Dan Meyer on Cutting Through Fear at TEDxMaastricht – Transcript
Dan Meyer – Educator
Thank you. There once was a king in India, a Maharaja and for his birthday, a decree went out that all the chiefs should bring gifts fit for a king. Some brought fine silks, some brought fancy swords, some brought gold.
At the end of the line came walking a very wrinkled little old man who’d walked up from his village many, many days journey by the sea. And as he walked up the king’s son asked, “What gift do you bring for the King?”
And the old man very slowly opened his hand to reveal a very beautiful seashell, with swirls of purple and yellow, red and blue.
And the King’s son said, “That’s no gift for the King! What kind of gift is that?”
The old man looked up at him slowly and said, “Long walk… part of gift.”
In a few moments, I’m going to give you a gift, a gift that I believe is a gift worth spreading. But before I do, let me take you on my long walk.
Like most of you, I started out life as a little kid. How many of you started life as a little kid? Born young?
About half of you, OK.
And the rest of you, what? You were born full-grown? Boy, I want to meet your momma. Talk about impossible!
As a little kid, I always had a fascination with doing the impossible. Today is a day I’ve been looking forward to for many, many years, because today is the day I’m going to attempt to do the impossible right before your very eyes, right here at TEDxMaastricht.
I’m going to start by giving you a gift – by revealing the ending. And I’m going to prove to you that the impossible is not impossible. And I’m going to end by giving you a gift worth spreading. I’m going to show you that you can do the impossible in your life.
In my quest to do the impossible, I’ve found that there are two things that are universal among people around the world. Everybody has fears, and everyone has dreams.
In my quest to do the impossible, I’ve found there are three things that I do around the world, or that I’ve done over my years that have kind of caused me to do the impossible: Dodgeball, or as you call it Trefbal, Superman, and Mosquito. Those are my three keywords. Now you know why I do the impossible in my life.
So I’m going to take you on my journey, my long walk from fears to dreams, from words to swords, from Dodgeball to Superman to Mosquito. And I hope to show you how you can do the impossible in your life.
October 4th, 2007. My heart was racing, my knees were shaking as I stepped out on stage at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University to accept the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine for a medical research paper I’d co-written called Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects.
It was published in a little journal that I’d never read before, The British Medical Journal. And for me, that was an impossible dream come true, it was an unexpected surprise for someone like me, it was an honor I will never ever forget. But it wasn’t the most memorable part of my life.
On October 4th, 1967, this scared, shy, skinny, wimpy kid suffered from extreme fears. As he got ready to step out on stage, his heart was racing, his knees were shaking. He went to open his mouth to speak, the words just would not come out. He stood trembling in tears. He was paralyzed in panic, frozen in fear.
This scared, shy, skinny wimpy kid suffered from extreme fears. He had fear of the dark, fear of heights, fear of spiders and snakes. Any of you afraid of spiders and snakes? Yeah, a few of you. He had a fear of water and sharks, fear of doctors and nurses and dentists, and needles and drills and sharp objects. But more than anything, he had a fear of people.
That scared, shy skinny wimpy kid was me. I had a fear of failure and rejection, low self-esteem, inferiority complex, and something we didn’t even know you could sign up for back then: social anxiety disorder.
Because I had fears, the bullies would tease me and beat me up. They used to laugh and call me names, They never let me play in any of their reindeer games. Ah, there was one game they used to let me play in: Dodgeball and I was not a good dodger.
The bullies would call my name, and I’d look up and I’d see these red dodge balls hurtling at my face at supersonic speeds bam, bam, bam! And I remember many days walking home from school, my face was red and stinging, my ears were red and ringing. My eyes were burning with tears, and their words were burning in my ears.
And whoever said, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. It’s a lie.
Words can cut like a knife. Words can pierce like a sword. Words can make wounds that are so deep, they can’t be seen. So I had fears. And words were my worst enemy. They still are.
But I also had dreams. I would go home and I’d escape to Superman comics and I’d read Superman comic books and I dreamed I wanted to be a superhero like Superman. I wanted to fight for truth and justice, I wanted to fight against villains and kryptonite, I wanted to fly around the world doing superhuman feats and saving lives.
I also had a fascination with things that were real. I would read Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe It or Not book. Any of you ever read Guinness Book of World Records or Ripley’s? I love those books. I saw real people doing real feats. And I said, I want to do that. If the bullies will not let me play in any of their sports games, I want to do real magic, real feats. I want to do something really remarkable that those bullies can’t do. I want to find my purpose and calling, I want to know that my life has meaning, I want to do something incredible to change the world; I want to prove the impossible is not impossible.
Fast forward 10 years. It was the week before my 21st birthday. Two things happened in one day that would change my life forever.
I was living in Tamil Nadu, South India. I was a missionary there, and my mentor, my friend asked me, said, “Do you have Thromes, Daniel?”
And I said, “Thromes? What are Thromes?”
He said, “Thromes are major life goals. They’re like a combination of dreams and goals, like if you could do anything you want to do, go anyplace you want to go, be anyone you want to be, where would you go, what would you do, who’d you be?”
I said, oh, man, “I can’t do that. I’m too scared. I’ve got too many fears!”
That night I took my little rice mat up on the roof of the bungalow, laid out underneath the stars, and watched the bats dive bombing for mosquitoes. And all I could think about were thromes, and dreams and goals, and those bullies with the dodgeballs.
A few hours later I woke up. My heart was racing, my knees were shaking. This time it wasn’t with fear. My entire body was convulsing. And for the next five days I was in and out of consciousness, on my deathbed fighting for my life. My brain was burning up with 105 degree malaria fever.
And whenever I was conscious, all I could think about were thromes. I thought, “What do I want to do with my life?”
Finally, on the night before my 21st birthday, in a moment of clarity, I came to a realization. I realized that little mosquito, Anopheles stephensi, that little mosquito that weighed less than 5 micrograms, less than a grain of salt, if that mosquito could take out a 170 pound man, 80 kilo man, I realized that was my kryptonite.
Then I realized, no, no, it’s not the mosquito, it’s the little parasite inside the mosquito, Plasmodium falciparum, that kills over a million people a year.
Then I realized no, no, it’s even smaller than that, but to me, it seemed so much greater. I realized, fear was my kryptonite, my parasite, that had crippled and paralyzed me my entire life.
You know, there’s a difference between danger and fear. Danger is real. Fear is a choice. And I realized I had a choice. I could either live in fear, and die in failure that night, or I could put my fears to death, and I could reach for my dreams, I could dare to live life.
And you know, there’s something about being on your deathbed and facing death that actually makes you really want to live life. I realized everyone dies, not everyone really lives. It’s in dying that we live. You know, when you learn to die, you really learn to live.
So I decided I was going to change my story that night. I did not want to die. So I prayed a little prayer, I said, “God, if you let me live to my 21st birthday, I will not let fear rule my life any longer. I’m going to put my fears to death, I’m going to reach for my dreams, I want to change my attitude, I want to do something incredible with my life, I want to find my purpose and calling, I want to know that the impossible is not impossible.”
I won’t tell you if I survived that night or not; I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.
But that night I made my list of my first 10 Thromes. I decided I wanted to visit all the major continents, visit the 7 Wonders of the World, learn a bunch of languages, live on a deserted island, live on a ship in the ocean, live with a tribe of Indians in the Amazon, climb to the top of the highest mountain in Sweden, I wanted to see Mount Everest at sunrise, I wanted to work in the music business in Nashville, I wanted to work with a circus, and I wanted to jump out of an airplane.
Over the next twenty years, I accomplished most of those thromes. Every time I would check a throme off my list, I would add 5 or 10 more onto my list and my list continued to grow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The really remarkable thing is that God could take that scared, shy, skinny wimpy kid who was afraid of heights, who was afraid of water and sharks, and doctors and nurses and needles and sharp objects and speaking to people, and now he’s got me flying around the world at heights of 30,000 feet, swallowing sharp objects, underwater in tanks of sharks, and speaking to doctors and nurses and audiences like you around the world. That’s the really amazing thing for me.
I always wanted to do the impossible — Thank you. Thank you.
I always wanted to do the impossible, and now I am. I wanted to do something remarkable with my life and change the world, and now I am.
I always wanted to fly around the world doing superhuman feats and saving lives, and now I am. And you know what? There’s still a small part of that little kid’s big dream deep inside.
And you know, I always wanted to find my purpose and calling, and now I’ve found it. But guess what? It’s not with the swords, not what you think, not with my strengths. It’s actually with my weakness, my words.
My purpose and calling is to change the world by cutting through fear, one sword at a time, one word at a time, one knife at a time, one life at a time, to inspire people to be superheroes and do the impossible in their lives.
My purpose is to help others find theirs. What’s yours? What’s your purpose? What were you put here to do?
I believe we’re all called to be superheroes. What is your superpower? Out of a world population of over 7 billion people, there are less than a few dozen sword swallowers left around the world today, but there’s only one you. You are unique. What is your story? What makes you different? Tell your story, even if your voice is thin and shaky.
What are your thromes? If you could do anything, be anyone, go anywhere — What would you do? Where’d you go? What would you do? What do you want to do with your life? What are your big dreams? What were your big dreams as a little kid? Think back. I bet this wasn’t it, was it?
What were your wildest dreams that you thought were so strange and so obscure? I bet this makes your dreams look not so strange after all, doesn’t it?
What is your sword? Each one of you has a sword, a double-edged sword of fears and dreams. Swallow your sword, whatever it might be. Follow your dreams, ladies and gentlemen. It’s never too late to be whatever you wanted to be.
For those bullies with the dogdeballs, those kids who thought that I would never do the impossible, I’ve got just one thing to say to them: Thank you. Because if it weren’t for villains, we wouldn’t have superheroes.
I’m here to prove the impossible is not impossible. This is extremely dangerous, it could kill me. I hope you enjoy it.
I’m going to need your help with this one.
Audience: Two, three.
Dan Meyer: No, no, no. I need your help on the counting part, all of you, okay? If you know the words? Okay. Count with me. Ready?
No, that’s 2, but you’ve got the idea.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Actually, thank you from the bottom of my stomach.
I told you I came here to do the impossible, and now I have. But this was not the impossible. I do this every day.
The impossible thing was for that scared, shy, skinny wimpy kid to face his fears, to stand up here on a TEDx stage, and to change the world, one word at a time, one sword at a time, one life at a time.
If I’ve made you think in new ways, if I’ve made you believe the impossible is not impossible, if I’ve made you realize that you can do the impossible in your life, then my job is done, and yours is just beginning.
Never stop dreaming. Never stop believing.
Thank you for believing in me and thanks for being part of my dream. And here’s my gift to you: The impossible is not —
Dan Meyer: Long walk part of gift.