going to save it. So, I learned to deal with that particular kind of pain as a normal thing.
There's the pain of the person you miss, there's the pain of whatever might have happened that might have been not great, not peaceful, but it is no tragedy to die. It is by design. We are all going, and why are we hiding from it? It's like, I don't mean to rush into it head first, but why wouldn't you want to live every second of it? And even if it shortens your time span, live it.
And then there's the pain of injuries and things like that, and whatever, that's a lot of where the fear comes. Nobody wants to get hurt. Once you get hurt, the fear is even different. I've been injured, and you come back and you have these flashbacks of that injury, and you find yourself in similar situations and you kind of doubt …
You second guess yourself a bit?
Yes, you second guess yourself. It's like, "Oh no." And then you realize you're just reliving that.
But it all falls in the same category, which is that you can't let that stop you. You can't say, "Oh whoa, that hurts. Oh, I'm never doing that again." It's like, no. I mean, that hurts and I made a mistake. Or that hurts, it was an accident. And then you manage the fear just the same way.
So, it's no different than the fear conversation, it's just fear of pain or fear of a certain kind of pain. So, it's the same conversation. How do you escape the fear of dying? You can't say by not dying, you really can't. So, you might as well escape it by living it, and smiling at it, and embracing that fear.
It's like the Marcus Aurelius quote, "Death smiles at us. All a man can do is smile back."
I was going to ask if there was one image that means more to you than anything else that you've ever captured, is that the one that it would be? The one you took of Deanna?
I think that could be one of the most because of that. Her and I were so connected, especially after that invitation. And also, I saw her brush away things that would've been insults to us, or offended, like somebody doing something and she getting offended. And you could see her going, "That stuff doesn't bother me anymore. I'm turning into energy soon. Why would I want to worry about what somebody says about me? Or what somebody's motives are to come over and visit just because they want to say, 'Oh, I got into the visit with Deanna,'" or something, or whatever. Things like that.
It's more like she wasn't worried about those things anymore. So, I knew she wouldn't worry about this. And she loved the photographer in me, contrary to my other relationship, we were talking about the narcissist side of it. And so, then this was not going to be an intrusion.
And I also didn't want to miss that journey. This was not about capturing the journey. I just wanted to capture that moment, and then put it away and rejoin in the invitation she presented to me, which was to stay connected all the way through to the other side. And as she stuck around for months, giving me power, and energy beyond what I had before with her when we were together.
My skills, and my power, and my intuitive side, and the things that I learned to do with energy were multiplied by 10 once she left. It was like she put me in touch with that other side where all the source is, where I can tap into it, and she kept reminding me, and she kept visiting me, and it was wonderful. It was amazing. Yeah, there's pain unfortunately. There must be a purpose for all that. There's physical pain, there's a purpose for it too, and there's emotional pain and all this stuff, but never should be something to keep you from shying away from living.
The power of perspective on that. Wow, that's so powerful. Thank you for sharing that.
On your best day what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard to show yourself on your worst day?
It would be about the perspective of failing versus winning. In other words, usually on your worst day, you feel like you failed. You feel like things didn't go your way, or you failed at something or whatever. And I learned that through some of the capturing of things that I thought I failed because I had such an intuitive vision of what I wanted to capture and I didn't capture it, then I considered it to be failure. Only to find out later when I gave it a chance and I looked at it, that the beauty that was there was beyond what I had imagined.
I was tagging the most beautiful work I had done as failure, which was only a perspective, because you can't say that's a failure. You just were looking from that point of view, you were looking from that.
So, I would have to remind myself that failure is only a perspective, and that you can step into success by simply changing the perspective and looking at exactly the same thing and consider it a success. It can be that your failure turned into a success just by the fact that you learned something.
But that's what I would remind myself, because I spent too much time in failure dragging myself down. And when I realized that my best work was found there, I vowed to not go back there. And it's hard not to go back there.
Final question, what's one thing you do to Win the Day?
It's realizing that what lives behind fear is wonderful. There's love and there's lessons, there's growth, there's self-confidence, and all the things that we look for and that we want are behind the fear. So, reminding myself of the courage to not let fear stop me on everything, because that's not just limited to skydiving, it's on everything else.
And if I may just add one thing, one of the biggest highlights of my life that I also have Deanna to thank, is my son Ramsey and his family. And I had an opportunity to work with him in several films like Godzilla and Kingsman: The Secret Service. He's in front of the camera on that.
He now has two children so he's made me a grandfather, and him and his wife and the whole family is just a great gift, and I'm really thankful for that. And that lives in the bucket list completed dreams for me.
They're lucky to have the coolest granddad getting around!
They think I'm nuts, for sure!
Norman, great to see you, my friend. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Thank you so much for having me, it was a pleasure sitting with you and exploring all this stuff.
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