What Amusement Parks can Teach You about Professional Development

Guy Screaming on Roller CoasterI recently went to King’s Island amusement park with the kids.  Beyond experiencing the thrill of $9 sodas and wickedawesome roller coasters, I learned a few things about professional development while I was there.

Some of you love roller coasters and some hate them.  I used to hate them but now I love them.  We rode Diamondback, The Vortex, Flight Deck, Flight of Fear, Firehawk, Drop Tower, The Monster, Delirium, and The Racer.  We rode some of them multiple times.  All were awesome in their own special way.

Several of them taught me a few things about overcoming fear, growing as a person, and thoroughly enjoying the thrill of it all.  Allow me to share a few growth experiences along with some pointers you can take away from my experiences.  I’ll do so via some ride recaps.

Drop Tower at King's IslandDrop Tower

Imagine sitting with your feet dangling as you sit on a gigantic doughnut.  That doughnut is then hoisted straight up a tower that gives you a view of the entire park and the surrounding area.  Then they drop that doughnut 315 feet straight down at 67 MPH.  Pro tip: don’t eat right before this ride.

The first time I rode it, I was terrified the whole way up.  My focus was on my seat belt and the sturdiness of the shoulder harness bars.  During the seemingly interminable wait at the top of the tower, I repeatedly told myself (and everyone around me) what a bad idea this was.  Then the bottom fell out and I experienced a screaming free-fall for the longest three seconds of my life.  I didn’t notice anything beyond my butt not being in contact with the seat and my stomach flipping over.

The second time we rode it, I noticed the great view of the park.  I watched my son’s reaction as he rode it for the first time (he didn’t ride for the first drop).  I paid attention to the mechanics of how we were hoisted up.  I knew the sound of the tower right before it was going to drop us.  I watched my son’s terrified face and heard him yell a yell I’ve never heard from him before as we made the plunge and I laughed the entire way down.  And I realized I probably looked and sounded just like him during my first drop.

The Lesson: the first time we perform a task we’re afraid of, we tend to focus excessively on the details and most critical elements of the task itself.  It’s only once we get past the fear of doing it the first time that we can appreciate everything else going on around us (like the performance of our coworkers and how we can get them past their own fears – or just laugh at their terror).

Delirium at King's IslandDelirium

Now take that same feet-hanging Frisbee of Drop Tower and simultaneously spin it in a circle while swinging it back and forth from a giant arm.  And with each swing, swing it higher and spin it faster.  Yeah.  Vomitoliciousness.

From the ground, this one looked like a bit of a sissy ride.  Sure, people on it were screaming but it didn’t look like it swung too high to be scary.


What I didn’t appreciate from the ground was the combination of the acceleration of the arm and the spin of the wheel created g-forces of 985,000.  Add to that the feeling of accelerating TOWARD THE GROUND during those instances where the arm headed downward at the same time you were spinning in the direction of the ground.  This bad boy was much worse than I initially thought.

The Lesson: tasks and projects that look easy when you’re a bystander are likely much tougher than you appreciate when you’re the one doing them.  If you’re the observer (read: manager) understand that while a project might look slow to you, your team members might be on one of the most terrifying rides of their life.  Empathize accordingly.  If you’re the one taking on the “easy” project, be forewarned that it will likely be tougher than you imagined once you strap yourself in for the ride.

The Monster at King's IslandThe Monster

This is one of those octopus-looking rides where the major arms spin around, elevate, and tilt while at the same time the sub-arms spin, while at the same time, your individual cart can spin if you get the rhythm going back and forth by alternately leaning your body from right to left.  This ride is in the kiddie ride portion of the park.  We went on it because it looked tame and we had just eaten a big meal of Panda Express.

The first time we rode it, it was amusing and entertaining yet relatively tame compared to Firehawk and Diamondback.  It wasn’t exciting enough for us but we still enjoyed it.  We decided to ride again to make it more exciting.

On the second ride, we hurled our bodies back and forth in an effort to get our cart spinning as fast as we could.  We succeeded.  The spin factor of the ride went up by a factor of 10 as did the laugh factor.  After we dizzily got off the ride, we were all laughing and marveling at how much better the second time around was.

The Lesson: if what you’re working on isn’t exciting enough, don’t be hesitant to make it more interesting.  Focus on one or two elements of the work and try to spice them up.  It’s a much more enjoyable ride when you deliberately choose which aspects of the work to modify and make more challenging.

Diamondback roller coaster at King's IslandDiamondback

This sucker is nasty.  The first drop is 215 feet at a 74 degree angle at 80 MPH.  Better be wearing a diaper the first time you ride it.

The ride was awesome.  It was an incredible adrenaline rush.  I loved it and was terrified by it the entire time because it was the first time I had ridden it.  For my twelve year-old daughter, it was about her 50th time riding it as she’s been going to the park all summer with her best friend.

When we got off the ride and looked at the $27 photos they take of you on that first drop, my face and my son’s face were pictures of abject terror.  When I looked at my daughter’s photo, however, she was striking a glamour shot pose for the camera.  One hand behind her head, one extended in true diva form, and a duckface to top it all off.  She was mugging for the camera at 80 MPH!

The Lesson: do something terrifying often enough, and you get extremely comfortable with it.  So take on that scary project or apply for that scary job because eventually you’ll be calm, cool, and collected as you perform it more and more regularly.

So how do you overcome your fears to ensure you continue to grow as a professional?  Please share your suggestions in the comments below.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

– If you’re serious about developing yourself as a professional and as a leader, grab a copy of my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership or download the audiobook version at

4 Responses to “What Amusement Parks can Teach You about Professional Development”

  1. Rory says:

    Re: Delirium Lesson

    So true. A colleague of mine used to chide a neighboring department about their headcount. “You’re the XXX department, what do you need all of those people for?” Well, recently. my colleague became manager of that department. Now that this person is becoming intimately familiar with the all of the department’s responsibilities, the headcount seems more reasonable.

    As usual, a great post, Mike. Of course, if you had sprung for one of those park photographs that they take at the most terrifying part of every ride and posted it as the first picture, the post would’ve been even better.

  2. It’s a great piece for someone who isn’t afraid to get on the “ride” in the first place. What about those folks who are scared to get started–whether they’re working for you or you for them? I think for most of us, the bigger issue is getting people off the ground in the first place because their fear paralyzes them. Any suggestions there?

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Thanks for the kind words Bruce. I think the answer to your question is pretty simple – start them off on a relatively tame ride and work them up to the bigger ones that push them out of their comfort zone. Do it slowly over time. Translation – give them smaller, incremental increases in responsibility or start them out on smaller projects. As they get more comfortable with them, they’ll eventually move up to the bigger rides. Either that or just lie to them, tell them it’s not that bad, and strap them in 😉 That’s how I first rode roller coasters… Can you say “trauma”?

  3. Tobias Crush says:

    Thanks for the great post. When I look back on my career, it seems like I’ve been hopping on rollercoasters the whole time! Each new role has asked me to stretch in myself and often to bring people with me.

    Interestingly I’ve seen my stretches move from technical skill to personal skills (way out of my comfort zone!). The most helpful thing I’ve found to “feel the fear and do it anyway” is to take negative feedback openly. I know my immediate reaction is to defend. I’ve found when I take ownership of that feedback and used it to my advantage its helped that scarry thing become easier. I’m not quite loving it yet, but am well on the way!

    Maybe its just me, but when it gets too comfortable I start looking for the next rollercoaster to hop on!

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