I am not generally an extreme sports person: my idea of great surfing is hanging ten with the remote control. But when hubby and I went on our honeymoon, we went to Peru to see friends, and once we were down there, well, we had to spend five days in the Amazon. Since then I’ve been an armchair adventurer, so I definitely clicked with the idea of a new business book, “Your Career is an Extreme Sport: Focus. Drive. Excel,” which lets you apply the principles of extreme athletes — snowboarders, skydivers and adventure racers — to your career.

Author Eileen P. Gunn, who is herself a freelancer — and a volcano climber — had a lot of empathy for, and wisdom about, building a real estate business:

Q: Your book is really about lessons we can learn from the new athletes, but tell an old fogey — what is “rip shred tear?”

A: It’s all kind of the same thing: it’s doing something that makes people say “wow!” or makes you say “wow!” about yourself. It’s hitting your groove.

Q: Is the extreme attitude all about youth?

A: I don’t think so. When I talk to climbers, they say that they like climbing with someone who has been climbing for 10 or 15 years — because if they’ve been climbing for that long, they haven’t really hurt themselves, and they must know what they’re doing.

Q: Brand-building is so hard for brokers. You’re often trying to build your reputation, but within a corporate framework: “I work for Century 21, and I am the Queen of Whatever.” Is it really applicable to take these individualistic athletes as role models?

A: What’s interesting is that extreme athletes don’t often do their sports alone. Climbers, for instance, always have buddies — even though it might slow them down to be with someone, it helps them too. And for other sports, you have this loose ad hoc group around you of people who are all on their own journeys, but watch what you’re doing, and say “here’s how to avoid that pitfall,” or “cool, you did something good.” It’s not all that different from being in a real estate office; you might specialize in brownstones, while someone two desks away specializes in high rises, but you can benefit from having all these people around you — even though you’re all not a team the way people building a car at Ford are a team. 

Q: So you want to treat your coworkers as though it’s not a battle royale?

A: Think back to the American snowboarding team in the Olympics (the Americans dominated the Olympics, with the men and the women each taking Gold and Silver medals.) They all wanted to win, but you could tell they were a group of really close friends who benefited from being around each other.

One lesson is that they were capable of giving props to each other, saying, “hey, that person really did have a better run, but there are things they did that I could practice.” So if somebody gets the deals you wanted, ask yourself, “How are they networking that I’m not? What was the extra phone call they made that I didn’t get around to?”

Learn from the people around you, and enjoy them. If you’re always by yourself, it’s lonely.

Q: One thing that fascinated me about your book is that these people jumping out of planes actually think a lot about managing risk; aren’t they cowboys?

A: They’re not risk junkies, they’re not kamikazes! They see risk as a necessary tradeoff for where they want to go. They like the challenge of being able to do cool stunts once they’ve jumped out of the plane or the thrill of making it down a complex free ski course, so they tolerate the risk, but also mitigate risk where they can. In sports, that means getting the right equipment and feeling confident in the level that you’re performing at.

Q: And how would you apply that to real estate?

A: Well, in real estate, let’s say the reward is that when a home sells you get a big commission. So what’s the risk? It stays on the market too long. Think about the components of that risk to mitigate it: Can you take interior design courses to learn interior decorating so you can get places sold faster? Can you take marketing courses to learn how to sell the properties differently? Can you stuff the pipeline with lots of different deals, so that when one falls through, you’re still protected?

Q: Skills and diversification, when you put it that way.

A: Remember, the traditional corporate path is less stable than it used to be. There’s no lifetime employment anymore. And if all bets are off and there’s no security in anything, you should go do what you really want to do. Freelancers, real estate agents among them, are just facing up to that fact.

Q: I guess my problem with managing risk is that I first have to think about the risk, and that itself is kind of scary and paralyzing.

A: When I do adventure travel, it’s scary. You go somewhere where you don’t speak the language, and they don’t even use the same alphabet, and you have to get food and get where you want to go, and you really don’t want to end up in the wrong place. But it’s always easier than I thought it would be. The thought of something is usually scarier than actually doing it.

Plus, what athletes know is that the fact that something is scary is not the reason to avoid it. The fact that it’s frightening should not be the brick wall. Great athletes face their fears; great athletes are all about persevering. They take the big fall, recognize that it’s a component of their sport, but not the whole thing. It’s really about mental fortitude.

Q: How do I get me some of that?

The way to hit your groove is to practice, and to get your brain in gear. I do yoga, it’s the same class week after week, and sometimes I’m in the poses, and sometimes I’m thinking about what I want to have for dinner. Having an extreme career is about having your brain in the groove as much, as often, as you can.

And of course, having a career where you want that to be the case!

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