Text by Laurence Gonzales, Published August 2008
Most survival guides fail to consider some very useful tools: an individual’s character, wits, and worldview. The tips assembled here will change the way you approach each and every day—and help you survive a particularly bad one.
Long ago I believed that survival meant having a pack full of equipment that would allow me to make fire and build shelter and trap varmints to eat in the wilderness. But then I kept coming across cases in which someone had survived without any equipment or had perished while in possession of all the right tools. Obviously something else was at work here. After more than three decades of analyzing who lives, who dies, and why, I realized that character, emotion, personality, styles of thinking, and ways of viewing the world had more to do with how well people cope with adversity than any type of equipment or training. Although I still believe that equipment and training are good to have, most survival writing leaves out the essential human element in the equation. That’s why I’ve concentrated my efforts on learning about the hearts and minds of survivors. You can start developing these tools of survival now. It takes time and deliberate practice to change. But new research shows that if we adjust our everyday routines even slightly, we do indeed change. The chemical makeup of the brain even shifts. To make these lessons useful, you have to engage in learning long before you need it—it’s too late when you’re in the middle of a crisis. Presented here are 14 concepts that have proved helpful to survivors in extreme situations, as well as to people trying to meet the challenges of daily life.
1. Do the Next Right Thing
“Debriefings of survivors show repeatedly that they possess the capacity to break down the event they are faced with into small, manageable tasks,” writes John Leach, a psychology professor at Lancaster University who has conducted some of the only research on the mental, emotional, and psychological elements of survival. “Each step, each chunk must be as simple as possible…. Simple directed action is the key to regaining normal psychological functioning.” This approach can sometimes seem counterintuitive. And yet almost any organized action can help you recover the ability to think clearly and aid in your survival. For example, Pvt. Giles McCoy was aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis when it was torpedoed and sank at the end of World War II, tossing some 900 men into the black of night and the shark-infested Pacific. McCoy, a young Marine, was sucked under the boat and nearly drowned. He surfaced into a two-inch-thick slick of fuel oil, which soaked his life vest and kept him from swimming—although he could see a life raft, he couldn’t reach it. So he tore off his vest and swam underwater, surfacing now and then, gasping, swallowing oil, and vomiting. After getting hoisted onto the raft, he saw a group of miserable young sailors covered in oil and retching. One was “so badly burned that the skin was stripped from his arms,” Doug Stanton writes in his gripping account of the event, In Harm’s Way. McCoy’s response to this horrific situation was telling. “He resolved to take action: He would clean his pistol.” Irrelevant as that task may sound, it was exactly the right thing to do: organized, directed action. He made each one of the sailors hold a piece of the pistol as he disassembled it. This began the process of letting him think clearly. Forcing your brain to think sequentially—in times of crisis and in day-to-day life—can quiet dangerous emotions.
2. Control Your Destiny
Julian Rotter, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, developed the concept of what he calls “locus of control.” Some people, he says, view themselves as essentially in control of the good and bad things they experience—i.e., they have an internal locus of control. Others believe that things are done to them by outside forces or happen by chance: an external locus. These worldviews are not absolutes. Most people combine the two. But research shows that those with a strong internal locus are better off. In general, they’re less likely to find everyday activities distressing. They don’t often complain, whine, or blame. And they take compliments and criticism in stride. The importance of this mentality is evidenced by tornado statistics. In the past two decades Illinois has had about 50 percent more twisters than Alabama but far fewer fatalities. The discrepancy can be explained, in part, by a study in the journal Science, which found that Alabama residents believed their fate was controlled by God, not by them. The people of Illinois, meanwhile, were more inclined to have confidence in their own abilities and to take action. This doesn’t mean we should be overconfident. Rather, we should balance confidence with reasonable doubt, self-esteem with self-criticism. And we should do this each day. As Al Siebert put it in his book The Survivor Personality, “Your habitual way of reacting to everyday events influences your chances of being a survivor in a crisis.”
3. Deny Denial
It is in our nature to believe that the weather will improve, that we’ll find our way again, or that night won’t fall on schedule. Denial, which psychologists call the “incredulity response,” is almost universal, even among individuals with excellent training. David Klinger, a retired Los Angeles police officer, describes in his book Into the Kill Zone that while moonlighting as a bank guard he saw “three masked figures with assault rifles run through the foyer of the bank.” His first thought was that the local SWAT team was practicing. His second was that they were dressed up for Halloween. Klinger later said, “[I thought] maybe they were trick-or-treaters. It was just disbelief.” (He did recover from denial to shoot the criminals.) One of the most common acts of denial is ignoring a fire alarm. When my daughters were little, I taught them that the sound of a fire alarm means that we must go outside. Standing in front of a hotel at about two o’clock one cold Manhattan morning, I explained to them that it was nicer to be on the street wishing we were inside rather than inside wishing we were on the street. Denial plays a large role in many wilderness accidents. Take getting lost. A hiker in denial will continue walking even after losing the trail, assuming he’ll regain it eventually. He’ll press on—and become increasingly lost—even as doubt slowly creeps in. Learn to recognize your tendency to see things not as they are but how you wish them to be and you’ll be better able to avoid such crises.
4. Use a Mantra
In a long and trying survival situation, most people need a mantra. Ask: What will keep me focused on getting home alive? Then learn your mantra before you need it. For Steve Callahan, adrift in a raft for 76 days, his mantra was simply the word “survival.” Over and over during the ordeal, he’d say things like “Concentrate on now, on survival.” Yossi Ghinsberg, a hiker who was lost in the Bolivian jungle for three weeks, repeatedly used the mantra “Man of action” to motivate himself. Often, a mantra hints at some deeper meaning. Ghinsberg, for example, explained it this way: “A man of action does whatever he must, isn’t afraid, and doesn’t worry.” My personal mantra is “Trust the process.” Once I’ve gone through the steps of creating a strategy, I continue telling myself to trust that the process will get me where I’m going.
5. Think Positive
Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning recounts the story of Jerry Long, who was 17 years old when he broke his neck in a diving accident. Long was completely paralyzed and had to use a stick held between his teeth to type. Long wrote, “I view my life as being abundant with meaning and purpose. The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn’t break me.” Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, would agree with this sentiment. Dweck studies individual learning habits, specifically how people grapple with difficult problems. According to her research, individuals with a “growth mindset”—those who are not discouraged in the face of a challenge, who think positively, and who are not afraid to make or admit mistakes—are able to learn and adjust faster and more easily overcome obstacles.
6. Understand Linked Systems
In complex systems, small changes can have large, unpredictable effects. I wrote an article for Adventure (September 2002) about an accident on Mount Hood in which a four-man team fell from just below the summit while roped together. On the way down, they caught a two-man team and dragged them down too. Three hundred feet below, the falling mass of people and rope caught another three-man team. Everyone wound up in a vast crevasse. Then, during the ensuing rescue attempt by the military, an Air Force Reserve Pave Hawk helicopter crashed and rolled down the mountain. Because of the complex and coupled nature of the system in which all these people and all this equipment were operating, what had begun as a slip of one man’s foot wound up killing three people, severely injuring others, and costing taxpayers millions in the rescue effort. Accidents are bound to happen. But they don’t have to happen to you if you recognize your role in a system. Driving bumper to bumper at highway speeds, waiting for someone to tap his brakes and start a chain reaction accident is one example. Having a retirement account heavily invested in the stock market is another. A small move by a few investors can send everyone stampeding for the door. Being aware of such systems and analyzing the forces involved can often reveal that we’re doing something much riskier than it seems.
7. Don’t Celebrate the Summit
Climbers learn this the hard way: Don’t congratulate yourself too much after reaching a goal. The worst part of the expedition may still be ahead. Statistically speaking, most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent. Celebrating at the halfway point encourages you to let down your guard when you’re already tired and stressed.
8. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Every new challenge you face actually causes your brain to rewire itself and to become more adaptable. A study at University College London showed that the city’s cab drivers possessed unusually large hippocampi, the part of the brain that makes mental maps of our surroundings. The fact that London has very strict requirements for cab drivers forced them to create good mental maps, which caused their hippocampi to grow. For most of us, a normal routine at work, home, and play will provide plenty of opportunities for simple mind-expanding exercises. For example, if you’re right-handed, use your left hand. Learning to write with your nondominant hand can be extremely challenging and builds a part of your brain that you don’t use much. Learn a new mental skill, such as chess or counting cards for blackjack. Learn a musical instrument or a foreign language. A recent study suggests that Chinese uses entirely different parts of the brain than Western languages. Take tasks that require no thought and re-invent them so that you have to think. This bears repeating: Survival is not about equipment and training alone. It’s about what’s in your mind and your emotional system. Living in a low-risk environment dulls our abilities. We must make a conscious effort to learn new things, to force ourselves out of our comfort zones.
9. Risk and Reward
The more you sacrifice to reach a goal—and the more you invest in it—the harder it becomes to change direction, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that you should alter your course. Recently I decided to clean the leaves out of the gutters on my house. I put up a big aluminum extension ladder that is a real pain to move. I was up there, 20 feet in the air, reaching to clean as far as I could without moving the ladder. And I looked down and thought, Is this worth a broken neck? Or should I just go down and move the ladder? I performed a similar mental exercise in the Canadian Rockies this spring. I had traveled there to give a talk to a group of safety experts and decided to do some exploring. But I had no gear with me. As I crept farther and farther up a twisty mountain road in a rental truck, it began to snow pretty hard. And I thought, I’ve seen some pretty good scenery already. What if this vehicle of unknown origin breaks down or gets stuck? Do I want to try walking out in my cotton clothes and city shoes in a blizzard just to see one more vista? I decided that it would be most embarrassing to become a statistic in one of my own stories. I call this thought exercise the “risk-reward loop.” When facing a hazard, always ask: What is the reward I’m seeking? What is the most I’m willing to pay for it?
10. Trust Your Instincts
Be careful who you go into the backcountry with. Some people just have it stamped on their foreheads: “I am going to die in a wilderness accident.” But to recognize this stamp, you must pay attention to some very subtle signals. Researchers such as Elaine Hatfield at the University of Hawaii and Paul Ekman at the National Institutes of Health have studied nonverbal communication since the 1960s and concluded that it conveys essential information, which we ignore at our peril. It can be anything from a gesture to a slight change in facial expression. Most people will respond to such signals by feeling either comfortable or ill at ease with someone for no known reason. In a culture like ours, which puts more emphasis on logic and reason, nonverbal signs are easy to dismiss. Pay attention. They mean something.
11. Know Plan B
When undertaking anything risky, always have a clear bailout plan. In November 2004 I wrote about the hazards of Mount Washington for this magazine, recounting the death of two ice climbers who had evidently not planned beyond reaching the summit. When a storm blew in during the middle of their climb, they could have made an easy rappel to the bottom. Instead, following the only plan they had, they continued toward the top, where they died of exposure. Similar failures occur in all areas of life. When the IBM PC was released in 1981, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) continued to follow its outdated plan, building minicomputers that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a result, DEC, the second largest maker of computers in the world, went out of business. When formulating a bailout plan, it’s important to establish parameters by which to make the decision. For example, if you aren’t on the summit by three o’clock, you must turn back. Or if you have lost $100 million, you must end the project. Whatever the criterion, make sure it’s specific. Then, when you’re brain’s not working well because of stress or exhaustion, you’ll still make the right decision.
12. Help Others
In a survival situation, tending to others transforms you from a victim into a rescuer and improves your chances. Psychology professor John Leach writes in his book Survival Psychology that in disasters, natural and otherwise, doctors and nurses have a better survival rate because they have a job to do and a responsibility to others. This same phenomenon was documented in the Nazi death camps, where people who helped those around them stood a far better chance of surviving. Practice being selfless in daily life and it will become second nature when disaster strikes.
13. Be Cool
Acting cool is not the same as being cool. As the head of training for the Navy SEALs once said, “The Rambo types are the first to go.” Siebert wrote in his book The Survivor Personality that “combat survivors . . . have a relaxed awareness.” People who are destined to be good at survival will get upset when something bad happens, but they will quickly regain emotional balance and immediately begin figuring out what the new reality looks like, what the new rules are, and what they can do about it. In the past few decades, technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have allowed researchers such as Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University to demonstrate that stress changes the shape and chemistry of the brain, resulting in trouble remembering, difficulty completing tasks, and altered behavior. In effect, losing your cool makes you stupid. Examine the way you handle yourself under pressure: Do you blow up when you’re stuck in traffic or when someone cuts you off? Are you able to accept failure philosophically and move on with resolve to do better next time? If you’re rejected—in love, in business, in sports—do you stew over it? Practice being calm in the face of small emergencies and you’ll be more prepared to deal with large ones.
14. Surrender, but Don’t Give Up
The concept of surrender is at the heart of the survival journey. While that may sound paradoxical, it starts to make sense when you realize your limitations. If you are terrified, for example, you are more vulnerable in a hazardous situation. Ahmed Abdullah is an Iraqi journalist. When the war began, he found that he was horrified by the violence and in constant fear of dying. After years of combat experience, he explained the concept of survival by surrender: “Don’t be afraid of anything,” he said during a recent radio broadcast. “If you are afraid, then you have to lock yourself inside your house. But if you want to keep on living, then you must forget about your fears and deal with death as something that is a must, something that’s going to happen anyway. Even if you don’t die this way, you can die normally, naturally…. Whatever [you] do, [you’re] not going to change this.” Once you surrender and let go of the outcome, it frees you to act much more sensibly. It actually puts you in a better position to survive, to retain that core inside of you that will never give up. A good survivor says: “I may die. I’ll probably die. But I’m going to keep going anyway.”
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