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Getting Rid Of Ballast: My Word Of The Year For 2012 (Part 1)

Posted Dec 31 2011 2:14pm

And no, it’s not “ballast.”

The other day my stepson Bryan came home from work (he’s living with us temporarily) and said that he’d watched a cool TED talk during his lunch break. He said it was about a guy who wants to fly around the world in a solar-powered aircraft, non-stop, using no fuel. The guy, it turns out, is Bertrand Piccard , who, along with Brian Jones, is known for completing the first non-stop balloon flight around the globe in 1999.


Like many TED talks, this one is about so much more. I encourage you to watch all of it, but for purposes of this post, I want to focus on a few things he says about what he learned while taking that non-stop balloon flight.

“So many people learn that the unknown, the doubts, the question marks, are dangerous. We have to resist change. We have to keep everything under control. And in that sense ballooning is a beautiful metaphor. Because in the balloon, like in life, we go in unforeseen directions. We want to go in one direction, but the winds push us in another. And as long as we fight horizontally, against life, against the winds, against what’s happening to us, life is a nightmare.

How do we steer a balloon? By understanding that the atmosphere is made out of several different layers of wind all of which have different direction. If we want to change our trajectory, in life or in the balloon, we have to change altitude. Changing altitude, in life, means rising to another psychological, philosophical, spiritual level. But how do we do that? In ballooning or in life, how do we change altitude? How do we go from the metaphor to something more practical that we can use every day? Well, in a balloon, it’s easy, we have ballast. And when we drop the ballast overboard, we climb. Sand, water, all the equipment we don’t need any more. And I think in life it should be exactly like this.

You know, when people speak about the pioneering spirit, very often they believe that pioneers are the ones who have new ideas. It’s not true. The pioneers are not the ones who have new ideas, they are the ones who allow themselves to throw overboard a lot of ballast. Habits, certainties, convictions, exclamation marks, paradigms, dogmas. And when we are able to do that what happens? Life isn’t going in just one direction, in one dimension. No. Life is going to be made out of all the possible lines that go in all possible directions in three dimensions.

Each time we allow ourselves to explore this vertical axis, we are pioneers, not just in the atmosphere as a balloonist, but in life itself. Exploring this vertical axis, means exploring all the different ways to do, all the different ways to behave, all the different ways to think, before we find the one that takes us in the direction we wish to go. This is very practical. And it can be used in any aspect of life: politics…spirituality…environment…finance…education of children.”

[And in health, weight, body image, diet, exercise...]

“It’s not easy to know which ballast to drop and which altitude to take. Sometimes we need friends, family members or a psychiatrist. In balloons we need weathermen, the ones who calculate the direction of each layer of wind, at which altitude. But sometimes it’s paradoxical. When Brian Jones and I were flying around the world, the weatherman asked us, one day, to fly quite low, and very slowly. And when we calculated, we thought, ‘we’re never going to make it at that speed.’ So we disobeyed. We flew much higher and at double the speed. I was so proud to have found that jetstream that I called the weatherman and I told him:

‘Hey guy, don’t you think we’re good pilots up here? We fly twice the speed you predicted.’

And he told me, ‘Don’t do that. Go down immediately in order to slow down.’

And I started to argue. ‘I’m not going to do that. We don’t have enough gas to fly so slow.’

‘Yes, but with the low pressure you have on your left, if you fly too fast, in a couple of hours you will turn left and end up at the North Pole.’

And then he asked me something, something I will never forget: ‘What do you really want? You want to go very fast in the wrong direction, or slowly in the good direction?’

And so we went down. We slowed down. And we went through moments of fear because we had no idea how the little amount of gas we had in the balloon could allow us to travel 45,000 kilometers. But we were expected to have doubts, we’re expected to have fears. And this where the adventure really started.”

Again, I highly recommend watching/listening to the whole talk. But I think you get my point. No matter what you want to call them: resolutions, goals, intentions, dreams, visions…we all have them.

As Piccard says, the most renewable energy we have is our own potential and our own passion. What threatens the resolutions, goals, intentions, dreams, and visions is burning too much energy as we fight against the natural direction the winds can take us…instead of understanding that sometimes we have to slow down in order to go in the desired direction…and that sometimes we have to get rid of some ballast in order to find the right altitude.

I didn’t intend to make this a suspenseful post, but Part 1 is long enough and there’s plenty to think about. In Part 2, I will reveal my word for 2012.

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