This story originally ran in the January 2011 issue of Men's Journal.
What adventure most changed your life?
When Per Lindstrand and I attempted to be the first to cross the Pacific in a hot-air balloon in 1991, almost everything that could go wrong did, starting with losing more than half of our fuel soon after takeoff. Then we missed Los Angeles by 3,500 miles, had a fire on the roof of the capsule, and ended up in the Canadian Arctic in a snowstorm. The critical thing in a situation like that is to pull yourself together and fight with all your might to survive. I stayed awake the whole time and was absolutely determined to fly the balloon in the core of the jet stream to get to land and give us the best chance of surviving.
What should every man know about money?
If you’re fortunate enough to have it, you should put it to good use. Don’t stick it under the bed — use it to create things.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was young, if I ever criticized someone, my parents would send me to the mirror. Their thought was that criticizing someone reflected badly on me. That was a good lesson. Now I’ve got 60,000 people who work for Virgin, and it’s absolutely essential to lavish lots of praise and never criticize them. They know when they haven’t done something right.
What is the best way to motivate other men?
What’s the worst physical pain you’ve experienced?
I was asked to rappel off the top of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas to promote our new airline, Virgin America. I hit the side of the building twice going down at 120 miles an hour. There was a party waiting on the ground, and I dropped in with my tuxedo ripped at the seams, the whole of my backside red and bleeding. People didn’t know whether to laugh or what. So in addition to the physical pain, there was the bonus of public humiliation.
How does a man best face his fears?
Full on. It’s like with anything — you’ve got to break through the pain barrier to get to the pleasure.
How should a man handle getting older?
The absolute key to enjoying life, whether you’re old or young, is looking after your body. I decided this year to make an even bigger effort, so I ran the London Marathon — my first marathon — and I kitesurf on an almost daily basis. It’s important to keep exercise fun.
What essential piece of gear should a man own?
For me, it’s always been a notebook in my back pocket. With so much going on, I scribble things down that I’d otherwise forget the next day.
Have you ever cheated death?
It’s hard to choose just one time. I think I’ve had five or six occasions where I’ve been either pulled out of the sea by helicopter or rescued from places like the Arctic. My first skydive wasn’t great. I pulled the wrong handle — I pulled the one that gets rid of the parachute — and I started tumbling. The instructor had to do a Superman dive to catch up to me and open the other chute. He got there just in time. Of course I had to make myself get back on the plane right away and do it again.
What one thing do you want to do before you die?
I certainly hope that if we talk again two years from now, I will be an astronaut. Virgin Galactic is not far off — the New Mexico spaceport is halfway completed, and the spaceship is starting its test program. Best of all, I’ll go into space with my children. My parents want to go as well.
What advice would you give the younger you?
I’d tell myself to say yes a lot more. Life is far richer and more exciting if you do.
What hidden skill do you have?
I’m becoming one of the world’s experts on wrangling flamingos. I’ve turned my private island in the Caribbean, Necker Island, into somewhat of a nature preserve and reintroduced flamingos. Yesterday I had to rescue one that landed on a rock and broke its leg. First off, you have to grab its neck — otherwise it’s got quite a peck — and then you get your arm around the whole body. They’re bigger than they look, but they’re also remarkably fragile. If you ever have any issues with flamingos, I’m your man.