‘The first rule of survival: to believe that anything is possible.’ ~Laurence Gonzales
I have been reading a book lent to me by someone I recently met, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. It’s about those characteristics within a person that contribute to one person living and another dying; the art and science of survival against odds and what are some of the causes. He looks at countless stories and data and retells the irrational actions some people take, such as divers who die with plenty of air in their tanks and no technical malfunctions. They become gripped with the need to breathe through their mouth and pull off their breathing apparatus.
Gonzales is quick to point out that the characteristics of survival apply to how we live daily life. What he writes resonates as I have heard similar things in interviews and discussions with people who have overcome great odds. I have experienced some of these things myself as I attempt to live my life as more of the adventure it is meant to be and have shared similar thoughts in my workshops.
We sometimes look at things people do and think, ‘that was stupid,’ but Gonzales demonstrates that anyone can behave ‘stupidly’ under the right conditions. What about those who make it in spite of impossible odds? According to Gonzales, there are critical elements that separate those few who survive from the many who don’t.
- Perceive, believe, then act. They believe what the environment is telling them. They plan, and adapt the plan when the environment changes. They move through denial and anger rapidly and face the facts. They are neither unduly optimistic or pessimistic, but are realistic.
- Stay calm. They harness their emotions rather than acting irrationally in the grip of fear. They use humor to keep a sharp edge, fueled by fear and anger.
- Think, analyze, plan. They avoid impulsive behavior and understand that taking a risk is not the same as making a bad or uninformed decision in the grip of fear, overconfidence or some other feeling. They organize quickly and often hear two inner voices; one of fear and the other of rational thought in support of hope. They push away thoughts that the situation is hopeless. They choose to listen to the voice of hope.
- They take decisive, clear action moment by moment, breaking large tasks into small, manageable ones. Next, and then next.
- They feel elation and a sense of celebration at achieving each small task.
- They count their blessings, looking at what they do have, not what they don’t.
- They play. The more they have experienced the arts, for example poetry and music, the more resources they can recall when needed. They think deeply and search for meaning in what they encounter, allowing this to help move them forward.
- They are deeply aware of the wonders of the world surrounding them and are in awe of its beauty.
- Survivors focus themselves on excellence and believe they will prevail if they are careful and do their best. They get the information and ask questions of more experienced people to avoid being caught out. They are humbled when facing their journey and act with carefulness and boldness, coupled together.
- They don’t passively expect to be rescued and instead do whatever it takes to survive, also believing in the impossible as they act. Yet they are pragmatic and know their abilities.
- They never give up but they do know when to call it and come back at it another time so they don’t end up in terrible situations if they can help it. They don’t allow their spirits to be broken. They take setbacks in stride and begin again.
Gonzales and his sources point to simple necessities of living a life of risk and adventure and this applies to the more ‘mundane’ or ordinary parts of life, as well as climbing mountains or flying fighter jets: Plan, use caution, train and learn. Apply what you know. Anyone can throw their life away, demonstrate poor impulse control, be unprepared, overestimate their abilities or underestimate the challenges. But as elite athletes demonstrate in their training regimens, it is essential to practice and train in living life well. Life is no less a risk in our ‘safe’ lives but choosing not to discipline our fearful and negative emotions and actions keeps us from a full life. We will encounter challenges anyway. We will one day die no matter what we do. There is no avoiding risk. There is no place to hide away.
I agree with Gonzales when he talks about how we are not just our own. We affect other people with our actions and inactions, our thoughtlessness or careful preparation. We must manage our impulses and discipline ourselves so that we may play out our life and our contribution as excellent as may be done, aware of what it means in the interconnected world in which we live. Life is the most perilous, risky and amazing adventure we will ever know. We can be thrown about by our impulses, blinded by unrealistic perceptions, feel like victims instead of undertaking the transformation into hopeful adventurers, or we can meet life full on with all of ourselves applied to the many challenges it will send our way.
Every day we can choose to harness our fear and anger, connect our emotions to our reason, practice facing small fears, choose to act in thoughtful boldness, break our dreams down into manageable steps and take them, create our plan and adapt as we go, engaging the changing environment’s opportunities and challenges. Each of us can be one who makes it, who leaves a legacy that outlives money, assets or career accomplishments. Be the one who says at the end, ‘I lived life full out. I loved full out. I went for it and did my best to run the race well.’
Alexi Murdoch, one of my favorite artists in the past year, It’s Only Fear.