As the Russian jet pilot performed a vertical stall, a few barrel-rolls, and flew the plane upside down just metres above the runway, Yanik Silver sat in the passenger seat smiling.

“I could hear the plane’s automated response meter saying, ‘danger danger low altitude warning,’ and that was pretty amazing. It was a Top Gun kind of moment,” said Silver, 42, a self-made millionaire who immigrated to the US from Russia as a boy.

You can’t control how you die, but you can control how you live.

The stunt-flight was a long-held goal of Silver's, and for speed junkies it’s easy to see why. The MiG Fulcrum jet can reach at a top speed of Mach 2 (2,470km per hour) and climb as high as 18,288m where you can see the curvature of the Earth.

And, while even the suggestion of such extremes would make the average person sick to his or her stomach, Silver gets a thrill out of pushing the limits, even if an endeavour has a nearly $20,000 price tag, like this flight.

When he’s not selling marketing materials online and running an online network for entrepreneurs called Maverick1000, Silver seeks an adrenalin rush. Be it by performing three consecutive bungee jumps in New Zealand or by skydiving at high altitude in a special thermal suit with an oxygen mask. He even holds a ticket for one of the first Virgin Galactic flights through space, which costs $250,000, and is many years away yet.

For wealthy entrepreneurs like Silver, who invest in thrills beyond their day-to-day work schedule, risky business is a way of life. This drive to pursue death-defying feats is in their blood, psychologists say, and isn’t just motivated by a thirst for intense experiences or the evasion of boredom, although that too plays a role.

Adventure on the mind

Clinical psychologist Ken Carter said people like Silver are genetically hardwired to partake in intense sensations because it actually feels good to them at a “cellular level”. A specialist in sensation seeking, Dr Carter, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, looks at how the body responds to stress.

High-sensation seekers can exhibit high levels of disinhibition, a lack of restraint when it comes to risk assessment and  impulsivity.

Exploring a term that originates from the 1960s to explain why certain people are drawn to varied, novel, complex, and intense situations while others aren’t, Dr Carter said high-sensation seeking people produce less of the stress-inducing hormone cortisol and more of the pleasure-inducing hormone dopamine when they stand on the edge of a cliff.

Meanwhile, those of us who find the idea of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane to be nerve-racking are engineered in reverse, he explained.

“You’ve heard, ‘work hard, play hard’. That’s how it manifests in some people,” he said. “It’s about that idea that enough is never enough … and they want that big bite out of life."

Boredom susceptibility is another factor. Often those on the higher end of the sensation-seeking spectrum live in pursuit of constant excitement.

That would explain why New Zealander Natalie Sisson, 38, bounces from one country to the next. While she doesn’t fancy high-altitude jumps like Silver, she lives for endurance challenges and constant travel. So far, she has broken a world record for Dragon Boat racing across the English Channel and cycled 19,000km from Nairobi to Cape Town.

These challenges, she said, motivate her to work harder as the head of a multiple six-figure business selling training and education programs online called the Suitcase Entrepreneur.

“You could go through life living half full or you could go all out,” Sisson said. “Every time I’ve pushed myself, I’ve become a better person in the journey.”

Extreme expenditures

These stunts aren’t only for the fainthearted; they’re also for the rich. For example, Sisson said her bike ride across Africa cost around $7,700 and some companies charge around $18,400 for a 45-minute supersonic flight.

The money to afford such feats directly correlates to their way of doing business, according to Dr Carter, who said these people are more likely to engage in high-stakes entrepreneurial and financial endeavours that can earn them more money.

“With money, everything gets elevated, and if adventure is part of your social identity, then you’re going to sink more of your resources into that thing because it defines who you are,” Dr Carter said. “It’s also about access. We all probably have that list, ‘ if I had x money I would want to go on x trip,’ and these people have that access so they can indulge.”

Beyond the thrill

An adrenaline rush or a challenge also helps high-sensation seekers to channel work-related anxiety into something effective, Dr Carter said.

“When you think about stress, it’s an amorphous, blobby experience where there’s nothing to attack, but when you’re climbing a mountain … you can direct your emotions to this specific thing and if you can defeat it, then it’s really rewarding,” Dr Carter said.

On the downside, this group also can have a warped view of risk, which means they’re more likely to put themselves into dangerous situations without realising it. Dr Carter said part of that comes from the low levels of stress they experience when doing something like swimming with sharks. Added to that, high-sensation seekers can also exhibit high levels of disinhibition, a lack of restraint when it comes to risk assessment, impulsivity, and social conventions, and this motivates reckless behaviour. Meaning, they leap before they look.

Originally from Bodmodsstadir, Iceland, Daniel Audunsson, 25, has performed air acrobatics and raced Lamborghinis, but he prefers off-the-beaten-track travel experiences. From his company’s headquarters in Manila, Philippines, he once flew to a remote village, then hitched a ride with a stranger on a motorbike through the jungle during a thunderstorm to reach a remote bay two hours away. Once he decided to go on this adventure, there was no looking back.

 “I’ve been told by psychologists that I need to be careful because I can get myself into trouble and create dangerous situations,” Audunsson said. “It’s the same to me in every area of life, the more you experience, the more you see your boundaries and your potential. As an entrepreneur, I always push myself to the limits, and when I reach them I try to push them harder.”

Audunsson said he sometimes relies on the counsel of his business partner who is a very careful and sensible person. While he describes himself as the limit-pushing visionary of their e-commerce business, his partner holds the reins and slowly analyses a decision before they commit. 

Where is the limit?

When you are someone who feeds off adventure, you’d wonder when enough is enough, especially if you have the funds to do just about anything.

With age, South African investor Hilda Lunderstedt, 49, said her interests have turned to more docile experiences like riding a hot air balloon over the Nile River. She said she owes part of that shift to having children and the other part to seeing friends get injured.

“You have to think, ‘is it worthwhile taking the chance now that you are a mother?’” Lunderstedt said. “I can look back and think, ‘OK, I’ve done it and it was a phase versus possibly if I didn’t do it I could have looked back and said I wish.”

While Silver, who is married with two children, said even though he calculates his risks, he still wants to push the limit further.

“You can’t control how you die, but you can control how you live,” Silver said. “I’ve had colleagues tell me, ‘you have kids you can’t do this.’ I said that is exactly why I am doing it, I want them to see me living life to the fullest.”

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