The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Laurence Gonzales. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Laurence Gonzales. He’s the author of numerous books. We’re going to talk about one of them today.
Laurence: Thanks Jim. It’s great to be here.
Jim: Yeah, it’s great to have you on, in fact, it’s an honor. Truthfully, I’m such a fan of the main book we’re going to be talking about today, which is Deep Survival. You can learn more about Deep Survival and some of Laurence’s other books at, deepsurvival.com. But, it’s not the only book he’s written. He’s won many awards, including two magazine awards, distinguished service awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He’s also been awarded the Montaigne metal from the Eric Hoffer Society, in 2018. And won the Eric Hoffer Award in both 2018 and 2019. Truthfully, I’ve never heard of the Eric Hoffer Award, but Eric Hoffer, is one of my real heroes. In fact, one of the top 10 books in my life, is a book called the True Believer by Eric Hoffer. And I’ll have to learn more about this Eric Hoffer Society and its awards, because presumably, it means good things. And I noticed, that Deep Survival, won one of these awards as well, which puts it in great company.
Jim: But I put some of the life changing books, that one can read, another one being, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. So, anyway, that’s a little bit about Laurence. Some of his more recent books, which will be listed on our website as usual, are flight 232, about an amazing story of survival in an airline crash, Surviving Survival and a novel called Lucy, which I must say, I know nothing about, but anyone who can write a novel as well, has my respect.
Jim: Deep Survival is really an astoundingly wonderful book, because I said, it’s one I read years ago, at the recommendation of Cormac McCarthy, the novelist, and I just found it so amazing. It’s curious, artistic blend of autobiography, complexity science, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, all interwoven with some many astounding and shocking true stories of survival. Let’s start off with how the book does. Laurence, could you tell us the story of your father’s last bomber mission?
Laurence: Yes, I can. So, I grew up with this, as a little kid, bear this in mind, while I tell you this story. Because I knew my father had been in the war, when he came back, he was severely injured. He was recovering from his injuries and trying to go to school at the same time. And this would have been, I was born in 47′, so my memories start probably, around the age of three or so. My father was a B-17 bomber pilot, with the US Air Corps, Army Air Corps at the time, before the Air Force. And he was in the position of bombing Germany from a base in England, on these near the end of the war, very big bombing raids, where they’d have 700 planes, 1200 planes, maybe even more in a single mission. And so, they would all take off before dawn, go across the English Channel and bomb Germany.
Laurence: On the day in question, my father was the very first guy in this mission. All of the planes were following him and there were about 700 that particular day. And so, as he approached the targets which were just outside of Dusseldorf, they were railroad marshaling yards, his left wing was taken off by a gunfire flack fire. An 88 millimeter cannon, was fired by a 14 year old boy, and shot his left wing off, the plane rolled over of course, on its back and began spinning, because one wing was still flying and a couple of the engines were still running. And the centrifugal forces, of this spinning plane were so great that it pulled the plane to pieces. And the piece my father was in, was of course, the cockpit, because he was the commander, I mean the pilot in command. And the man next to him was his commander, Colonel Hunter was his name, Colonel Frank Hunter. And he was already dead, my father said, when he looked over, my father looked over and said, “I guess, this is it.” Famous last words.
Laurence: Now, at that time that he was shot down, which was January 23rd 1945, he was 23 years old, and he was considered a salty old pilot at that time. And these guys were supposed to wear their parachutes all the time, throughout the entire 10 hour mission, sometimes a longer mission, and they didn’t. They stuck them under their seats, because they were uncomfortable. So, my father didn’t have his parachute on. Now, the cockpit is detached from the aircraft, it’s falling from 27,000 feet, which was their altitude for cruising into Dusseldorf area. And my father’s trying to get his parachute, and of course, the centrifugal force is so great, that as soon as he snaps open his seatbelt, he’s thrown against the instrument panel.
Laurence: And in those days, their oxygen came through a tube that went up the chest to the face mask. And so, it cut off his oxygen at that point and he passed out, somewhere in mid air. He woke up on the ground, inside this chunk of the cockpit and he was alive, which amazed him, he told me, when I was a little older. And a German guy, they were in farm fields by a railroad. A German guy came up on the stub of the wing that was still there, or the stub of metal that was on the outside, pulled out a pistol and put it to my father’s head and pulled the trigger. And when he pulled the trigger, it didn’t fire.
Laurence: And at that moment, a German officer came rushing up and said, “You can’t kill this guy. He’s an officer and he’s a prisoner of war and we’ve got interrogate him.” And they had this argument, “But he’s going to die. You’re not going to interrogate him. I’m going to shoot him.” And the German stopped this guy from killing my father. Anyway, he fell 27,000 feet and survived is the message that I tell at the beginning of Deep Survival. And it’s a cliffhanger, so you don’t really get the end of the story, until the end of the book, which is the way I designed it. But the end of the story obviously, is I’m here, so he must have lived through it.
Jim: Hey, what the hell of an introduction. I still remember when I read the book the first time, it was like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe this,” is an amazing way to start the book off.
Laurence: Well, and I start the book off by saying, that as a little kid, most kids get told these stories and as they grow up they realize, this are fairy tales. I was told this amazing fairy tale and as I grew up I realized, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s true. It’s really true.” And this really started my interest in survival, because I thought, wow, I came very close to not existing. If that fall had killed him or, if the German farmer, whoever he was, killed him, I wouldn’t be here. And that was always an existential thing that I contemplated, as I went about my work.
Jim: And you did a lot of work on the edge, right?
Jim: In the introduction, you talk about working with the Chicago Fire Department.
Jim: Yeah. What were they like? What were Chicago Fireman? What were they like?
Laurence: So, this would’ve been probably, I’m guessing, like late eighties, early nineties’, no, it would’ve been mid eighties, I guess. And I was on an assignment, I had been given a series of assignments that was essentially, like dangerous professions. So, I looked up some statistics and sure enough, firefighters are right up there. And so, I proceeded to immerse myself in these professions. So, when I got with the firefighters, they were wonderful guys. I was put into a little firehouse in Chicago, West of the loop. And you could see the big buildings downtown from here, it was on the Sal Street.
Laurence: Anyway, it was just, these guys were just wonderful, friendly, funny, they lived in a firehouse. You’re 24 hours on, 48 hours off and you stay in the firehouse, you make all your meals there, you sleep there and you get to know these people really well. And they took me in. It was very heartwarming. Mostly, nothing happens and you’re hanging around and hanging around and they get a call, and you go out and it’s a homeless guy fell down in the gutter, and they pick him up and take him to the hospital. It’s mostly nothing.
Laurence: And then, one day something really happens, and they took me with them. I had gotten to know them pretty well by then. So, they actually gave me, that got me turnout gear, which is the big helmet and coats and all that stuff that they wear, the boots, they outfitted me. They gave me a tool, which was a pike pole with a hook on the end. And they took me into a burning house to help them put the fire out, which I did. And it’s terrifying. I mean, it’s the real thing. And you realize, I realized, as I worked with these guys, we went into a burning hotel one day too. So, I had quite a number of runs with them.
Laurence: And I realized what I was doing, was I was putting my life in their hands and that I knew in my heart of hearts, that if these guys got out, I would get out. They weren’t going to let me get killed, unless all of us got killed. And it was a very, it changed my life. I mean, one of the things that I’ve done, since writing Deep Survival, is I’ve worked very closely with firefighters all across the country, helping them with decision making processes and ways of staying safer. And I do a lot of big conferences with them. I do a lot of speaking engagements with them. And in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois, I was asked by our own fire department, to teach all of their firefighters. And we did it in shifts, where I would, because they had to have firefighters on the street too. So, we did three days of teaching, where I talked to them about, how not to get dead.
Jim: Wow. And that’s the real deal, isn’t it? Right? These are the kinds of guys that you can trust. You did indeed, trust your life too.
Laurence: Yeah, absolutely. And I love firefighters. I’ve worked with them ever since.
Jim: Now, it’s funny, I’m from a police family, and the famous antagonism between the two. My father was a Washington DC policeman for his career. A couple of my cousins were policemen. My brother was federal law enforcement and I had a little baby version of that experience, like this. I used to go, ride along with my cousin, who was the shift commander, was called the tax squad, which was the squad that was sent out to the high crime areas each night, based on the statistics, et cetera.
Jim: I remember being along with him, riding in the car with him one day and we get a call, for a burglary in progress in a small office building. And one other car shows up, we all huddle. So, there’s three police officers and me and there’re four doors. And so, my cousin turns to me, he goes, “How old are you, kid?” And I said, “19.” He goes, “Good. You’re hereby deputized.” He took the shotgun off the rack, behind the seat and handed it to me and said, “You stand here by this door, we’re going to go through the other three doors. Look at these three guys, if someone comes out the door, that isn’t these three guys, shoot him.” And I go, “Fuck.”
Jim: This was the notorious Prince George’s County, Maryland police, famous for shooting people. In fact, they were one of the last jurisdictions in the United States to still allow, shooting fleeing felons, rather than only, when the officer’s life was in danger. And so, here I am standing there, my heart goes, thump, thump, thump. And it turns out, it was a false alarm, but tell you what, I don’t know, if I can ever had my heart thumping quite like that. But what? These guys, I totally trusted them.
Laurence: Yeah. I know what you mean, because I did. I don’t believe I put this in Deep Survival, but I did a stint with the Illinois State’s Attorneys Police in Chicago, when they were doing drug busts. And I got to know these guys really well. It was a team, plain clothes, everybody wore jeans and gym shoes. And I became one of them. And we were going on a drug bust of a big drug kingpin, and we had a stolen car, big continental from the 70s, it had been used in a drug deal and so, they had confiscated it, so we had it for plain clothes use. And filled it up with us, there were, I think seven of us on that run, shotguns, pistols, everything you can imagine.
Laurence: And when we got out, the guy handed me a sledgehammer and he said, “Just don’t say anything. They’ll just assume you’re a cop, so let’s go.” We went in, to bust this big drug kingpin in an apartment. And there was nobody in there, but two little kids. One was, I think seven, and one was like five, a boy and a girl. And that was all the people that were in this building. And the police went ahead and searched the place and found the drugs, and got the child services over there to take the kids. But it was pretty exciting, before we actually got in there, thinking we were blasting our way in.
Jim: Yeah. It gets like the fire department. Most police work is boring as hell, but now and then, it’s the real deal, all in. Military people tell me the same, a whole lot of waiting around and then, the shitstorm from hell.
Laurence: Yeah. And being a pilot is that way too. It’s described as hours of boredom, punctuated by seconds of terror.
Jim: Yeah. I did some flying, did all the flying to get my private pilot’s license, but never got it, because I got pulled off on a business project, actually a political project, after I’ve done all the parts that you had to do, to get your license. I never did go for the exam, god dammit. It was quite an interesting experience. I don’t know, if I’ll ever go back and do it. You became a pilot, in fact, quite a serious pilot, not just a Cessna driver, but you did helicopters and aerobatics and jets and all that stuff. I imagine, driven by your father’s history?
Laurence: I would think so. Yeah. Because, I grew up thinking, that being a pilot was the ultimate. And I have been a pilot most of my life. I am an instrument commercial pilot. I flew aerobatics for about eight years in high performance aircraft. I’ve flown a whole variety of fighter planes and other kinds of jets, helicopters, you name it. And I actually, had the chance to get a ride onto an off of an aircraft carrier. So, I’ve had had a lot of exposure in that world. And in fact, as a journalist, when I started out, one of the first things I began doing, was investigating airline crashes and writing about them. So, that was in 1972 or 1973, when I began then.
Jim: It’s amazing. Now, let’s get into, some of the deep content of the book, what is the nature of Deep Survival. One of the themes that came through, I don’t know how many times it’s mentioned in the book, I should actually do a search on it. In fact, I’m going to do a search on it… Lie, what the hell, I’ll make an idiot of myself. The word cool. The word cool, appears 52 times in the book. The first cool quote I pulled out, to prepare my notes is, “The first lesson, is to remain calm, not to panic, because emotions are called hot cognition. This is known as being cool.” And you riff on the idea of cool and coolness and being cool and pretending to be cool. Talk to us a little bit about that.
Laurence: It’s really an important thing and one that I can’t emphasize enough, especially today, what’s going on, with the global pandemic of coronavirus. Remaining calm is essential to thinking clearly. So, I always tend to talk about my father, because a lot of this started with him and but even before that, emotion and reason are two major modes of the brain functioning. And when I say the brain, we now understand from modern neuroscience, it’s not just the brain, it’s the whole body that does the thinking. But we use the term brain, because we don’t really have a better term, right now. But emotion and reason work like a seesaw. If you scare someone half to death, they find it very difficult to think clearly. If you concentrate on thinking clearly, you can tone that emotion down and get something done.
Laurence: So, for example, I’ll give you, I’ll tell you a little story. The USS Indianapolis was the last big ship sunk in world war II. It was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, and roughly, 900 guys were dumped into the water, in shark infested waters, in the Pacific. And only 317 survived, ultimately. A lot of people were eaten by sharks or just drown. A lot of them had been burned badly when the ship blew up.
Laurence: And there was just one officer swimming away from the mess, and came upon a lifeboat with about five sailors in it. And he crawled the board, and he could see these sailors had given up. They were covered in diesel fuel. They were not doing anything. They weren’t talking, they were hangdog. And he pulled out his 45 service pistol and took it apart and gave each man a piece and said, “We’re now, going to clean this pistol.” Of course, this didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t any purpose to the pistol, but it was some rational, deliberate, organized activity that gave them all a purpose and woke them up out of their stupor. And this is an example of how the brain works, is that, if you really are in shock or overly excited or afraid, that if you can just find something to do, that’s deliberate, step-by-step, goal oriented, it helps to bring you around and reorganized your thoughts.
Laurence: So, being cool, going back to this word, that’s what being cool means. And you can force yourself to do it, just by having something to do. So, like in the middle of this Corona virus, my wife Debbie and I are stuck at home for the most part. She’s doing a lot of cleaning. She’s doing a lot of knitting. There are all of these different activities you can do, that turn you into a person who is being cool
Jim: Indeed, I like it. You also mentioned, early in the book, that in your view, and in the view of experts, only 10 to 20% of untrained people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival type of event. What do you think of that number, and do you think that’s people who are born that way, built that way and how many can be trained? There’s a reason that elite units are very selective. So, are these people who are in, naturally cool and calm? Are they born? Are they made? Can they be made?
Laurence: I believe they can be made and I believe, it is absolutely true, that you can train yourself. And the thing that I have always said over the years and giving talks to people about this, is that, if you practice in your daily life, the way you would want to be in an emergency, you’ll be much better off. Because in an emergency, in a time of high stress, you don’t invent new behaviors, you tend to fall back on the ones you’ve already practiced. And so, I’ll give you an example of how this works. And I believe this is in the book.
Laurence: There was an FBI agent, who decided that it would be a good idea, to learn to snatch a gun out of an assailant’s hands, before he could shoot this guy. And so, he practiced doing this and actually taught himself to be really quick with his hands, and he could actually snatch a gun out of somebody’s hand. So, one day, sure enough, there was a bad guy on the street who pulled a gun on him and this FBI agent snatched it out of his hands, before he could do anything. And then, he gave it back to him.
Laurence: Now, this obviously, is a crazy thing to do, and you wouldn’t ever do it, if you had a moment to think. But when you’re under high stress like that, the guy just had a gun stuck in his belly, he didn’t think, he did what he had always done. And during practice, of course, now, that he thought about it, during practice, he would practice with his partner, snatch the gun, give it back, snatch the gun, give it back, snatch the gun, give it back. And so, when the emergency presented itself, that’s what he did. So, this tells us some really interesting things about ourselves.
Laurence: One is, we’re practicing all the time and mostly, we don’t know what it is. The other is, if you want to be good in an emergency, you should practice whatever it is you want your response to be at that time, before the emergency comes. So, let’s say, are you the kind of person, who when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you pound on the steering wheel and yell? Are you the kind of person, who when you’re stuck in a traffic jam says, “Hey, I’m in America, there’s a traffic jam. What’s the big surprise here? I think I’ll turn the radio on and listen to some music or whatever. I’ll practice my French.” So, if you have a strategy already developed for being cool, then it will help you when an emergency comes.
Jim: Makes perfect sense. In fact, I’m going to read the last full quote in my notes, which reinforces this thought, which is, “A survivor builds up an account of commitment over a lifetime. The more he invests, the more he has when trouble comes.”
Laurence: Right? Exactly. And so, it’s a Zen way of life. You don’t suddenly become, well, some people do, but most people don’t suddenly become heroes, in the moment that lightning strikes. You have thought and practiced all your life, certain kinds of things that lead you to that moment and that you’re ready then to act. And so, I have tried to do this in my own small way. But when I talk in the end of the book, there are these 12 traits of survivors that I go over. And the first one, is perceive and believe. And another way I have of talking about this, is to say, be here, now. Don’t try to make things the way you like them to be. Don’t try to make them the way they were yesterday. Don’t try to make them the way you think they ought to be in the future, although you’ll try to get there. But be here now, perceive and believe this is really happening.
Laurence: I was set to go on an airplane to Santa Fe a few weeks ago. So, we at the Santa Fe Institute, where I’ve been going for many years, and I was watching the news and I was watching this pandemic develop. And I started talking to my wife about it and saying, “Hey, this thing is really big. This is going to really explode.” And I said, “What if I’m stuck in Santa Fe and can’t get back to you in the middle of this thing, because people are going to get stuck.” And I canceled my trip and it turned out to be, obviously the right thing to do. But that was after a lifetime of practicing, this perceive and believe. I was, yeah, this really is happening. This is not just in my imagination, and I can’t go about business as usual anymore.
Jim: Yeah. I’ve got to say, I had some similar experiences around this pandemic. And I’ve also been a person, who always prided themselves on being ready. It’s funny, I probably, always been thought a little acentric for my prepperish ways. But my social credit has gone up a lot, for being a prepper over the last month or so, I will say. And I called every turn early. Right? Four weeks ago, I said, “All right. Family, we’re going to hunker down. Daughter and son-in-law, come on down to our remote mountain farm, because I could see an exponential-
Jim: … remote mountain farm, because I could see in exponentials, and I could understand that this was going to be way bigger than the powers that be were letting on at the time. And it’s perceiving, believing and then acting, as you say. So you said you had another story, too?
Laurence: Well, in 1979 I had my first book published and I was very proud of this. It was a big deal to me and it was going to come out that fall, I’m pretty sure. And that spring in preparation… They had this big book fair every year. It’s called the BookExpo now, but it’s a big fair where all the publishers come, they bring their new stuff, and authors go to promote their books. So I was planning on going. This was in May of 1979. And I had been the Articles Editor of Playboy Magazine from 1970… Sometime in the late ’70s. I quit in ’78, so…
Jim: Now, you’re the one that edited all the articles we allegedly bought Playboy for, right?
Laurence: I’m the guy who put the stuff in there that you supposedly bought the magazine for. That’s correct. But I was very close to these people. One of them was my boss. His wife had a new book that was coming out. So we were all going to that fair in LA, the BookExpo.
Laurence: And I was always in the habit, I still am, of finding out what kind of an airplane I’m flying on. And I was doing, as I said, research into airline crashes all that time in the ’70s, and I had come to dislike the DC-10. I had come to the conclusion that the DC-10 was deeply flawed and a dangerous airplane. And it was, at the time, the only airplane that crashed strictly because of its own failures, as opposed to pilot error or something.
Laurence: And I said to my former boss, whose name was Shel Wax, and his wife Judy was the one who had the new book out. And I was supposed to go there with them on this plane. And I said, “Shel, it’s a DC-10 and I’m just not going to fly. I don’t fly DC-10s anymore because I don’t trust them.” And he poked fun at me. He said, “Well, come on. It’s just an airplane flight. We take this plane all the time.” And indeed there were many different ways to get the LA. You could take plenty of other planes at that time.
Laurence: To make this very sad story, sadder, the plane crashed and everyone was killed. It is still the largest death toll in an airliner crash in the United States: 273 people died on that plane. Shel and Judy were on that plane; our Fiction Editor, Vicky Chen Haider, was on the plane; and our Foreign Rights Editor, Mary Sheridan, was on that plane. And I was supposed to be on the plane and I didn’t go.
Laurence: And I didn’t go, because I had developed this perceive-and-believe idea way back then, and was thinking, “Well, if I did all this research and I know these things about the DC-10, why would I get on it?” So take another plane. It crashed that day. It was May 25th, 1979, and I then covered the crash and wrote about it.
Jim: That’s an amazing story in your book. I was like, “Whoa!” I could just feel that story creeping up on me as I was reading it. Ah!
Laurence: Yeah. So the thing about Deep Survival and the message that it preaches is just this: you have to walk your own walk and talk your own talk, and actually take actions in what you believe.
Laurence: And I’ve tried to teach my kids this. My younger daughter, Emilia, was a lifeguard when she was a teenager and in college. And she and a bunch of college kids were… I forget where. They were in Greece or someplace like that on a trip, and the ocean was very bad. It was big waves and they all started to run into it. And she stopped them and she said, “You know what? This is really stupid. One of you is going to drown if you get in that water, and I’m not going to let you do it.” And she was right, and on that very day, some other kids elsewhere on the beach did drown because it was one of those riptides situations.
Laurence: The key message is, you have to not only think this is really happening, you have to act on your thoughts.
Jim: And you do talk about how peer group pressure can erode people acting correctly, and you give some examples of that. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Laurence: Yeah. One of the things that I talk about early in the book is this accident with an avalanche, where there’s a bunch of snowmobilers who are rescue people. They’re actually going out on a search to find someone who didn’t come back. And they have been warned in the briefing that morning that there’s a high danger of avalanche, and there’s not to be any running up these hills at high speeds because you’re apt to trigger an avalanche.
Laurence: One of the things the snowmobilers do with their snowmobiles is they run up the hill at high speeds. It’s called highmarking to see who can go the highest before having to turn around; you lose momentum and you have to come back down. And it’s a very exciting sport. It gets very high adrenaline going and it’s a lot of fun.
Laurence: And so they’re out there in the smell of the pines, and it’s cold, and they’re going fast and they’re doing fun things. And that emotion just kicks in and you just can’t resist it. And one of the guys runs up the hill to highmark and a couple of others follow, and they trigger an avalanche and a couple of people die.
Laurence: And so there’s this irresistible quality to the pull of emotion that is responsible for our ability to act quickly, our ability to act forcefully, and can also trigger the herd mentality so that everybody begins acting that way. And it can save us in some situations, and it can also kill us in some situations.
Jim: It can undermine our willingness to act upon our beliefs, right, if we are vetoed by a social override, more or less?
Laurence: Right. And the more social the impulse becomes, the stronger it becomes. And now, if you don’t go along with it, you’re risking the loss of the group; you’re risking your status. And for creatures like ourselves who are social creatures, being in the group is a matter of life and death. If you’re put out of the group, you can’t survive, so status is a very big thing. Status is responsible in groups of mammals for your ability to reproduce, your ability to get food. There are all sorts of things associated with the group that are very, very strong. And so, yes, it’s no wonder that we go along with the group. But being human, we have this extra special gift of brain cells that can let us think, too. And so, the more we practice thinking, as opposed to reflex reacting, the better we’ll be in an emergency.
Jim: That makes perfect sense. Now this is in some ways a dark book, mordant in some ways, but there’s some amazing humor in it, too. But you actually call out humor as a characteristic of the people who actually do practice far out on the edge, where these kinds of skills are important.
Jim: And I know my own experiences with the two groups I happen to know, cops and Marines, are some of the funniest sons of bitches you ever met in your life. They have their own private language, almost. They keep you in stitches whenever you’re with them. Tell us a little bit about your experience with the nature of humor of these people who live far out on the edge.
Laurence: Well, it’s dark humor, and it needs to be. They have very difficult things to deal with. I started learning this a long time ago, but certainly with the firefighters, I got used to their humor and saw very clearly that what they’re doing is coping. They’re sort of detoxifying something that could otherwise poison their ability to function, essentially leading to PTSD-like conditions, and the humor disarms that. So humor serves a bunch of functions, but one of them is that it reduces stress. So if you can get people laughing, it sort of diffuses the stress of the situation, and allows you to regain your ability to function.
Laurence: There’s also a very interesting body of work, I talk some about this in Deep Survival, around the subject called learned helplessness. And there’s a guy named Martin Seligman who did a seminal piece of work on that. But one of the interesting things they found is that no matter how bad things get, if you can have an optimistic view of things, your immune system actually functions better. And they did measurements of immune functioning along with getting people to tell stories about things that had happened to them, and those who could talk about bad things happening in optimistic terms had actually better immune functioning than those who were pessimistic about relating what had happened to them.
Laurence: So there’s also a phenomenon about what’s known as locus of control, and there are two kinds of people. Some are people who are victims by nature. They say, “Oh, my gosh. This happened to me, and that happened to me, and then this happened to me, and then that happened to me.” And they look at the world as sort of happening to them. Other people view the world more as something that they can control, that they have agency and skills, and that they can actually take a bad situation and improve it.
Laurence: And so I always say adversity equals opportunity for those who are going to be good survivors. So if something bad is happening, you have to look at it and figure, “How can I take my advantage from this bad thing?” Obviously, the coronavirus is a bad thing. Nobody would want that to happen, but it’s happening. Now, how can I benefit from it? Well, there are a million things you can do at home that you’ve always said you wanted to do. Get busy doing them. That’s what Debbie and I are doing here at home now.
Laurence: And if you just look at the world that way, that when something goes wrong, you don’t say, “Oh, my gosh. Pity me!” You say, “Look at that. That’s really too bad, but let’s see. How can I use that? How can I work with that?” So I’m sitting here watching my 401(k) evaporate and I’m thinking, “Wow, these stocks are at bargain basement prices. I think I’m going to get some.” Rather than thinking, “Woe is me. I’ll never get my 401(k) back.” And so I think this is something that we all need to think more about.
Jim: Yep, and I 100% agree. I’ve never understood that, either pessimism or learned helplessness. In fact, one of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill: “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” To your point, it just upregulates everything you do.
Jim: I think… And this is sort of an aside. I’d love to get your reaction to it. I’m 66 years old, a little younger than you, but classic boomer-sort who grow up with GI Joe parents. My dad was a Marine with the 3rd Marine Division; did three invasions in the South Pacific; DC cop; had a ninth grade education, but did pretty well for himself.
Jim: And that whole generation did not seem to exhibit the kind of learned helplessness we see in so many people today. Maybe one of the good things out of this coronavirus is it will shock a few people out of realizing that they don’t really live in this hammock of abundance, and that this glossy civilization we have is only two millimeters thick. Maybe it’ll wake some people up.
Laurence: Well, it will. Yes, it certainly will. This is a world-changing event, it’s a world history event, it’s a life-changing event, and as you’re suggesting, it’s an opportunity for those who will see it as such. And I think part of the opportunity is just what you said, which is, “You know what? I’ve been loafing on my American luxurious way of life for a very long time, and it can’t be that way forever.”
Laurence: In recent years, I have walked through the supermarket with Debbie, my wife, and I’ve found myself saying, “There’s an entire half a mile of soda, cans of sodas and bottles of soda, here. This can’t go on. You can’t do that forever. It’s just not sustainable. What’s the next step?”
Laurence: And now I’ve got my… Debbie’s got… I have a 17-year-old son and he’s shopping for us. And so she’s got him going around the food store with the phone saying, “No, there’s no tomatoes. No, there’s no this; there’s no that.” And I’m thinking, “Wow, it really is happening. And people really are going to have to change the way they live.”
Laurence: So this may have a real silver lining and that people may begin to understand that global warming, climate change, whatever you’d like to call it, is very real, and it’s going to be very like this, and is already upon us, and we have to change our ways. This could have an interesting side effect.
Laurence: And I heard your podcast with Dan Schrag about climate and thought of him in connection with this, because it was a very good podcast and he’s a very smart guy on this subject.
Jim: He really is. In fact, I did a podcast yesterday with Bonnitta Roy, where we talk about the opportunities for change for the better that could come from this shock. And I do believe there are some, unfortunately, at a high cost. Hundreds of thousands, millions of people around the world could easily die, but maybe something good will come out of it, nonetheless.
Jim: Let’s take a turn to the next big theme. I’d call it the second theme after coolness in your book, which is the dance and balance between emotion and reason, or what we might want to call cognition.
Jim: You call out one of my favorite guys, Antonio Damasio. Subsequently, we’ve had books like Thinking, Fast And Slow by Kahneman, and others. Because you lay out what you learned, you obviously… I’ve read a lot in this area as well, but you clearly dug in very deeply into cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience, and particularly pointed it at how we act under high-stress situations, balancing emotion and reason. And we can’t live without either one, so tell us a little about your view on all this.
Laurence: Damasio is interesting, in he is in Deep Survival, and I quote him. And there are many things that he demonstrated, but one is that if you lose the ability to have an emotional response or let’s call it gut feeling, you lose your ability to make cognitive decisions. And this is a kind of regulatory thing to most western ways of thinking, because we think of ourselves as rational beings, and we tend to think of emotion as something that just gets in the way, but it’s not. It provides a guiding service, without which, there are too many choices and we’d never get anything done. And he has a system of experimenting that proves this to be the case.
Laurence: And so in very stressful situations, in emergency situations, it becomes very necessary to recruit both emotion and reason. And I’ll use the term gut feelings for the emotional side because there are feelings about the body that you get in these situations, and in situations like Thinking, Fast And Slow, for example. And our friend Cormac McCarthy wrote about this in an essay, in a magazine called Nautilus, and he referred to it as the night shift, which is the unconscious part of our processing. We’re constantly taking in information from the world and processing it below the level of consciousness, in some fashion that we don’t really understand. We know that it happens, but we don’t know how it happens, and we don’t know exactly where it happens.
Laurence: And it’s a very deep subject that Cormac wrote about well, and that I’ve written about myself. But it’s this element which can be thought of as emotion, or it can be thought of as the unconscious, that’s doing this guiding behind the scenes of what we think of as our rational selves. So that’s the balance that needs to be struck to do the next right thing. And it’s a matter of practice. You can’t just say, “Here are the 10 steps to achieving that balance.” It’s something you have to do kind of all your life to make it arise reliably in an emergency.
Laurence: So I tell a story about a group of wildland firefighters who were on a fire. If I remember correctly, it was in Colorado. And they were on a slope above the fire, and one of the younger, inexperienced firefighters took his group down the slope, called up on the radio to the older guy up on top and said, “Hey, come on down here and give us a hand.” And the older guy said, “Sorry, I’m getting out of here.” And there was something in the older guys perception of the fire that he couldn’t put his finger on. But he just said, I got a bad feeling about this and I’m getting out of here. And he took his guys out.
Laurence: Long story short: the younger guy who had gone down the slope got overrun by the fire, and the older guy with his group survived away from the fire. And the younger guy just hadn’t seen enough fires to have that gut feeling that the older guy had. And this is exactly what I’m talking about. And so no matter what your pursuit, there has to come a time in your experience when you begin to internalize these cues unconsciously so that when you get a bad feeling about a situation you’re facing, you go ahead and act on that feeling.
Jim: Though not always. As you point out, sometimes these emotional hooks can send you the wrong way. For instance, you give the example of the scuba divers and their respirators.
Laurence: Right. Yeah, so the researcher who wrote about that, a woman named Epjimia Morphew, found this puzzling phenomenon going on where some scuba divers would actually take their masks off under water and drown as a result of it. And by doing her research, she discovered that certain people had this very deep emotional response to suffocation and having their face covered, and oddly, became scuba divers and suffered the consequences. But this was so strong an emotion, that they couldn’t logically think through the steps to avoid it. And this to me is one of those classic cases where emotion takes you in the wrong direction.
Laurence: Emotion takes us in the wrong direction all the time. Mind you, when I talk about these things, a lot of times I’ll get up in front of a big crowd of people and say, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen somebody make a really, really bad decision in terms of a love relationship.” And of course if you’re over 13, you’ll raise your hand. And then I’ll say, “Well, why did this person do that? Was this person stupid?” I’ve known people, for example, who said, “I was at my wedding, I was walking down the aisle, and I was thinking, ‘This is really a bad mistake.'” And I’m like, “Well, why didn’t you do something about it?” Well, emotion can really overrun us. And in love relationships, it’s easy to illustrate because we all know examples of it, like “Why did you marry that guy? You knew he was a jerk.”
Laurence: And so in these threat situations, these high stress situations, whether it’s in the wilderness or it’s in a financial arena, to be able to step back, and reassess, and know when your gut feelings are helping you, is I think really, really important.
Jim: Yeah. You gave a wonderful example when you were out with a group of F-18 pilots-in-training about to do their first, or early, I don’t remember which, night landings on the carrier. The most high-stress, high-skill things in the life of a pilot, and you dance back and forth between emotion and reason. Can you tell a little bit about that story and how reason and emotion have to be in some kind of dynamic tension to be at your top game?
Laurence: Yeah, and so these are young guys. They’re very young guys, in fact. Probably younger than my father was when he was shot down and they’ve had about 125 hours of flight experience. Now you know, having taking flight training, that that’s nothing. Many people take that long to get their private pilot’s license. And these guys have these multi-multimillion dollar aircraft, completely complex aircraft that they’re strapped to. So they don’t have a lot of life experience behind them, they don’t have a lot of flying experience behind them, and then they’re shot on a steam catapult off of a ship and they have to go around and come find the ship again and land. It’s crazy. It’s totally crazy.
Laurence: And as I say in the book, I was on the LSO platform. The LSO platform is where the guy who is the Landing Signal Officer, LSO, stands on this little eight-by-eight-foot platform and watches these guys come in, and waves them off if they’re not doing it right so they don’t get killed. And he’s talking to them, as well. But he has a bunch of lights and a switch to turn them on to tell them to go around if they’re not right.
Laurence: And he said to me, “At a quarter mile, somebody asks you what your mother’s name is, you can’t remember because you’re under such high stress at that point.” But at the same time you have to keep telling yourself the rules. There are certain rules: you don’t spot the deck, that means don’t stare at the deck where you’re going to land; you’ve got to keep your eyes moving or you’ll lose your concentration and get too low; there’s a light that’s called the ball and you have to keep it at a certain height or you’re too low or too high. And so you have to be concentrating on the ball, and constantly almost a litany of things you’re telling yourself to do and not do as you’re coming in, and then just let it come on in.
Laurence: And that’s the hardest thing. When you get set up for a landing like this, you really don’t want to touch things very much because it’s all going to be set up smoothly and it’ll go right to the spot you want it to go to. So this is a real, real high skill, high training, high emotion, all at the same time kind of thing. And they have some pretty dark humor about it, too.
Jim: Yeah, I remember that. That was pretty amazing. The ability to master emotion and use it when necessary. But within the context of learning, and discipline and rules, quite an amazing thing for these young people to have accomplished.
Jim: Let’s go onto another interesting topic, which is, who survives and who doesn’t sometimes isn’t intuitively obvious. You tell the story of Captain James Gabba, an Army Ranger who was taking a commercial guided rafting trip down the Gauley River in West Virginia. Not very far at all from where I live. I live in rural Western Virginia, not far from the West Virginia line. When the ra-
Jim: Rural, Western Virginia, not far from the West Virginia line. When the raft hit a rock and a captain in the Army Rangers is a pretty bad dude. And yet he didn’t make it. Could you tell us about that story?
Laurence: Well, and it’s another thing I talk a lot about in Deep Survival, which is you train for a certain environment and that’s the environment that you are going to function best in. And so even though he was an Army Ranger, being an Army Ranger comes with certain limitations, you are trained in a certain kind of environment, you’re trained for a certain kind of mission, you’re trained with certain skills and not others. But you’re also trained that you’re like a God because in the Army Rangers if you need help, you’re out of the program. So the Army Rangers are taught to be completely self-sufficient and if somebody has to come and help you rescue you, you’re a loser, you’re out. You don’t become an Army Ranger. And so this mindset of I won’t take help can be a very dangerous thing when you need help.
Laurence: I mean to an Army Ranger, cancer is still cancer, for example. To an Army Ranger indeed whitewater rapids are still whitewater rapids. But this guy fell in the water and the guide who had learned his business in whitewater rapids said to him, “I will help you.” I mean in effect, I don’t remember what the words were, but he was going to rescue this Army Ranger.
Laurence: And the Army Ranger laughed and pushed him away, which seemed to indicate to me, he was saying like, “Hey, I’m an Army Ranger. I don’t need your help.” And then he drowned because he had not specifically been trained in this hazard that he was entering. And so the lesson is kind of, well, one of the survival instructors that I talked to said, the Rambo types are the first to go. And I think there’s a lesson in that one of the things that I preach in Deep Survival is humility. No matter how much you’ve learned, no matter how much you’ve done, no matter what your credentials are, be humble because there’s something waiting out there to get you and you don’t know what it is.
Jim: And sometimes you should know what it is, but you somehow get a tunnel vision or a mental constriction. You gave another very interesting example, which seemed to defy any common sense, which was this event that happened on the Illinois river in Oregon, where a group of people were rafting and the condition suddenly changed and the water became very high and some people had the sense to pull over and others didn’t.
Laurence: Yeah. This is a common phenomenon. We’re seeing it right now with the coronavirus, people we know who said, “Well I already paid for the cruise and we’ve been planning it for a year and so we’re going to go.” And then they get stuck, they can’t come back and they’re stuck on a ship somewhere at sea. And there is this sense in these adventure episodes that I talk about, like the one you’re mentioning on the river. It’s like, “Well, we had to drive for 12 hours to get here and we’ve already booked our motel and we’ve got our kayaks here. And we’ve never had any trouble before.” And there’s all these kinds of excuses that people make to themselves to convince themselves to do the wrong thing. And this is another thing I talk about, which is expert often means you’ve done the wrong thing more times than I have. And you’re going to say, “Well, we never had any problem before. We always do it this way.” And then that’s the time it’s going to kill you.
Laurence: So in this incident you’re talking about on the river, the river became really way too high to be run. And some of the kayakers actually got in touch with me after deep Survival came out, some of the ones who survived and said, “Well, that’s not to hide around. It just takes expert skill.” Well, some of the experts died too. And people continue thinking that way often right up until the time it kills them. But there’s no shame in turning back from the summit. I mean the intelligent mountain climbers I know understand that there’s more than one place on the mountain to go and that there’s always another day.
Laurence: So just to use that analogy, the same is true with the river. There’s always another day. And the thing that people lose sight of is what I call the risk reward loop. So what is the reward you’re seeking here? You’re going to go run the river because it’s your life’s work, or are you just on vacation. And what are you willing to pay for that? That reward is fine. So running up the avalanche slope with your snowmobile, there’s a good reward there. It’s a fun feeling, but is it worth your life? And we always have to ask ourselves, what’s the risk? What’s this going to cost if everything goes wrong?
Jim: Indeed. And then the other point, lack of judgment, tunnel vision, overwhelmed working memory, whatever it is that causes people to make these very bad and often disastrous decisions becomes even greater when you’re physically or mentally impaired, like by hypothermia or dehydration, fatigue, or even in the case of the snowmobilers kind of a blood up exuberance. Talk about that a little bit and how people don’t notice that they’re, because especially hypothermia famously sneaks up on people.
Laurence: Yeah, well, there’s one case that I was thinking about recently that two ice climbers they were kind of going to the next level. They had done some ice climbing and they wanted to go challenge themselves a little more. And there’s some beautiful ice climbing routes on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Mount Washington in New Hampshire has the worst weather in the world and there’s a big sign there put up by the rangers, says, “This mountain has the worst weather in the world. It will kill you.” And it’s not like maybe or maybe the worst weather in the world. It’s like this is the worst weather in the world. And it’s kind of because of this perfect storm that runs across the top. And it’s not always that way. I’ve climbed Mount Washington on a day when people were in flip flops and shorts, but sometimes it’s that way.
Laurence: And if there’s ice, it’s winter and if it’s winter, it can be that way really quickly. So these two guys went out to do their ice climb, which would probably have been fine, except they forgot their rope back at the cabin. So they had to go back to get their rope and that put them a couple of hours behind their schedule, which was to climb the ice, get to the top, and there was a walk off route from the top where they could have just hiked back home. So instead they’re getting up on the ice and it’s getting later in the day and it’s getting colder and some weather’s moving in, very unpredictable weather and instead of just repelling off and going back, they keep going. And part of the reason is that they were stressed because they had made a big mistake go ice climbing without your rope.
Laurence: They had hurried, they had skipped eating because they were late. And then they had scrambled up the ice as fast as they could wearing themselves out. So they’re on the ice. They were tired, they were cold, they were sweaty. So their sweat started to get cold. And as they got hypothermic, they lost their ability to reason and just kept going right on up. By the time they got to the top, the bad weather had arrived and the wind there gets well over 100 miles an hour and it gets way, way, way below zero. And so there they were on the top and 100 mile an hour when trying to crawl their way over to a trail that they weren’t quite sure where it was and they died. They died of exposure right there on the top.
Jim: Wow. Basically, their cognitive ability was degraded by ever increasing levels of physical depletion, which then became mental depletion.
Laurence: Yeah, exactly.
Jim: Now, you talk about a deeper concept. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody actually address this, which is fatigue and you make the point that fatigue isn’t just being tired, but it’s a much more systematic thing that is much harder to recover from. Could you riff a little bit on fatigue?
Laurence: Yeah. Fatigue if you get into real fatigue, not just some tired, you won’t recover by just going to bed and sleeping it off. It’s kind of a deep systemic wound to the system, if you will, an energy deficit so big that you actually probably came close to dying from it and it will take you quite a period of time to recover. Not a day, maybe a week. Different people respond differently but you see it in speaking of Army Rangers, in the rangers and I’ve known a number of these guys, you’re taken to that level of fatigue and stress on purpose for training and it can kill you actually. These guys risked their lives doing this. But one of them, I was working with the 82nd airborne at Fort Bragg and one of the guys I worked with was a ranger. And I said, “Tell me about the training.”
Laurence: And he said when he got back from the training, he slept for like 18 days. He said, “I would wake up, I eat five or six sandwiches and I’d go back to sleep.” And he said it was just like bone, deep tiredness that didn’t go away for a very long time. And so it’s different from just getting tired. So if you do a normal outing where let’s say even something like climbing Everest when you start from the base camp, you get up to the top and it’s morning and you come back down and if everything goes as planned, you’re not going to be in deep fatigue. You’re going to be tired. And of course there’s no oxygen up there to speak of and so you’re going to have that too. But once you get down to base camp to the lower base camps, you’ll recover pretty quickly. Everybody’s different as I say. So fatigue is a very special case and it can be lethal.
Jim: Well, I think one of the most useful takeaways in your book I’ve basically described it as if you are in a survival situation, let’s say you become helplessly lost or a survivor after an airplane crash, you make the point and the experts make the point. You don’t want to get fatigued. So surprisingly the right answer most of the time is to take it easy rest a lot. I think the number you quoted was try not to use more than 60% of your capacity because if you fall into fatigue you’re probably doomed.
Laurence: Yeah. So there’s a guy, this is just a way of thinking, I like very much, and I interviewed him, but it was too late to get into the book, but I do tell this story quite a bit because it fits right in with Deep Survival. His name was Vito Seskunas and he was going for a solo cross-country ski in Grand Teton National Park one winter. And he parked in the parking lot, went out on his skis, got out about five miles and hit a down-slope the wrong way and twisted his ankle and did a torsion fracture of his leg in his boot. So he just fell the wrong way and literally torqued his leg till it had a spiral fracture in it. And he knew that was it. I mean, he wasn’t going anywhere and he knew nobody’s coming down this trail in the middle of a winter like that.
Laurence: It’s a very remote trail. But he was a good outdoors man and he had packed well. So he immediately sat down where he was. He didn’t try to take his boot off or splinted or anything like that. He sat down and he unpacked all his gear and he set up his tent and he took out his stove and he melted some snow. He made himself a hot drink and then he made himself a meal and he looked at all of his equipment and assessed what he needed and what he didn’t need and decided that the only way he was going to get out of there was to scoot on his butt even though that was really slow and difficult and painful and all that. So there are a number of things, and I’m going to tell you the second half of the story in a second, but first of all, what he did goes back to what we were talking about, reason and emotion.
Laurence: He broke his leg out there by himself, very high emotion, very high stress. He sat down and immediately made himself a hot drink, organized his stuff, made himself a meal. He’s doing exactly the right thing. He’s using reason. He’s using step-by-step methods to achieve a goal and he’s nourishing himself. He’s replenishing his energy and he’s warming himself up with a hot drink. So these are all amazingly just right Deep Survival kind of moves. Then he decides on a strategy, so he stayed calm. First of all perceive and believe, “I did really break my leg. I am really stuck out here.” Secondly like make a plan, stay calm. He did that. Think, analyze, plan that these are things I say in Deep Survival and then take correct decisive action. “So I’m going to scoot on my butt now how am I going to manage that for five miles to the parking lot?”
Laurence: He decided that he would devote every 100 moves to something back at home that he loved and wanted to get back to alive. So he dedicated 100 moves to his wife, dedicated 100 moves to his guitar. He dedicated 100 moves for his cat. He dedicated 100 moves to his best friend and so on and so forth, and every 100 moves, he’d think of something else in his life that he really, really wanted to get back in. And by goodness, he got there, he got himself out and finally got fixed up. So I love telling this story because it embodies so much of what’s in Deep Survival. This guy just did it perfectly and I think it’s a lesson for us all.
Jim: Okay. Certainly he exemplified the idea of actual coolness under fire, right. To be able to do that, suffer a spiral fracture, and then calmly inventory your material and make yourself a cup of tea. My God, that is a cool cat.
Laurence: Yeah. Great story.
Jim: Yeah. Another point I’ll call out from that story, and this is something you mentioned I must be a half dozen times throughout the book, is that many people who actually do survive seem to have motivated themselves by living for other people.
Jim: For their people back home, their wife or their children, or they want to see that grandchild. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Laurence: Yeah. So I noticed, and I do write about this quite a bit in Deep Survival, that if you’re in a bad situation, if there’s an emergency, a world trade center or something like that. People do a lot better if they have somebody to help. So by helping someone else, you stop becoming a victim and you start becoming a rescuer. And as a rescuer, I mean that has a lot of meanings in our culture and probably in all cultures you’re taking control, which is an extremely important element of survival to have a sense of control. You’re taking this internal locus of control that I talked about before. I can do useful things. Yes, even in the face of this terrible situation, I can find something useful to do. You’re having a positive attitude, you’re optimistic because you believe you can do something, which I said helps you in every way, including your immune system, which can be important at this particular time in our lives.
Laurence: And so always latching onto something, somebody you can help is a great idea. And I think in statistically, we’ve found that doctors and nurses tend to survive better in critical situations because of the fact that they’ve got people to help. But anyone can do this. I mean, you can always be helping others. And in deadly survival situations, I know I wrote about one photographer I worked with, he was a whitewater rafter guy, kayaker, and he had gotten trapped in a strainer, which is a tree that’s fallen across the water and it sucked his boat in. The current is pushing you into this mess of branches. So every time he’d get his head above water would push him back down again. And he was, no, he was downing and didn’t have the strength to keep pulling himself up like that. He’d catch a little breath and the current would push him down again and he’d have to pull up again.
Laurence: And I said, “Well, how did you get out?” He said, “Well, I thought about my son and I thought…” He had a four-year-old son. He said, “I’ve got to see my son again. I can’t let this be the last gift I give to my son.” And he just found superhuman strength and bolted himself up on top of this tree and got out.
Laurence: And that’s a classic example of a situation. We’ve all heard the story like the old granny is looking out the kitchen window washing the dishes and the car falls on her husband who’s underneath it, changing the oil or whatever. And she rushes out and lifts the car off of him even though she’s only five feet tall and 99 pounds. And how is that possible? Well it is possible. There’s an instance of it in the book. It’s possible because we have a lot more strength than we use day to day and this special emotional state can give us access to it.
Jim: Yep. It seems to be. I saw that pattern appear in several of the stories. Now, let’s move on to the next topic. I frankly don’t remember from the first time I read the book, but the very interesting line of discourse about Charles Perrow who studied industrial accidents in nuclear power plants, airlines, shipping, et cetera. And wrote a book called Normal Accidents where he makes, I would call it a complex systems type claim, that systems that are organized in a certain way are just likely to have a power law distribution of accidents. Not all that different from Per Bak and his sand piles. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Laurence: Yeah, so Charles Perrow, and I’m pretty sure he’s still around, came up with this idea first. As far as I know it was that these systems are so complex that the accident is built into the nature of the system. It’s not a system where you can say if we did this and this and this will prevent all accidents, that’s not the way it works. It’s like, as you say, it’s a power law. It’s like earthquakes. There are a whole bunch of little accidents, little mishaps that go wrong. And then every once in a while, there’s a huge one. And his concept began to change the way industry looked at certain things by saying just identifying a hazard and slapping a technical fix on it may actually just make the system more complex and make it more prone to failure in accident. So it was a real rethinking of the industry as you talked about.
Laurence: There is truth in this and it applies in our daily activities and it certainly applies in places like wilderness adventure travel. And it applies in the stock market, things like that where they’re going to be a little breakouts and huge breakouts in each direction and the huge ones are less likely than the little ones. It also applies to social and biological systems. So we are now witnessing with the coronavirus an example of a normal accident. It is part of the normal functioning of the system, of human interaction that there are going to be illnesses that spread rapidly through the population as long as people can contact one another. So if there were no such thing as that modern travel we have, we would not have this virus globally right now, but that’s a system we have. We created it and it’s subject to normal accidents.
Laurence: So the more that we can think about these systems in those terms, this is a complex system and it’s going to have these kinds of accidents. I think it comes down to saying, yes, these accidents are going to happen to people but they don’t have to happen to you. And so that means figuring out the strategy that’s going to keep you out of the workings of the system. I use a mountaineering accident on Mount Hood as an example of this where all these people were climbing the mountain and they were roped together but they didn’t connect the rope to the mountains, so it was just like a suicide pact. There were several different groups.
Laurence: One at the top fell, three guys roped together. They encountered another group halfway up that was roped together and dragged them off and they in turn encountered another group below that was roped together and took them off. So all these people became this complex system. And like I say, it was inevitable that an accident like this would happen, but it didn’t have to happen to me if you like.
Jim: Yeah, I found that story, that Mount Hood debacle. I have it in my notes and you go into great detail in some ways the most fully developed of all the stories and you talk about how tightly coupled the systems became and how the people involved had no idea about the energies that were available. If you fall 100 feet on ice and then suddenly pull taught. It was a fine example of this concept of normal accident. If you do this sort of stuff, sooner or later some group of people doing this is going to have an accident about it. That example is well worth careful study by anybody who wants to be able to avoid those kinds of situations.
Laurence: Yeah. And the other thing, Jim, that I’m sure you noticed is this accident had a way and many of these accidents have the same quality, had a way of sweeping up other elements into it that were not connected to it initially. So the Air National Guard mounted a rescue attempt with a helicopter, a big black hawk and went up there on the mountain and when they got up to the functional limit of the helicopter, the helicopter crashed. So they now had contributed to the accident. More complexity, more victims, more destruction. It’s almost as if these events have their own super gravity that draws other events into their vortex.
Jim: Yeah. We had an example of that in Santa Fe several years back where some people got lost up on the mountains behind Santa Fe and snow storms came in and a helicopter went to rescue them and the helicopter crashed.
Jim: And again, it was just stupid, stupid, unprepared people. Luckily they were able to find a spot where their cell phone worked, otherwise they’d have been dead meat. In fact, that gets me to my next pull quote. That’s the main difficulty with neophytes who go into the wilderness. We face the same challenges that the experts face. Nature doesn’t adjust to our level of skill.
Laurence: Right, right. Well, and you were talking earlier about our American hammock of luxury, as you called it, which I thought was a good term. We get used to, we’re like goldfish in a bowl. I mean, it’s like a miracle. I wake up in the morning and there’s a cup of hot coffee for me. I wait a while and there’s a meal in front of me it’s like, “Oh, I must be a genius. I get rewarded every time I look around.” That’s the way you train an animal. If you want to train a dog, you carry a pocket full of treats and pretty soon the dog is healing right your side.
Laurence: The dog is heeling right at your side. We’re kind of like that, but we don’t have to do anything to get our rewards other than work some cushy job or whatever we do. But we’re constantly being rewarded. If I’m bored, I turn on the television, I’m entertained. Like I say, I must be a genius.
Laurence: Well, not quite what’s happening. Then you take that attitude into the wilderness, and the wilderness does not reward you. The wilderness says, “Okay, now you’re on the same terms as we were on a hundred thousand years ago. What are you going to do about it?” And of course, the first rule is, like I say, perceive and believe. Yes, you really are out in the wilderness. If you misbehave, you’re going to get your hand slapped and maybe worse. It’s hard to instill this attitude in people who are used to looking at the wilderness like a playground.
Jim: Yeah, very dangerous, very dangerous. Even people who have great expertise can still get into trouble. Another one of your very well-developed stories was that story of Ken Killip and his buddy York, who set out on the trail at Milner Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park. These were guys who you wouldn’t expect to get in trouble, but one of them did.
Laurence: Yeah, I mean, they were experienced hikers, backpackers. They were going to a little group of lakes that was down off of the pass, one of the drainage’s, and had it pretty well planned. I mean, the one guy… Ken Killip was a firefighter. I can’t remember if York was. But they had basically good skills.
Laurence: But emotion comes in here. Killip wasn’t as fast as York. York got impatient and he said, “Well, I’m going ahead. You’re too slow. I’m going ahead. I’ll meet you down there.” This is against the rules. You do not break up the group. This is a bad thing.
Laurence: Making it even worse, if I remember the details correctly, Killip had the compass and York had the map. Which is a no-no, you need both. So they did make some key mistakes.
Laurence: Killip was slower than he had hoped to be and he was up on the ridge when the afternoon weather came, which it often does in that part of the country. At three o’clock in the afternoon, you get a thunderstorm on the high peaks. So he was driven back down again to get out of the lightning, made him even later.
Laurence: Then he was rushed, he was exhausted, probably a little dehydrated, probably a little confused and pissed off. He decided, “Well, this is the drainage, I’m going down it.” Of course, he didn’t have a map, so he went down the wrong drainage and got to the point where he’s supposed to see the lakes. The lakes weren’t there and he thought, “Well, maybe those lakes dried up. Maybe somebody moved the lakes.” You start to think really nutty stuff when you get into that situation.
Laurence: The last thing in the world you want is, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to hike back up that stupid ridge and go to the next drainage over,” and it’s getting dark. So he continued on down the wrong drainage and was lost for five days, and did all the things you’re not supposed to do when you’re lost. He panicked and started to run around, trying to find his way back, which is classic lost person behavior.
Laurence: He tried to climb up so that he’d get a better view to think maybe he could orient himself. He climbed up and fell and rolled back down this rocky slope and hurt himself. He passed out. When he woke up, he was covered in snow. I mean, it just went downhill really quickly.
Laurence: Somehow, finally came to his senses. He had in his pack everything he needed to survive right where he was. He had sufficient gear to make a shelter, to keep himself warm, to make a fire. He’s thinking, “Well, I’m a firefighter. I can’t start a fire.” No, no, no. That’s not the right way to think, because you weren’t supposed to start fires in Rocky Mountain National Park at that time. But he finally came to his senses and started a fire, and calmed down, and did all the right things in the end. Put some colored materials out where somebody flying over could see it, and was finally spotted and rescued. But it shows you how quickly even a smart guy can get stupid.
Jim: You have the degrading by physical. Then you also have quite a little riff in that section about the whole nature of getting lost and what research has told us about that.
Jim: I particularly resonate with that, because I actually… There was a time when I was a little younger and fitter than I am now, when I used to intentionally enjoy getting lost in the woods in a minor kind of way. Again, I have a farm in the Appalachians, these are pretty benign mountains. Maybe from the farm to the top is maybe six miles and 2,000 feet of elevation, and it’s eastern mountains. I hike off into areas where the logging roads ended and follow this drainage and that drainage until I didn’t know where I was anymore.
Jim: There was a very interesting and powerful feeling that comes upon you when you know you’re lost, right? But fortunately, I had a heuristic, and I noticed you taught your daughter the same heuristic. And I taught my daughter the same heuristic when she was about six, right? Which is in benign, eastern mountains, I wouldn’t recommend this in the Rocky Mountains, but in the East, 99% of the time, all you got to do is walk downhill until you hit water or a watercourse. Our area has a lot of harsh topography, so the streams are often dry in the summer. But you come to a watercourse. Follow the watercourse, and within five miles, you will cross a road. Even our most remote roads get a car every half hour or so, so don’t go walking on the road, just sit by the side of the road till somebody comes by.
Jim: I would actually do that, and I’d end up in places. I go, “How the hell?” It’s amazing how disoriented your brain is when you’re truly lost. So I really resonated with that section on the psych… Even though this was baby lost, right? Nonetheless, it was the real psychological experience. So yeah, I was really taken with the writing you did and the research that you studied on the nature of being lost. If you could talk about that a little bit.
Laurence: I think I mentioned before that being part of the group is extremely important to our kinds of creatures. You have to stay in the group or you’ll die, essentially. When you’re lost, you’re out of the group, and you have some other problems in your immediate future.
Laurence: We learn our own environments, and we get certain things from them. We know our environment because we need to get food from it. We need to find mates and be part of the group. We need access to water. All these things involve knowing where you are. When you don’t know where you are, it’s a dire emergency.
Laurence: Now, humans, I think, are… Well, they may not be unique, but they’re unusual in that we like to do things to scare ourselves for fun. So things like riding a snowmobile can be fun because it’s a little bit frightening in a controlled way. Going to a horror movie can be fun because we know we’re safe. So there’s all kinds of things we do. We use this emotional elixir that is scaring us in a controlled environment, so we know it’s safe, and we get a big kick out of that.
Laurence: It sounds to me like you were doing that in the situation of getting yourself lost, and then it worked. But if you’re unintentionally lost, it’s a whole different ballgame.
Laurence: The typical thing for people to do when they’re lost is to panic, because it is an emergency. It’s much more of an emergency for people who are in their teens.
Laurence: Interestingly enough, if a little kid gets lost, the little kid survives better than a 14-year-old. The 14-year-old is probably the worst of all survivors in a situation of being lost. Older people tend to do better too, because they can stay calmer.
Laurence: The little kids do well being lost, because they don’t think they’re lost. They haven’t yet developed a sense of lost. In fact, if that little kid gets lost in the grocery store and somebody says, “Where’s your mommy?” The kid will say, “My mommy is lost.” So, “Hey, I’m not lost. I know where I am. I’m right here.” So the little kids don’t panic, and they do things that are natural. If they’re thirsty, they’ll drink from a puddle. If they’re cold, they’ll get into a hollow log. They do these natural survival things without even thinking.
Laurence: A teenager, who has not yet developed cognitive control of the emotions, will realize he’s lost, because he’s got that skill of knowing where he is, and he will panic and he will run. Often, these teenagers run themselves to death. I have a good friend who that happened to in Utah. His son died because he got separated from the group accidentally, and he just took off running. In many cases, these teenagers will run right through somebody’s front yard and not realize that they’re not lost anymore.
Laurence: So being lost is a much more complex phenomenon than we see at first sight. That’s why I devote so much time to it in Deep Survival. I believe we can get lost in other ways in our lives. We can get lost in business, we can certainly get lost in love. It’s worth thinking about.
Jim: That was a very good section. It really resonated with me, and I took some lessons away from it. I would really recommend that section for people who want to read the book.
Jim: Let’s move along. We’re getting a little close to our time here. We talked about optimism before. There was a really interesting riff in the book about positive mental attitude, which was the watchword of Byron Kerns, who you had experience with at his Mountain Shepherd Survival School. Could you talk to us about that a little bit?
Laurence: Yeah. This is hand in hand with humor, hand in hand with optimism, and hand in hand with be cool. If you’re doing all of these things, you are well along the road to having what is called positive mental attitude. Which is a term the military uses a lot, by the way. Byron Kerns was an Air Force Survival School guy, so I’m sure he picked it up from them.
Laurence: That is really at the core of survival. I mean, anybody can get the equipment you need to survive. In fact, if you develop the skills, you can create this equipment in the wild. I took another survival course, which was called a primitive survival course, in which they basically toss you into the woods with nothing. You have to start from scratch and build your kit out of what you have in front of you, which is all the tools that mankind had a hundred thousand years ago. But with this positive mental attitude that includes all these elements of humor, optimism, being cool, you will function so much better.
Laurence: I mean, right now in the midst of the coronavirus, I can tell at a glance by the Facebook posts and things like that, emails and text messages people send, what side of this divide they’re on. If they are conducting themselves with a positive mental attitude, they’re saying like, “I’d always wanted to make this recipe, and I’ve just done it. Isn’t this great? We’re going to have it tonight.” On the other end of the spectrum is somebody saying, “My life is crap. I can’t go out. I can’t take my walks in Central Park. I’m really bummed. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” It’s like, “Wait a minute. That’s not going to help much in what you have to do,” because these things are not voluntary, these survival situations are… You don’t sign up for them voluntarily. When they come upon you, it’s like, “Perceive and believe, man. It’s here. It’s looking you in the eye.”
Jim: Yeah. Real stuff. I love that section of the book.
Jim: The other survival school you went to was Mark Morey’s Vermont Wilderness Survival School in Brattleboro. That was a very different experience. Could you briefly tell us about that?
Laurence: At the primitive survival school, you’re assumed to have nothing. You’re dropped in the middle of the woods with nothing. What are you going to do? So they develop such skills as… I made fire without any conventional fire making materials. I described this in the book. It took me a couple of days to do this.
Laurence: First, you break a rock to make a knife. Then you use the knife to cut a branch. Then you skin the branch to get the bark, and you have to know the right kind of bark you want. Then you untwist the fibers of the bark to make a rope. You take a suitable branch that you use as a bow, and you tie it with the rope to make the bowstring. Then you have another piece of wood that goes twisted into the bowstring to make a spindle. As you move the bow back and forth, the spindle spins, and you have a piece of wood at the bottom that it spins against. As you spin the wood, the piece at the bottom gets hotter and hotter until you get a glowing ember. Prior to all this, you’ve made a fire bundle, which is tinder, which is some kind of dry, leafy material. You put the little ember into the material and blowing it, and it bursts into flames.
Laurence: It’s very difficult to do, but you can learn to do it. So he’s teaching you, what if you don’t have anything? What if Mr. York did walk away with the map?
Laurence: He did another thing with me, which was fascinating and I describe it in Deep Survival. That’s how to do tracking without a compass. He did it by noticing signs in nature that were unique. He would point them out, and we’d stop and talk about them. We’d look ahead and find another such thing in the distance, and we’d stop and talk about that.
Laurence: We would go from point to point with these unique features, like a particular knot in a tree, deer tracks in the mud, just different things, a patch of mushrooms. It would create a little stepping stone for us to where we got all the way into the woods, and then could follow these stepping stones back out without any map, no compass. We never got lost that way.
Laurence: It was a fascinating school, and he taught a lot of little kids. I watched a nine-year-old kid make a fire in about 90 seconds with a hand drill. That is a stick held between his two palms that he rubbed back and forth to spin into another board. It took about 90 seconds to make a fire. I was like, “Whoa. How long did it take you to learn that?” He said, “Well, about two years.”
Jim: Wow. Wow.
Laurence: It’s wonderful stuff. I encourage people to take survival training. It’s lovely just for the the mental advantage it gives you in life.
Jim: Yeah, that was my takeaway. I was going to ask you in this soft world of ours, shouldn’t we consider making survival training part of everybody’s education?
Laurence: Yeah, absolutely.
Jim: Wouldn’t it be smart to do that as part of high school, right?
Jim: Or even junior high school. You don’t have to be any more than 12 or 13 or even less than that. Yeah, I remember in the Boy Scouts, we did a lot of pretty edgy stuff. I think would just make people stronger mentally and more resilient emotionally if they had survival training.
Laurence: My son Jonas is 17. He’s a junior in high school. I started him… He was probably five, I would imagine. With little things like fire making and how to use a knife, how to hold a knife safely, making a shelter, for example.
Laurence: If you’re dropped naked into the woods, you can survive a blizzard by making a debris shelter in the forest. A trick like that could have potentially saved those two guys on Mount Washington. Because you can go in a debris shelter that’s made correctly, you can have 20 below outside and be toasty warm. So there’s a lot of things that you don’t even have to use these in life just to give yourself a mental edge.
Jim: That’s what I took away. Like you, I was a Baby Boomer, and we were just let run free as kids and we’d do stuff. We’d build forts out of logs, and we did this and we did that. We weren’t overscheduled and overcommitted to lessons and all that kind of stuff. It seems to me that with the lack of that today, perhaps survival training is a way to get back to that kind of emotional self-sufficiency that I think a lot of us people who were raised more as free running children had.
Laurence: Yeah, I agree completely.
Jim: Well, we’re kind of getting close to the time here, so I’m going to skip over three really interesting episodes of adventure and survival. So I’m just going to call out for the people who read the book. People, do read this book. This is a book that if you have not read it, your life is not complete. Great story of Debbie Kiley and the ketch, the Trashman. Callahan on the Napoleon Solo, and his amazing ability to survive against all the odds. And the tail of Simpson and Yates, another amazing one.
Jim: Readers, read the book and enjoy them. I think we’re going to wrap up with a brief discussion of your other book, Surviving Survival. Surviving an extreme event is a traumatic event in itself, and a person has to come back from that. Could you tell us at least a little bit about what it means to survive survival?
Laurence: Yeah, so when I wrote Deep Survival, I was thinking in terms of once you’re rescued, the event is over, right? Or once you self-rescue, the event is over. You go back to life, you tell all your friends. It’s good for a free beer.
Laurence: Then as I got done with it and started talking to some other people, I realized, “No, no, that’s not what happens, actually.” Surviving one of these kinds of events that I describe in the book is a life-changing thing. You can’t go back to your regular life. It won’t happen.
Laurence: You have embarked on a new journey, which is the journey to reinvent your life, essentially. Who am I now, and what can I do? In many cases, people do completely different things from what they were doing before, and changed their lives entirely.
Laurence: So I thought, “Well, this is really interesting. I’m going to start talking to some of these people about that process.” I realized very quickly that I needed to write a book about it to complete the survival journey that I started in Deep Survival.
Laurence: Essentially, Surviving Survival is a guide to resilience. Because once you have one of these terrible survival situations, even though you live through it, you may be very rattled up. You may be suffering from PTSD, you may have anxiety, you may have trouble sleeping, trouble in relationships. You need to address that as, “Okay, what’s my new life going to look like?” That’s, in a nutshell, the book, Surviving Survival.
Laurence: I think it’s very germane right now, because a lot of people who are going through this coronavirus pandemic are going to come out the other side and realize, “Whoa, my old life isn’t there anymore, really. I have to figure things out all over again.” This is a guide to doing that.
Jim: Well, it sounds like a great bookend to one of my favorite books, Deep Survival. Well, Laurence, I really want to thank you for coming on The Jim Rutt Show. This has been everything I was hoping it would be and more. This has been great fun.
Laurence: Great. Thank you very much, Jim. I really appreciate it.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller modernspacemusic.com.