A Conversation with Jeb Corliss, Wingsuit Pilot, BASE Jumper & Shark Diver

A Conversation with Jeb Corliss, Wingsuit Pilot, BASE Jumper & Shark Diver

Imagine jumping out of a helicopter wearing a wingsuit and flying (unaided) through a narrow ‘crack’ in a mountain at over 100mph. This feat is just one of thousands of jumps performed by Jeb Corliss who- of his pursuit- has stated, “I know 100 percent that this sport is going to kill me. That makes me take it very seriously…

Jeb Corliss has dedicated his life to human flight, and in so doing often makes the seemingly impossible a reality. He is one of the world’s foremost and best-known BASE-jumpers and wingsuit pilots. BASE stands for Building, Antenna, Span (bridges) and Earth (cliffs) all objects practitioners leap from using a parachute. In 25 + years, Corliss has made more than 2,000 jumps, from the likes of the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Falls in Venezuela, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and into a half-mile deep cave in China. He hasn’t simply leapt off and pulled his parachute, though. To add an extra layer of challenge, push the bounds of his ability, and further slice the razor slim margin for error, he has performed acrobatic manoeuvres – twists, somersaults, and gainers – during freefall.

More recently he discovered the thrills and challenge of BASE-jumping with wingsuits, flying along some of the most stunning and dangerous mountain terrain. In the nearest approximation of human flight yet, wingsuits (which are more flying squirrel than bird or plane) allow the best pilots to trace the contours of cliffs, ridges, and mountainsides at high speed. All of which makes for an incredible spectacle: In July 2011, Corliss flew feet from the ground in the Swiss Alps, an event captured on camera and broadcast on ABC’s 20/20. Two months later, in September, Corliss swooped through an arch in the side of China’s iconic Tianmen Mountain, in front of a live television audience of millions. In his remarkable autobiography Memoirs from the Edge, he candidly shares many of the most powerful and formative experiences in his life, including his mental-health struggles, and having to rebuild himself time and time again.

In this interview I speak to Jeb Corliss, Adventurer, Wingsuit Pilot, BASE Jumper & Shark Diver. We discuss the role of extreme experiences in life, the importance of balancing fear, courage, and risk and how Jeb prepares for, executes and recovers from performing astonishing feats of human endurance.

Q: What is the role of extreme experiences in your life?

[Jeb Corliss]:  Adversity, I believe, is vital. It’s the crucible where strength is forged. Without struggle, without battles to face, we remain static, unable to grow. While authoring my book, I was tempted to fill its pages with pleasant memories alone. However, reflection taught me that the moments that truly shaped me weren’t necessarily the happiest. Among the numerous jumps I’ve taken, most were seamless and thrilling. Yet, the stories I felt compelled to share, the experiences that truly mattered, were those filled with challenges—times when I faced setbacks or injuries and had to pick myself up.

Extreme experiences, where the intensity of life is palpable, have been instrumental in my evolution as a person. Those familiar with my story know of the deep-seated depression that clouded my younger years. While this darkness during adolescence isn’t unique to me, it’s undoubtedly a challenging phase for most, fraught with hormonal changes and emotional upheavals. Often, the tools to navigate these waters are still nascent.

During these turbulent times, I stumbled upon something profound: base jumping. It was the powerful force I direly needed, pulling me from a deep abyss of despair. There was a time when life felt like an unending tunnel of darkness. The world of base jumping was that distant glimmer, beckoning me. It ignited a passion, a desire, something I’d lost touch with. Because that’s the crux of depression—you’re devoid of desire, bereft of any motivation. And rejuvenating that spirit? Well, for me, base jumping became the answer.

Q: What is the role of courage and discomfort in our lives?

[Jeb Corliss]: In our contemporary society, there’s a growing trend toward seeking comfort. Many of us shy away from experiencing fear, pain, cold, or hunger—essentially, we’re avoiding life’s inherent challenges. But it’s crucial to understand that it’s these very adversities that offer growth. True courage isn’t present without fear. How can one be brave without confronting what scares them? When you witness someone tackling extreme or perilous tasks without any sign of fear, it doesn’t reflect courage. It doesn’t amaze me to see someone take on daunting activities if they find it enjoyable and aren’t daunted by it. Because, in such cases, they’re not truly conquering anything. It’s akin to not being particularly awed by someone who becomes affluent due to a hefty inheritance. Such fortune lacks effort—it’s handed to them. But it’s those who rise from scratch, those who carve a niche from nothing, they command respect. They’ve faced challenges and grown through them.

History has shown time and again that the most revered figures are those who relentlessly worked, faced challenges head-on, and overcame adversities. The term ‘courage’ resonates powerfully because it encapsulates all these struggles. Our historical narrative is filled with tales of brave souls. Without such courageous individuals, we wouldn’t have explored new frontiers, be it crossing oceans, venturing over mountains, or rocketing into space. If not for them, our evolution would have been stagnant. They are the real catalysts, pushing human boundaries both physically and mentally. It’s these brave individuals, confronting their fears and triumphing over adversities, that truly propel humanity forward. They’re invaluable, indispensable to the progression of our species. Simply put, they’re among the world’s most significant assets.

Q: What have your experiences taught you about life?

[Jeb Corliss]:  … it’s not just going through these experiences. By becoming an extreme sports athlete and by wanting to be a base jumper and by wanting to go diving with sharks, these are activities that force you to get up off your couch, go out in the world. They force you to live life, you have no choice. If you want to do these things, you’re going to have to get on a little aeroplane, you’re going to have to fly over oceans to other lands, you’re going to have to meet people, and through this experience of interacting with other humans and this experience of going out in the world and seeing the planet, I mean on average I go around the world 3 times a year now. I went around the world 6 times on my biggest year, I spent 8 months in 26 different countries on 5 different countries. So, this experience of seeing humans and being around people, and what you’re talking about is fascinating because it’s true, and I write about this in my book, is this concept that human beings seem like their default recreation is sedation. For some reason, getting drunk at a bar is the default in what people do for fun, which I find bizarre. And you’re right, people are terrified, they don’t like fear. People don’t like being scared. A movie, whatever, rollercoasters, but I mean real, genuine, life threatening, like what you’re talking about, what we used to go through as human beings for what? 200,000 years? Where we had to fight to survive, and you had to kill to live? I mean that was literally life and death was an everyday thing, and mortality was ever present. And now, through sedation, whether it’s through drinking or anti-anxiety drugs or whatever, ADD medication, now don’t get me wrong, there are certain people who have a medical condition like let’s say bipolar, who need medication. But I think in general, 90% of people are overmedicating themselves with either drinking, smoking weed, whatever it is. I find it fascinating that that’s the default because people do not want to be uncomfortable, they cannot stand discomfort, they do not want to be afraid of anything ever, like real fear, and they’re literally bubble wrapping themselves. And it’s a fascinating thing because you need fear to get stronger. You need discomfort to build. It’s like working out. You’re not going to get strong if you don’t become uncomfortable. If you’re not lifting weight that’s too heavy for you, you’re never going to get stronger. And that’s the same thing with fear. If you never face real fear, then you’re going to weaken yourself. And that’s a strange thing, I don’t understand why people don’t understand that pain is okay. There’s nothing wrong with being in pain, whether it’s physical or emotional. That gives you the opportunity to confront it and get stronger. You want to lean into that pain.

Q: How do you adapt to extremely high levels of fear?

[Jeb Corliss]:  … fear is a complex emotion that’s moulded by years of experience. It isn’t a switch you flick on one day, deciding you’re ready for an extreme stunt, like a double flip through the Eiffel Tower. Much like fitness training, confronting fear is progressive. If you walk into a gym aiming to lift 300lbs overhead immediately, you’re setting up for failure and injury. Instead, you start light, gradually increasing the weight with consistent training and proper nutrition.

The same principle applies to handling fear. You can’t begin with soaring in a wingsuit through a narrow canyon at astonishing speeds. If you did, the consequences would be fatal. This sport mandates extensive training and preparation. Beginning with a tandem skydive, while terrifying, gives you a taste of that fear but within a safe environment. With every step, from AFF to packing parachutes and getting your A License, you familiarize yourself with that fearful sensation, understanding it bit by bit.

I find it intriguing when people say they’re afraid of things like spiders or snakes. Such fears present perfect opportunities to train your response to fear with something relatively harmless. By gradually exposing yourself to these fears, starting with harmless ones and progressively confronting more intense ones, you fortify yourself. This process helps you understand that fear is universal, be it from a snake, a jump from a cliff, or the anxiety of asking someone out. Start small, familiarize yourself with it, and gradually escalate.

For me, I used fear as a coping mechanism, leveraging these terrifying experiences to confront my internal struggles. My early days of base jumping weren’t driven by the thrill of flight but more about testing my mental limits. It was my way of tearing down my internal barriers to rebuild a more resilient self. I channelled these intense experiences to redirect the dark energy inside me, ensuring that if things went south, I was the only one at risk.

Q: Are your jumps an addiction?

[Jeb Corliss]:  When I approach anything, especially high-risk activities, I always brace myself for the worst outcome – death. It’s not a desire for death but an acceptance of its inevitability in what I do. I used to think I was alone in this way of thinking, noticing that many base jumpers either denied the risk or had different ways of managing their fears. My perspective has always been: I expect this might kill me, but I will do everything possible to prevent it. It wasn’t until later that I discovered ancient warriors like samurais and Spartans had a similar mindset. By accepting death, they rid themselves of the fear and could focus purely on survival.

This mentality is my cornerstone. It’s a psychological approach, more than a physical challenge. Unlike enduring feats like climbing El Capitan without ropes, base jumping is fleeting, ranging from seconds to a minute. In those critical moments, clarity and precision are essential. People have different terms for the heightened state I experience – the now, time distortion, flow state. It’s that elusive mental state that monks might seek for decades in temples.

When you knowingly place yourself in extreme danger, where a mistake means certain death, your mind enters a unique space. For instance, during intense base jumps, you stand on the edge, every fibre of your being screaming not to leap. But once you commit, once you step off, there’s a paradigm shift. Your body, having resisted so fiercely, suddenly releases a cocktail of chemicals to help you perform at your peak. The past and future blur; only the present matters. You’re so engrossed in the moment that it becomes your entire world.

I’ve often written about this in my book, hinting at the idea that maybe this sensation, this connection to the universe, is the meaning of life. All living beings have evolved over eons with senses tailored to perceive their reality. Those senses weren’t crafted for introspection but to engage with the world. Whether it’s base jumping, car racing, or even an unexpected event like a car crash, these experiences thrust us into the ‘now.’ It’s a connection far removed from drug use. While some might label people like me as ‘adrenaline junkies,’ comparing it to a heroin fix, I see them as opposites. One is about full immersion, while the other is an escape from it.

Q: How do you make sense of normal life between jumps?

[Jeb Corliss]:  In the early days, before the injuries, it was a thrill. But what truly brought equilibrium to the highs and lows of my life was encountering genuine suffering. The pain of severe injuries, the lengthy recovery, the constant, nagging reminders of those injuries—they redefine your understanding of importance. Lying in bed for months, dependent on others for even the most basic tasks, can shift your perspective dramatically.

I recount an anecdote about my first girlfriend in my book. She was a couple of years younger than me and had this unparalleled love for puppies and kittens. Her reactions were almost surreal; a simple glimpse of a kitten would send her into ecstatic fits. Watching her, I found myself envying that simple joy. For me, to even approach her level of emotion, I’d have to venture across the world, climb treacherous mountains, and face near-death experiences. Even then, her connection to joy felt more profound.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed unspeakable tragedies—losing dear friends in horrific ways and experiencing personal trauma. These moments have made me realize that the joy my girlfriend found in those simple moments is truly what matters most. In hindsight, I never anticipated reaching this point of understanding. Today, the purest joy I find is in something as simple as cycling on the beach with my fiancée. I’ve lived the extreme; I’ve extracted its essence. Now, I no longer seek it. I’ve come to recognize my limits and abilities, and I cherish the simpler, genuine moments of life.

At this juncture of my life, I’m at peace. I’m in a place of contentment, without any yearning or unfulfilled desires. I embrace each moment for what it is, without the need for it to be anything else. Over the years, I’ve cultivated resilience, finding solace even in pain and suffering. The trajectory of my life, the experiences I’ve had, and the sights I’ve witnessed have deeply transformed me. From a tormented 16-year-old grappling with thoughts of ending it all to now, at 47, where each dawn fills me with gratitude. Every day I’m alive feels like a gift, an extra moment I never thought I’d have. I was never meant to last this long, yet here I am, marvelling at life’s little wonders. Whether it’s observing hummingbirds or tending to my garden, I now find immense joy in the simplicity of life, much like my first girlfriend did. I’m more connected with the world around me, prioritizing human connections and nature over the extreme adventures of my past.

While I no longer yearn for the extreme, I still find myself facing the terrifying because it has become my profession. Over time, I’ve honed an uncanny ability to confront the horrifying. When it comes to facing fears head-on, that’s my forte. Just as some excel in nurturing children, mastering numbers, or captivating audiences with their artistic talents, my niche lies in embracing terror. It’s what I do, and I do it exceptionally well.

Q: How did you approach writing the story of your life?

[Jeb Corliss]: It’s amusing when people jump right to the epilogue, you’ve got to save that for the end! Funny thing, I never set out to be an author. My story begins with base jumping – that’s who I am, someone who leaps off cliffs. Documentaries are my preferred way of narrating tales; I’ve always been a storyteller, but through visuals and speech.

The thought of penning my memories never crossed my mind until my grandfather passed away. He had always been writing what I believed was his autobiography for as long as I could recall. But when he left us at 96, we discovered he’d never really written it. That struck a chord in me, and I felt compelled to document my life. My grandfather’s unwritten autobiography was the one book I yearned to read, and its absence made me realize I should do what he couldn’t. This endeavor became a nod to him, a sense of carrying forward his legacy.

But writing is powerful. It’s like an immortal echo. Think about it – when you delve into ‘Gilgamesh’, you’re engaging with thoughts penned down over 4,500 years ago. That’s magic! And post this self-discovery of writing, I genuinely feel everyone should narrate their journey. Regardless of age or the scale of adventure, pen it down. You see, as I started laying down my memories, I underwent an unexpected self-revelation. Writing makes you introspect, dissect the ‘whys’ of your actions. And, halfway through, it hit me – my motivations, or the lack thereof, were rooted in a deep-seated psychological tumult. This wasn’t about fame or fortune. I was grappling with inner chaos, always chasing, never really knowing the endgame.

Yet, I managed to channel this whirlwind of emotions into something constructive. When life hurled obstacles at me – be it grave injuries or harrowing encounters – I mastered the art of flipping the script. Every ordeal became a stepping stone, a lesson, a motivator. Footage of my accidents didn’t just serve as a grim reminder but also became a source of income and a cornerstone of my career. It’s like I was perpetually evolving, harnessing adversities, and turning them into strengths. That’s my gift, my silver lining playbook.

These mishaps, as brutal as they were, have been instrumental in shaping me. They forced me to reassess, rebuild, and fortify both my body and mind. Today, I routinely take ice baths, subjecting myself to 35-degree temperatures for six minutes daily. It’s rejuvenating, especially when battling lingering pains. It stems from the belief that every day, one should push their boundaries, embrace the discomfort. Because that’s where growth lies.

Q: What do you hope people take from your story?

[Jeb Corliss]:  I genuinely don’t have expectations about what others might glean from my journey. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve realized – and this might sound blunt but bear with me – that the opinions of others about me don’t hold sway over my well-being. This realization empowered me to pen down my book with unfiltered honesty. My aim was to chronicle my memories and experiences truthfully, and whatever readers make of it is entirely up to them. Whether they derive something profound from my life’s tales or nothing at all, it’s all the same to me. There will come a day when I’m no longer around, and these matters won’t concern me then. One of the cornerstones of my contentment is this detachment from external validation.

Take, for instance, the fact that some people genuinely don’t care for me, and yet, I harbour no ill feelings toward them. Quite the opposite, in fact. My contentment and self-worth aren’t tied to their opinions. I can appreciate them and their individuality, even if the sentiment isn’t reciprocated. Everyone doesn’t need to resonate with who I am. I’ve discovered that true happiness arises when you liberate yourself from the weight of others’ perceptions. If someone picks up my book, I hope they find value in it. But if it’s not their cup of tea, either because it’s a lengthy read or they disagree with my views, that’s perfectly okay. Everyone’s entitled to their own perspective, and I respect that. So, in response to your question, it’s challenging to provide a definitive answer, primarily because, in the grand scheme of things, their opinion doesn’t define me.

Q: Why are people inspired by ‘near death’ feats?

[Jeb Corliss]:  I resonate with what you’re saying. Take base jumping, for instance. I’ve done thousands of those, but the bulk of them blur into a vague memory. It’s the perilous ones that stand out, not the casual fun jumps. Some feats that may appear exceptionally challenging to the average person feel relatively routine to me, due to the sheer volume of what I’ve done. Like with skydives – apart from my first, I can’t distinctly recall any. They were merely a stepping stone to the real challenges I was pursuing.

In my autobiography, I highlight five jumps that truly mattered to me. None of these were smooth rides. They were intense, defining moments. It all boils down to personal challenges. When are we genuinely stretching our boundaries? When are we battling our inner fears? For some, the daunting task might be public speaking. For others, it’s landing that pivotal acting role that transitions them from aspiring to being. There are transformative moments in everyone’s life. It’s not about what you’re doing but rather its significance to you.

Watching someone overcome their obstacles, no matter how trivial they may seem to others, is genuinely exhilarating to me. People often get trapped in the misconception that they need to mirror someone else’s path. But it’s about finding what resonates with you. What I’ve done in my life isn’t a blueprint for everyone. It caters to a very niche group.

Everyone has a calling, and that’s where true courage lies. It’s about discerning your purpose and having the bravery to pursue it. Perhaps it’s mustering the courage to leave a dead-end job or maybe asking someone out on a date. When people see me, they witness someone willing to embrace mortality for his passion. My hope is that my story encourages others to pursue what truly matters to them, without the life-threatening stakes. If I can embolden someone to improve their life trajectory, then that’s the epitome of fulfilment for me. I want readers to glean this essence when they go through my book.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Jeb Corliss]:  It’s intriguing to reflect on my journey because I never set out with a deliberate intention to make a mark or leave a legacy. Back when I first ventured into base jumping, it was such a niche activity that it was virtually unheard of by the public. Whenever I mentioned I was a base jumper, the usual response was something along the lines of, “Oh, you’re into drumming?” So, I’d often find myself breaking down the basics of the sport before even getting into a meaningful conversation about it. I’ve never been overly concerned about how my pursuits might influence others.

Yet, on the flip side, I’ve been taken aback by the outpouring of appreciation I’ve received. Numerous letters have come my way, with fans expressing admiration for my exploits. Receiving such heartfelt messages always astounds me. It’s like, “Oh, you noticed that?” Recognizing the ripple effect of my actions on others was something I hadn’t quite foreseen. I never envisioned myself as someone who’d inspire others, especially when I penned my book. The idea wasn’t to motivate or shape anyone’s perspective.

In fact, I often find myself urging people to reconsider certain high-risk choices. I’m the first to admit, “Please, steer clear of base jumping. Seek happiness elsewhere if you can.” I wouldn’t dream of endorsing my lifestyle as a model of safety and well-being. That would be misleading, given the inherent perils of what I do. My advice has always been straightforward: if base jumping is the sole avenue to your happiness and well-being, then go for it. But if there are alternative paths that bring you joy and a sense of purpose, I’d wholeheartedly suggest you pursue them.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.