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How to Master Your Environmental Challenges, Interview with Scott Carney, author of What Doesn’t Kill Us and The Wedge

Scott Carney Interview The Wedge Kettlebelll Throwing
Photo: Jake Holschuh
Dragon Door: Given your experiences with Wim Hof as you shared in your book, What Doesn't Kill Us, what brought you to writing The Wedge?

Scott Carney: In a way, The Wedge is really a continuation of What Doesn't Kill Us. At the end of the earlier book, I'm climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro in a bathing suit, it's negative 30 degrees outside, and I'm not dead. And I have this realization at the top of the mountain, which leads to the cheesiest thing I've ever written in my entire life, which is: "I am not on the mountain, I am the mountain." Which I know is super hokey, but it's also very real. It's what I felt. The reason I was able to take on this challenge is because I was connecting with the world, and with the stimulus around me. I wasn't fighting it. And that's what sort of gave me the edge in that space.

After I got back down from Kilimanjaro, I realized that I'd been studying the Wim Hof method for almost ten years. And, while I knew a lot about breathing and cold exposure, I wanted to see what was next. I wanted to see how I could apply the fundamental ideas from the Wim Hof method to everything. That's the concept of The Wedge. Think of it as separating stimulus and response. It’s putting your intention between what's coming in from the outside world and how you react to it. You’re driving a wedge between stimulus and response with your mental focus. Or you're removing the wedge of your own overthinking so that things happen automatically. This is a fundamental concept that I think applies to all sorts of environmental training, but also to some degree to anything involving an automatic bodily process where you can have some measure of control.
Kilimanjaro Scott Carney Wim Hof
Photo: Scott Carney
Dragon Door: In your concept of "the wedge", what other processes have you been able to control and use to your advantage?

Scott Carney: We start using "the wedge" as soon as we're born. When you're a baby, all your reactions are automatic, there’s not a lot of conscious control. It’s like, "I have an arm. What does that do?" Then you somehow learn to form neural pathways and start to work on learning how to use your body. We use the wedge when we take something from the automatic realm and bring it under conscious control. But, most of us stopped doing that after we figured out how to walk, speak and got to a point where we’re comfortable doing what we need to do. After we felt like we had everything we needed we stopped learning, and the body also stopped learning and we don’t push our boundaries anymore.

Before I started learning with Wim Hof, I’d long since stopped trying to figure out my body. That probably happened sometime during my teenage years. Then, there I am in Poland in my 30’s standing in the snow—which is excruciating—with Wim. At first, I interpreted the sensations of standing in snow barefoot as pain, then I realized that it was actually a biological signal that I have control over—and that did it. It seems almost superhuman and might look really audacious or extreme, but I find that I can control myself in the cold. The breathing practices change the way I reach my endurance limit anytime I’m at a place that feels extreme but is not necessarily immediately dangerous. That pressure from the outside world might cause anxiety or fear, but I can push against that with my mind along with the sensations in my body. By mastering our sensations and paying attention, we can expand our ability to work in many different environments.

In The Wedge, I look at ten environments—including internal environments. In this case, I define environment as anything outside our conscious experience. There are three basic places where we're able to change our reactions. First, we can change the stress we're feeling right now—for example I'm in a comfortable room in my house with a certain air pressure, quality of light, and temperature. All of these things are stresses, simply because they’re inputs coming into my body. If I move to a different room, get in my sauna, or go out into the backyard, I'll experience different stresses and provoke different automatic reactions from my body. Simply choosing to be in different other environments is the first part of working with "the wedge". I could be diving, swimming near great white sharks, throwing kettlebells, skydiving, or going to a cooking class—each of those examples are environments. All of them create sensations and stresses we have to control with our sensations and emotions.

The nervous system is the second place where you can insert "the wedge." By which I mean you can affect the chemical pathways sensation travels from the eyes, ears, nose, skin, to reach the lowest part of the brain where consciousness starts. If you can change those pathways, then you can change the way you experience the world. The two ways I’m talking about in the book are breathwork—which changes the way signals move from the peripheral nervous system into the central nervous system. It changes the chemistry and you know, pain signals and other things sort of dump in with breathwork. Psychedelic chemicals also intervene directly with our sensations, and thereby altering the way we experience the world.

The third place you can use the wedge is in your mind itself. If you jump into ice water while thinking that ice water is going to be the worst thing ever, then it will be! But, if you think that ice water is going to be okay, or that the experience of jumping into ice water is a joyous one, then you're going to have a very different experience.

When I first went into the ice water, it made me want to clench up. Just think about being in ice water right now, and your muscles will probably tense. Now think about that experience and instead of clenching up, will yourself to relax. The clenching is your sympathetic nervous system responding to the environment with its fight or flight responses. This means you’re dumping adrenaline, cortisol into your body. When you relax in the ice water, you switch to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is your "rest and digest", the "comfortable at home" nervous system. You learn to literally switch yourself from an anxious state to a resting state in the ice water. That's the magic of the Wim Hof Method.

The Wedge By Scott CarneyMy idea for The Wedge came from that very first time I was sitting in ice water with Wim and I felt myself go from a strong state of anxiety to relaxation. I had just inserted myself between the stimulus and response. It is a new way to deal with stress and it changes your fundamental biology. The whole point of my book, What Doesn't Kill Us is to expound on this one idea. Changing your response to ice water changes your whole biology. The Wedge talks about this idea applied to every stimulus in the world.

One of the big insights in The Wedge is that everything is connected. Remember: "I am not on the mountain. I am the mountain." All of those things that I interpret as "stimuli" are really just all parts of a larger system that's much bigger than my perspective. And if you think about it, that’s a really deep thought. It's also really, really confusing because I’m basically saying you are the universe. You are connected to every tectonic and global shift on the planet. But it’s really hard to think about that perspective because it’s hard to imagine being an individual and the universe at the same time.

Dragon Door: Before our call, you’d pointed out a specific section in your book related to an unusual form of kettlebell training, "From Fear to Flow." How did kettlebells figure into your exploration of "the wedge"?

Scott Carney: I'm not a guy who loves the gym or structured workouts. I would much rather be on an adventure rather than following a routine. So, I've always had this sort of weird relationship with kettlebells, because I haven't been too excited by them. Anyway, it all started when I was at a neuroscience lab at Stanford where they were trying to understand how to invoke fear in the body and then master fear responses. In the lab, they were trying to invoke fear with a virtual reality simulator full of great white sharks. But I don’t find virtual sharks to be scary. I thought it was cool, but it didn't do anything for me. From a conceptual level, I learned a lot, but I didn't have that visceral feeling of fear, because there was no real danger. I was bummed.

Then, as I was walking out of the lab, I got a text message from a guy named Tony Floreal who told me that I needed to meet his friend Michael Castrogiovanni, who had a kettlebell routine will put you into an instantaneous flow state. My first reaction was that I thought that sounded kind of lame—just a kettlebell routine—and whatever, I’ve worked out before. But I decided to give it a try. I liked the sound of "flow state." Essentially, what he’s doing is taking a 12kg (25lb) kettlebell, and the goal is to simply pass it back and forth between two people. Everyone who hears about throwing kettlebells thinks you're going to, so of course I thought I would break my foot. There's a real sense of danger when 25 pounds of iron is flying at you.

So, we met up in San Francisco at the top of Strawberry Hill. Michael is this giant, dangerous looking dude—he looks like a gorilla, and he’s been doing kettlebells for a very long time. And now we’re squared off against each other and he's going to throw a kettlebell at me. In any other context this would be an aggressive, potentially dangerous situation—two men are faced off against each other, and one of them holding a cannonball. There’s an air of competition, and we see it in each other's eyes, though I know he's not actually trying to kill me.

Then he swings it.

There’s a certain ritual you follow when throwing kettlebells. There are three swings before you actually throw it. At first our eyes are locked on each other as he does a normal kettlebell swing. Then the second time he swings we switch our focus from each other's eyes to the kettlebell... Then, on the third swing he lets go and it's flipping through the air! Of course, in this moment I just pucker up because it’s really scary. But then I grab it from the air, almost by reflex, hike it between my legs then immediately return it to him. And just like that, everything changes. We’re not opponents anymore. Instead we're dancing. We go from fear to flow.
Kettlebell Throwing Scott CarneyAdmittedly, throwing kettlebells around will always be dangerous. But because we're so mutually focused on that threat--with our eyes are tethered to the kettlebell—our movements have to coordinate. Both people communicate physically through the proxy of danger. The practice gets really fun and it’s because there’s an element of danger to it. This kettlebell practice is no longer just about working out or getting fit, it's about developing trust and connection with another human. Michael says that when you throw the kettlebell, throw it with love. You have to empathize with your workout partner. If you're in competition with them, then you're going to drop the kettlebell. So, you have to be in coordination. The movement isn't difficult, anyone can learn it in ten minutes. But, it's almost a deep spiritual practice.

Dragon Door: What advice do you have for someone who might be ready to try it?

Scott Carney: Anyone who can do a Hardstyle swing can do it. Obviously, if someone can’t manage a kettlebell of any weight, they shouldn’t try. Otherwise, a 25lb kettlebell is a great opening weight for most people to use. If it’s much lighter than that, the kettlebell actually performs differently in the air. It's just too wobbly. Working with heavier kettlebells gets less and less wobbly—which is just physics.

Dragon Door: I would also imagine you wouldn’t want to go too light because the smaller kettlebells would have a handle that’s a smaller, more difficult "target" to grab.

Scott Carney: I use the 12 kg Dragon Door kettlebell that John Du Cane sent me a few years ago. I think it’s a great kettlebell for this. Almost right away I found that one-hand swings were much more fun because they allow for a bigger variety of movements. With one hand you can do all kinds of weird flips and spins that would be harder with both hands on the handle.. If you look at there is a huge variety of freestyle kettlebell throwing. It's a blast, and it starts to feel like tai chi or qigong, in a way.

Dragon Door: Not to mention a certain level of mindfulness is required! Your friend Tony described kettlebell throwing as something that would get you into a flow state automatically or instantly. Afterwards, were you able to observe or reflect what had happened with your own breathing patterns?

Scott Carney: It will be different with different movements, but you're generally exhaling as you throw it. And then you catch the kettlebell with an inhale. There is a sort of flow to it, and a lot of it happens automatically. Obviously, you can train more and improve your technique. The remarkable thing is that because both people are focused on this external object which represents danger—and that doesn’t go away—the movements between both people really do coordinate. It's fascinating.

Michael said (and I've noticed the same myself) that when couples are throwing kettlebells, it isn’t just about the movements they’re doing, but the practice becomes about their relationship. You can see their trust issues, and all the things that they don't speak about playing out in the motions of the kettlebell. In this way the exercises build communication, trust and empathy with another person. In relationships, everyone creates little islands where they don't want to go. Things they don’t want to talk about because there will be a fight and it’s not worth it. Those can undermine trust in a way. At first, almost all couples throw really poorly because they have emotional hang ups. As they learn to improve their kettlebell throwing technique, they’re also working on their relationship without using any words—and that’s super beneficial.

Dragon Door: Since writing the book, how have you been using your "wedge" discoveries? How have these practices improved you?

Scott Carney in SnowScott Carney: The Wedge creates generalized principles about how you feel when something is out of your comfort zone. But you can also look outside your comfort zone and find a way to chart your way through somewhat safely. Even though the situation may push you to your limits and feel stressful, you can recognize the sensation of anxiety and take control of it. You’ll know that you can navigate through the situation and I can control yourself in that environment.

It’s also weird that different stimuli actually do different things for the body. Working with ice water helps control anxiety. The sauna—which is the opposite—can do amazing things for depression. So, it’s important to find different stresses to push against. Mastering yourself in these different external environments changes the way your internal environment works. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, and most chronic conditions respond to "the wedge," especially when they create sensations.

There’s a huge immune system boost. For instance, I’m not incredibly worried about me coming down with and dying from Covid-19. I think these practices give me a much better shot at dealing it. At the end of the day, there’s no doubt I am going to die. A big part of "the wedge" is that almost all of those sensations which have evolved in us have something to do with avoiding death. Death is the ultimate stress. If life were a game, it’s one we are definitely going to lose one day. And once we realize that we've lost the game, it actually gives us quite a bit of freedom in how we want to live our lives right now.

Dragon Door: Right now, many people are far outside their comfort zones. In the process of researching and writing The Wedge, what are some ideas you found that people might want to try now?

Scott Carney: While we can’t control the various views of the world, we can change how we react to the sensations our bodies feel. By giving ourselves physical outlets and physical stresses to go up against, we can actually control our reactions to the world around us. And that is very healthy. The Wedge offers ten examples, but there are hundreds of thousands of ways. My first suggestion is to double down on the practices you’re already doing.

If you're big into kettlebells, using the exercises intentionally to deal with the sensations in your body will be hugely beneficial. The ten things in my book are my journey and go from mild to extreme but have been very beneficial to me. I also hope that when people read The Wedge, they will understand that the idea is not limited to just those ten things—it's a broader concept that you can apply to everything you’re doing.

TheWedgeByScottCarney600pxScott Carney is the author of the New York Times bestselling book What Doesn’t Kill Us, his new book, The Wedge and two other books. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or read a sample chapter on his website at