Apotheosis episode 24: Calm under fire. When the storm rages all around you, stay calm and do the task in front of you. And then move on to the next thing.

Episode 24: Calm under fire

Ryan D Thompson Calm, Skills


When the storm rages all around you, stay calm and do the task in front of you. And then move on to the next thing. One step at a time to survival and success even in the face of danger or intense stress.

My first night at sea was almost my last. We were several hours out from New York harbor when the first storm hit. The captain woke us in the middle of the night with the call: “put on your foul weather gear; we’re in a bad storm.” It was January, so it was freezing. Blankets of snow washed over us in horizontal sheets, a stark contrast against the pitch-black sky all around us. The Schooner Anne, a 70-foot, gaff-rigged sailboat, heeled over sharply, leaving a third of the deck submerged. In a random and unpredictable rhythm, waves rose from the darkness to smash into the boat, drenching us in the process. I had never touched a rope or rigging on a sailboat in my life, so when the captain shouted out, “grab that halyard!” I had no idea what he was talking about. While I sat there shivering and cowering in the cockpit, awaiting my next orders from the captain, I watched as he danced across the boat like a spider weaving a web. Another stark contrast: my nearly paralyzing fear next to the captain’s calm, focused confidence. 

“Crank that winch, now! Harder!” Looking at the certain icy death surrounding us in 360 degrees, I prayed that he didn’t fall in. His death would mean death for the rest of us, mostly inexperienced crew.

This terror lasted a few more hours. My body was frozen to the core, my muscles screaming with every rope hoisted. Finally, once we finished adjusting the sails and had the boat on a manageable course, we all collapsed into our bunks for a fitful rest.

The next day, we spoke about the night’s near-icy-death experiences with the captain, Reid Stowe. He offered his advice on survival: you have to stay calm and simply do what’s in front of you. Then move on to the next thing. You need to keep going, taking it one step at a time. 

We would go on to sail with Reid on the Schooner Anne for another four months, making a round trip from New York to Trinidad. Reid would go on to make the longest non-stop sailing voyage in history, sailing for over 1200 days at sea without returning to land.

His calm and focus kept us alive that night. And it kept him alive for his epic, record-setting voyage. 

It also gave me a powerful life lesson on how to navigate not just life-or-death survival situations but on how to navigate any difficult situation. Staying calm under fire is a crucial skill that serves us well across all areas of our lives.

This is the first episode in a series on that topic: keeping calm even when the world rages around us. We can find ways to tap into an inner stillness that silences the screaming voice of fear in our heads, giving us the power and focus to do what we need to do.

While most of our daily challenges might not be life-or-death, the same principles apply.

First, as Captain Reid described, you do what’s in front of you – and then move on to the next thing. Ask for help when you need it, and work with those around you. But otherwise, you just keep doing the task at hand, as well as you can do it. 

Second, panic is your enemy. Surrounded by danger, any wrong move could be your last. But to give in to panic only amplifies the risk. Panic clouds your vision; forces you to make mistakes. Panic is just another threat, along with excessive anger, doubt, or any unbridled emotion, for that matter. These feelings can sweep us away with the same force as a storm at sea.

How does one cultivate this kind of calm under fire, or like in this case, calm under ice? How can we become one of those people with “ice water in our veins,” capable of executing calmly and flawlessly even under intense stress?

Like with all things, it primarily comes from training. For one, it helps to train in the skills we need for the job at hand – whether that’s sailing a boat or directing a nonprofit program – so that we can perform our jobs in a near-flow state. After a couple of months at sea with Captain Reid and daily training, I was likewise dancing around the boat, confidently managing the sails. Putting in the hours to get as good at our jobs as possible is critical to high performance.

But then there are also methods for cultivating calm that transcend specific jobs or tasks. These skills will be the focus of this series – techniques and practices from ancient wisdom traditions and modern science to develop the capacity for calm under fire.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll explore some ideas from Buddhism and Stoicism, psychology, and neuroscience that can help us to exercise this crucial, life-saving skill of calm. No doubt we have plenty of storms raging around us, with political upheavals, climate change and environmental degradation, and threats to social and economic systems. I hope these practices and insights can empower you to weather the storm – and tackle big things.

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License