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Inside Man: The Brain Hacker

Red Bull’s Director of High Performance wants to see us do amazing things.

Behind Felix Baumgartner’s breathtaking space jump, behind the motorcycle hop over Vegas’ Arc de Triomphe and wing suit flights over Manhattan, behind most of the life-threatening and awe-inspiring stunts splashed with a Red Bull logo, there’s a man with probably the coolest job title at the energy drink empire – and maybe even the entire caffeinated sports beverage industry. Andy Walshe is Red Bull’s Director of High Performance, a loaded title that lets him get away with zapping the human brain to see if it will push athletes beyond their perceived physical limits, or freaking out surfers to overcome their fear of monstrous waves.  

What does your job title actually mean and how did you get it?

The original high performance role in organizations is a relatively new term and technically it originated in the Olympic movement. But the term comes about because there’s a need at Red Bull to look at the organizational talent that is part of our community of athletes, and to say to them, how do we support the goals and dreams that they set for themselves, and how do we actually help them sustain that performance and continue to improve? 

Human performance is such a broad term. You oversee all types of talent from athletes to musicians. So what’s the common bond between like musician and an ultramarathoner?

I think it’s the elite level of human performance – the ties are very similar. One has extraordinary talent at running, one is an extraordinary musician–a guitarist, for example. Then, the performance factor that we focus on is more about optimizing them as an individual, and it might have factors related to their personal life, it might be related to the technology that they’re interfacing with, it might be related to the enhancement of their program itself–so there’s all these factors around but ultimately, how do we make them better at what they’re doing and who they are? So, it may be performing at your best under the highest levels of pressure–whether it’s an Olympic stage or a massive concert in Central Park.

What are you working on right now then to advance human performance?

There’s “Project Endurance” that we ran earlier this year, which was bringing in world-class endurance athletes, world-class scientists and researchers in that field, and identifying a very common and single problem about why you stop–what makes you stop? We brought in technology teams to answer that question, you’ll see sort of that we’re doing things right at sort of the edge of science to try and see if we can eek out something extra.

In Project Endurance, you stimulated the brain with electricity to see if athletes could go further. How do you come up with something like that? Who’s the guy who says ‘we should zap an athletes brain for science?’

So we have an extraordinary network of people in the human performance world which includes scientists, engineers, and anyone related to understanding this problem, and it’s a huge group of people doing very cutting-edge work. So that’s how we determine it, what’s the most leading-edge science that’s being done in the top labs around the world? We kind of connect the dots. So there’s a lot of thought, there’s a lot of planning and sort of brainstorming around cutting-edge science, plus the requirements of an elite athlete. Then we ask, how do we mesh those worlds in a practical sense to make some impact?

Why even pursue human performance?

For me, the limits of human potential show us what’s possible. And if we can hack that talent – if we can hack that edge – then we can start having conversations about how to have the opportunity to take that to the general public. What about making the guy who’s trying to cure cancer or the girl who’s working on ocean degradation, what about making them better at their job so they have success earlier and are more supported in a profound way? Then, we’ll really get to why we do it.

Your career is focused on helping other people reach their highest potential – do you take some of that into your own life?

My wife will constantly say, “You work with all these great people, but you can’t get your shit at home right.” I definitely do learn things. I listen and watch all the time.

Because you're in charge of pulling together these achievements, like Felix’s jump or Project Endurance, what do you feel before they are about to happen? I mean, often times someone’s life could be at risk.

There are things where we’re pushing the edge and doing things that haven’t been done before – there’s always this kind of excitement when we’re about to step into the unknown or uncharted territory. There is that thought of, ‘holy shit did we push this too far?’ And the anxiousness around that is normal and also that’s a sign that we’re going beyond, so if I don’t get a lack of sleep the night before, then I realized we aren’t doing our job.

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What is the most incredible human performance you have seen?

I think the obvious ones are the extraordinary feats either on stage or in battle or in sport – they’re the clichés, and they’re always extraordinary. But for me, I get really caught up in the people who are doing extraordinary things to get food on the table. I’m astounded by what people can achieve – the veteran whose lost two legs, the starving communities in Africa. Watching how these people not only survive, but thrive in many ways. What I’ve found the most powerful is moments like that. They capture my attention more than the other stuff.

How do you measure success?

I think for me personally, if we’re helping the people we’re working with achieve their dreams, then that’s the number one. If a project allows them to take it to another level and push beyond that’s a big goal for us. If a person walks in here and says, "I always dreamt of this," or, "I’ve never believed I could do this, and I’ve just done it." That’s a big stamp in our book.


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