Icarus Unbound

He was the first person to circle the globe in a hot-air balloon. Now Bertrand Piccard aims to fly around the world – day and night – in a plane powered by the sun.

TEDGlobal speaker Bertrand Piccard comes from a family of explorers of great heights (and depths). His father was the first person to reach the deepest point in the world’s oceans, and his grandfather was the first to balloon into the stratosphere. Piccard speaks about his family, his psychiatric studies, and his attempt, with partner André Borschberg, to fly around the world in the Solar Impulse airplane.

Some people have said that science and adventure is “in your DNA.” What was your upbringing like?

Because my father and grandfather were explorers, I had great role models when I was a boy. I met the astronauts on the Apollo American space mission and other adventurers and explorers who were friends of my father. These people gave me confidence. All the role models I had as a kid were doing “impossible” things. I remember that, by the time I was 11, I also wanted to make the impossible happen, because it’s really interesting, it makes life great. It fulfills the human spirit.

What about your training as a psychiatrist helps you in your work as an adventurer and scientist?

For me, psychiatry is a way to explore the inner world, and adventure is a way to explore the outer world. When you want to explore, you want to search for new ways to think and do, for new behaviors. It helps me as a psychiatrist to get out of the normal path.

Athletes often talk about preparing themselves mentally before a contest or race. What kind of mental preparation does it take to attempt to fly around the world?

I use a lot of self-hypnosis with visualization to get mentally prepared for these adventures. I try to visualize all the problems that could happen, and I try to solve the problems in advance. The main question I ask myself is, “How will I stay calm and avoid panicking?” You have to be sure that you will not panic. You can visualize yourself in any situation and know how to feel safe inside and how to feel safe outside.

I’m sure your aircraft are well tracked and monitored, but do you ever feel lost?

Absolutely. There are moments we feel lost because we are doing something that nobody has done and going places where nobody has gone. But that’s exactly when the adventure starts — right at that moment. If you’re lost, you cannot work with a pre-established pattern of behavior. Instead you have to find new behaviors and new ways. This is true not only when someone is in the middle of the Pacific, but it can happen in the crisis of life. When someone close to you dies, if you go through a divorce, if you get fired from your job — we feel lost when these things happen. But people have to understand that the adventure of life starts at these moments, because we have to find the answers in different ways.

How does it feel to be so far from civilization, both literally and figuratively?

For me, the most frightening distance is not measured by geography. It’s the distance from our habits. If we do what we usually do, life seems to be easy, but it’s not interesting. If we get far away from our habits, far away from the unconscious patterns that we reproduce over and over again, we have to wake up, be aware, and be responsible.

At the root of your adventures is an idea. Can you talk about the importance of ideas and what it takes to realize them?

I don’t think ideas are the most important thing. What’s difficult is implementing them. To do that, we have to learn to get rid of our certainties and habits. Most of the time when we have an idea, we think it’s too difficult or someone has already done it. Or we think, “If I fail, people will laugh.” We seem to be certain of this. We have to get rid of our automatic way of thinking, and then we can have some sparkles of creativity.

Why is it important to test boundaries — to push the limits of human achievement?

I believe that most of what people consider to be absolute limits have been established by humans. We decide unconsciously what our definition of the impossible should be, and we believe it. But our ideas are not impossible. They are only impossible in our heads. If we want to implement our ideas, we first have to push back the limits that we give to ourselves.

Bertrand Piccard is a Swiss psychiatrist and adventurer. He was a TEDGlobal speaker.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

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