Dan Meyer on Cutting Through Fear at TEDxMaastricht (Full Transcript)

For the next seven years, I lived on a little island in the Bahamas, for about seven years in a thatch hut, spearing sharks and stingrays to eat, the only one on the island, in a loincloth, and I got to learn to swim with sharks.

And from there, I moved to Mexico, and then I moved to the Amazon River basin in Ecuador, Pujo Pongo Ecuador, lived with a tribe there, and little by little I began to gain confidence just by my thromes.

I moved to the music business in Nashville, and then in Sweden, moved to Stockholm, worked in the music business there, where I climbed the top of Mt. Kebnekaise high above the Arctic Circle.

I learned clowning, and juggling, and stilt-walking, unicycle riding, fire eating, glass eating. In 1997 I heard there were less than a dozen sword swallowers left and I said, “I’ve got to do that!”

I met a sword swallower, and I asked him for some tips. He said, “Yeah, I’ll give you 2 tips. Number one, it’s extremely dangerous. People have died doing this. Number two, don’t try it!”

So I added it to my list of thromes. And I practiced 10 to 12 times a day, every day for four years. Now I calculated those out, 4 x 365 – it was about 13,000 unsuccessful attempts before I got my first sword down my throat in 2001. During that time I set a throme to become the world’s leading expert in sword swallowing.

So I searched for every book, magazine, newspaper article, every medical report, I studied physiology, anatomy, I talked with doctors and nurses, networked all the sword swallowers together into the Sword Swallowers Association International, and conducted a 2-year medical research paper on Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects, that was published in the British Medical Journal.

Thank you.

And I learned some fascinating things about sword swallowing. Some things I bet you never thought about before, but you will after tonight. Next time you go home, and you’re cutting your steak with your knife or a sword, or your bestek, you’ll think about this.

I learned that sword swallowing started in India, right where I’d seen it first of all as a 20-year old kid, about 4000 years ago, about 2000 BC. Over the past 150 years, sword swallowers have been used in the fields of science and medicine to help develop the rigid endoscope in 1868 by Dr. Adolf Kussmaul in Freiburg, Germany. In 1906, the electrocardiogram in Wales, to study swallowing disorders, and digestion, bronchoscopes, that type of thing.

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But over the past 150 years, we know of hundreds of injuries and dozens of deaths. Here’s the rigid endoscope that was developed by Dr. Adolf Kussmaul. But we discovered that there were 29 deaths over the past 150 years or so including this sword swallower in London who impaled his heart with his sword.

We also learned that there are from 3 to 8 serious sword swallowing injuries each year. I know because I get the phone calls every year. I just had two of them, one from Sweden, and one from Orlando just over the past few weeks, of sword swallowers who are in the hospital from injuries. So it is extremely dangerous.

The other thing I learned is that sword swallowing takes from 2 years to 10 years to learn how to swallow a sword for many people. But the most fascinating discovery I learned was how sword swallowers learn to do the impossible. And I’m going to give you a little secret: Don’t focus on the 99.9% that is impossible. You focus on that 0.1% that is possible, and you figure out how to make it possible.

Now let me take you on a little journey into the mind of a sword swallower.

In order to swallow a sword, it requires mind over matter meditation, razor-sharp concentration, pinpoint accuracy in order to isolate internal body organs and overcome automatic body reflexes through reinforced brain synopsis, through repeated muscle memory by deliberate practice of over 10,000 times.

Now let me take you on a little incredible journey into the body of a sword swallower.

In order to swallow a sword, I have to slide the blade over my tongue, repress the gag reflex in the cervical esophagus, navigate a 90 degree turn down the epiglottis, go through the cricopharyngeal upper esophageal sphincter, repress the peristalsis reflex, slide the blade into the chest cavity between the lungs.

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At this point, I actually have to nudge my heart aside. If you watch very carefully, you can see the heart beat with my sword because it’s leaning against the heart separated by about an eighth of an inch of esophageal tissue. That’s not something you can fake.

Then I have to slide it past the breastbone, past the lower esophageal sphincter, down into the stomach, repress the retch reflex in the stomach all the way down to the duodenum. Piece of cake.

If I were to go further than that, all the way down to my Fallopian tubes. [Fallopian tubes] Guys, you can ask your wives about that one later.

People ask me, they say, “It must take a lot of courage in order to risk your life, to nudge your heart, and swallow a sword”

No. What takes real courage is for that scared, shy, skinny wimpy kid to risk failure and rejection, to bear his heart, and swallow his pride and stand up here in front of a bunch of total strangers and tell you his story about his simple fears and dreams, to risk spilling his guts, both literally and figuratively.

You see — thank you.

You see, the really amazing thing is, I’ve always wanted to do the remarkable in my life and now I am. But the really remarkable thing is not that I can swallow 21 swords at once, or 20 feet underwater in a tank of 88 sharks and stingrays for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or heated to 1500 degrees red hot for Stan Lee’s Superhumans as a “Man of Steel” and that sucker was hot. Or to pull a car by sword for Ripley’s, or Guinness, or make it on the finals of America’s Got Talent, or win the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine. No, that’s not the really remarkable thing. That’s what people think. No, no, no. That’s not it.

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