What the Polar Plunge and Running of the Bulls Taught Me About Success

October 28, 2016, 12:00 AM UTC
Jon Levy

July 7, 2013: Pamplona, Spain: A bull entering the stadium after the Running of the Bulls misses its jump and crushes me.I think I’ve been paralyzed. Fortunately, after six months of agonizing physical therapy, I’m left with only mild back pain.

December 17, 2015: It’s zero degrees and I’m running down a rocky beach, throwing myself headfirst into the waters of Antarctica in an attempt to set my trip’s Polar Plunge record. If I succeed, I will likely lose all feeling in my limbs. But if things go wrong, my internal organs will shut down from the cold.

What do these stories have to do with success?

When you imagine success, are you sitting at a desk typing code through the night because you are so passionate about a project? Are you sunbathing on a yacht after selling your company? Are you getting home in time to tuck your kids in at night?


Few of us have the same idea of success, but there are some characteristics that we all share. As a human behavior scientist, I’ve spent much of my life traveling the world researching adventure. After getting involved in all kinds of crazy experiences, this is what I’ve learned about the pursuit of success:

1. It’s uncomfortable.

I believe if it scares you and won’t kill you, it’s probably worth doing. You can’t achieve anything remarkable and without pushing the limits of your emotional, social, and physical boundaries.

After an arctic Polar Plunge, walking up to an investor and pitching an idea seems like a joke. The true gift of adventure is not in achieving some goal, but in the person you become in the process.

2. It’s novel.

Our brain finds familiarity uninteresting, novelty triggers a response associated with a desire for exploration, understanding, increased memory and can even be associated with creativity and original thinking. The greater number of diverse experiences that you have to pull from, the more original you’ll be.

The author getting hit by a bull in Pamplona, Spain.Jon Levy


3. It’s your community.

When traveling, you surround yourself with other explorers; people who are not satisfied with sitting still and watching life happen. For me, a successful life requires surrounding myself with extraordinary people.

Research by Nicholas Christakis found the dramatic impact we have on one another. Everything from happiness to divorce and obesity pass from one person to another and are felt up to four degrees away. If you surround yourself with exceptional people, it is impossible not to be affected positively by them. You must choose your friends wisely, because they not impact you but your community as a whole.

Related: 5 Science-Backed Networking Tips That Actually Work

4. You understand real risks vs. perceived risk.

I learned an essential lesson the day I was crushed by a bull: There is a difference between perceived risk (you experience fear from something like public speaking) and actual peril (You are attacked by a bear). Successful people know the difference.

In his book Originals, Wharton professor Adam Grant dispelled the perception that entrepreneurs take excessive risks. Using Warby Parker as an example, he showed that most entrepreneurs only take risks that are absolutely necessary and mitigate against them excessively.

The author going cliff diving.Jon Levy

5. It’s about sharing.

Once you have accomplished your dreams, the real thrill is sharing it with other people and showing them how to do it.

July 7, 2016, Santorini, Greece: Treading water for more than 10 minutes I shouted words of encouragement as a stranger built up the courage to take a running jump off a 40-foot cliff. Hoping that she had created enough distance between her and the rocks below she landed in the water safely. Although we will never meet again, she will always remember that moment of support, and I the joy of helping her. Once we achieve a level of competence, much of the pleasure is sharing that with others.

Although being an entrepreneur is a grand adventure, the true benefit to exploration and adventure can only be gained and learned when we leave the safety of our home and push far outside of our comfort zone.

Jon Levy is a behavior scientist best known for his work in influence, networking and adventure. He is founder of the Influencers Dinner and author of a new book called The 2 AM Principle: Discover the Science of Adventure, where he shares science and stories on how to live a fun and exciting life.