“There I was. Fins on my feet, diving mask on my face and a knife in my hand. Looking at the sea. I felt how fear filtered through my body, asking me to stay on the boat. And, at the same time, listening to that internal sense of responsibility I take on for this project and the determination to conduct it. Then I jumped.” The first time Giancarlo Pedote competed in an IMOCA regatta was in the Bermudes 1000 Race. At the beginning of the competition, an unpleasant incident arose; it was one of those tricks hidden behind sailing that threatened to reverse his participation in the competition: the keel of his boat got entangled with a fishing gear, almost paralyzing the vessel. The skipper adjusted the sails in order to reverse, but the manoeuvre did not work out. He had no other choice than jumping into the sea and solving the problem with his own hands.
Taking the risk and staying calm
Jumping into the water implied taking a considerable risk, but it was the only way to solve his problem and continue that race. So, the sailor decided to silence the voices of fear and to face the risk. He jumped into the water, cut the net and went back up on his boat. It had been a battle. But his determination and amazing capacity to keep calm in difficult circumstances stood out.
Mental toughness is one of the most appreciated features on an elite athlete, a good manager or a great leader, since it allows people both to move forward despite difficulties and to take smart decisions at critical times, focusing on what is truly important. This is how Pedote illustrates his personal feelings: “Your mind goes into a state of deep concentration, with all the senses focused on what you are doing at that moment. And that is a place where only two realities fit: your task and you. You can take it as a matter of survival.” He compares this fact to primitive man, facing a lion armed with just a knife: he only has one chance and he cannot miss it.
A complex mixture of calmness, experience and intuition
According to the sailor, that capacity to remain calm in difficult circumstances is not a question of character. Instead, it is an ability for which you train yourself and develop your strength consequently. In this way, any athlete would coincide with philosophers who, since the time of Plato, have described decision-making as a struggle between reason and emotions. Thus, just as long-distance runner turns the deaf ear to the pain that travels through his body or a game player ignores the screams of a whole stadium, Pedote is able to control his emotions, fear, in favour of his sense of responsibility, reason.
This formula, reason over fear, is used by human beings at the time of decision making. But it is not the only one.
Although people have speculated for centuries about mental activity, it has only been a few years since investigations on how the brain works began to be carried out, for instance, thanks to innovative imaging techniques. Modern neuroscience, born thanks to these innovations, is studying the various ways in which people make decisions: sometimes ignoring their own instincts or taking them at face value. Both emotions and reason, conscience and knowledge, are active in people’s minds and may occasionally confuse them. Some other times, thanks to them people can work out the best possible solution to a problem.
The value of previous experience
When the skipper of Prysmian Group freed his boat from the net, the journey went on, but he was among the last places in the ranking. He had to keep making decisions. Now, in the search of a strategy, capable of making him climb to higher positions. But, how do you develop a winning strategy when the wind blows in favour of all competitors, when the sea is the same for everyone, and the boats and navigation instruments are similar?
Pedote says that, in order to design a strategy, he relies on the calculations of his computer, he carries out simulations and interprets the weather files. Furthermore, he relies on his previous experience as a solo sailor and his many study hours. That determines which possible routes would guide him to his objective. For him, that is a profound rational process, although he admits there is a percentage of nautical instinct too. At that moment something inside him tells him, of all the possible choices, which one might be the winning option. But, would something similar to intuition exist?
In his work, How we decide, the author Jonah Lehrer analyses in detail the different brain mechanisms involved in decision-making. One thing he mentions is what it is known as gut, instinct or intuition, which helps a good soap opera director to undoubtedly decide which actor would perfectly fit in a role, or a designer to select a visual metaphor or an editorial director to sense if a novel would become a best-seller. None of those people know, in fact, how they make those decisions. But they are sure they are not mistaken. The fact is that what we associate with internal knowledge, actually derives from what some unconscious areas in our brain had already stored.
Years of previous experience, mistakes made through professional practice and many hours intended to analyse a situation are stored in people’s brains. And it is the brain itself that, unconsciously, discovers patterns of success and helps the conscious area to choose. That is why Giancarlo Pedote mentioned that “experience, study hours and calculations” were the elements directly involved in the development of a strategy, which allowed him to make the spectacular climb that took him to the podium.
Choosing and anticipating events
Despite the results, the skipper knows that he still has a lot of mistakes to make on the brand-new Prysmian Group and Electriciens sans frontières boat. It has been a while since he last contested in a solo sailing regatta so he described his experience in the Bermudes 1000 Race as “a deep feeling of liberation; a sense of connection with the sea and the boat, which is exactly what [he] needed.” But that sense of plenitude is not enough for the highly competitive environment he is exposed to. “I still have to make a lot of mistakes, so I know the boat better, try to feel it and understand its requirements. Because the boat always demands and demands, and you must cater to all its needs, as if it were a baby.” Being able to feel the boat implies many training hours and tests that allow the skipper to sense through his touch the tension of a rope, to realize what is happening in the boat and what is going to happen next only by hearing a particular noise. Anticipating events is essential. Because in the sea —as in business and in everyday life— anticipation is the key to choosing correctly. A choice made with a slight delay could mean damaging the boat and putting an end to the dreams of many people.
Photo: François Van Malleghem