SPP: First thank you for being on the show. As I mentioned prior to this interview when we were talking we got a chance to read your book “Deep Survival”. It’s incredible and like I said “I’ve read a couple of different books on the topic and yours really stood out to me because you kind of intertwine your background along with your own personal stories, and I think that makes for an awesome read.
I know at the beginning you kind of discuss your father’s death and the affect that that had on you at the beginning of the book. Can you tell us a little about that and how that helped prompt you into writing on the subject of survival?
Laurence: Sure. By the way, thanks for having me on this show. My father was a combat pilot in World War II. He flew B17 Bombers over Germany. And he was shot down at 27,000 feet and they blew his left wing off. And the plane spun so violently that it was pulled in half. So he was basically falling in a chunk of wreckage that had all the aerodynamic characteristics of a bathtub. And he fell 27,000 feet and lived.
So as a kid hearing about this story I thought it’s just very strange to me that, first of all somebody could survive that. And secondly, he was the only one in his crew who survived. So what was the difference between the guy who survives and the guy who doesn’t survive? And this is just fascinating to me as a child and I think it colored my interest as a writer for the rest of my life. I was interested in dangerous things people do and I was interested in why certain people survive and others don’t.
SPP: Now did you get into any dangerous activities? I mean are you an adventurous person? Laurence: Oh yes.
SPP: What’s an example of some of the most dangerous stuff that you’ve done?
Laurence: I flew aerobatics for a number of years. I flew stunt planes, as some people call them, these high powered little planes you see at air shows. And that was probably the most dangerous thing that I did. I did a lot of adventuring in the wilderness and I wrote about these things, but I would also just speak out dangerous things to right about. Like I worked on high steel with construction workers building a tall building, a profession where a lot of people get killed. I worked as a firefighter. I was a journalist but I was actually fighting fires with these guys. And we’d seek out these things to write about because they seemed very interesting to me. And ultimately all of this work fed into the survival when I finally came to write that book.
SPP: It’s funny because, I don’t know I see some similarities. Jon and I were joking but I worked at a day job for awhile, then I took a trip. I was like I’m going to hike the Colorado Trail.
SPP: Now it’s a little different. I only lasted like two days and it started snowing and I was very ill prepared. I thought I could fend off anything with a machete. But anyways I sought it out for I guess the adventure and the thought process that comes along with it. I’ve also thought about I actually applied to be a wild land firefighter out in Arizona.
SPP: Yes. What is it do you think that kind of compels somebody to seek out those things? Is it just curiosity?
Laurence: No I think that we evolved to take risks. I mean if you think about where we came from hunter gather people, in order to go hunt an animal large enough to make it worth your while you had to really be into having an adventure. I’m talking about like a 100,000 years ago right. So there’s something inherent in us that wants to do that.
Now we live in the modern culture and everybody has a different level of risk that they prefer to take. Some people don’t want any at all they want to stay home and be quiet and others want to climb Mt. Everest. But whatever your level of risk is you’re going to seek it and if you think things are safer you’re going to try to add more risk, take more risk. And if things seem more risky then you’re going to try to take less risk. And this has been demonstrated in a number of interesting ways.
When antilock brakes were first introduced in Germany they gave them to taxi drivers and thought well the accident rate is going to go down because these guys can stop faster now. And what actually happened was the accident rate went up because the taxi drivers thought well I can stop faster, it’s safe so I can go faster. It had the opposite effect of what they intended this theory is called Risk Homeostasis, it means you try to keep your level of risk the same. So those of us who have a fairly high set point for risks will perceive ordinary life as kind of boring. We’ll go looking for adventure.
SPP: To kind of dive into the book a little bit one of the things I really liked is your research involved looking at a lot of cases regarding life versus death.
SPP: And in that research what were some of the craziest stories you encountered and the commonalities? Because for example you mentioned scuba divers that die with air still in their tanks.
SPP: And that was mind blowing to me. Like having scuba dive a couple of times I mean I can understand how you’d freak out but freaking out to that extent I don’t get it.
Laurence: Yes I know. And there’s certain people who have sort of automatic instinctive reaction to having their mouths covered and they will take the regulatory out of their mouth. But basically they panic and they’re not able to calm themselves sufficiently to say “Gee I shouldn’t be taking this out of my mouth”, and they die. So panic is a very interesting thing and not very well understood by a lot of people.
Essentially you can think of the brain as having two modes of working. One of them is thinking rationality planning, all that stuff that we associate with being human. The other is an emotional side, emotional reaction, like a flight or fight response for example, characterized by loads of adrenaline and all of that. And these two states don’t coexist very well. So the higher the emotion the lower the thinking, the higher the rational thinking the lower the emotion; it works like a seesaw.
So if you get an emotional response it can become very difficult to resist it, depending on who you are what your training is and what your natural makeup is. For certain people that particular emotional response that I mentioned of needing to uncover the face is so powerful that it results in those depths that you were talking about. So one of the key things that we talk about in terms of survival is we’re learning how to control high emotions, which is a matter of training so that when you’re in a situation that requires you to think clearly you can dampen down that emotional state and think.
SPP: You know that’s very. We actually just interviewed another author that was talking about the psychology of the brain in that sense where sometimes people it takes them longer to perceive a dangerous situation of what’s going on. And I guess one of the ways to remedy that and perceive things faster is just to constantly go through training and be in that situation over and over and over again until you can do that when it actually happens.
Laurence: Yes right. That’s exactly what people like the military tried to do. There’s only so much realism you can get into when you’re talking about something like warfare, but the more exposure you have to something in general in a training situation the better prepared you’ll be.
SPP: I mean have you seen situations that you are completely blown away that somebody either enough training or knew it was going on to get through. I mean what would you say one of the crazier stories in the book would be where you saw that?
Laurence: Well I think Joe Simpson’s story is like that. He’s a guy who wrote a book called “Touching the Void”, which also became a movie. So he and his partner were climbing in Peru they’re on a 20,000 foot peak descending, and he broke his leg at 19,000 feet in completely snow covered mountain, very technical climbing requiring equipment and all that. And you break your leg up there basically you’re a dead man and he knew it.
And his partner Simon Yates knew it too but they tried to work together to get this guy down. And they had a system pretty well setup where Yates were lowering him with a rope and then climbing down to him and putting in a stake, and then lowering him again, and so forth. And they were doing pretty well when the rope broke. That’s not true, he got stuck and his partner had to cut him loose so he cut the rope.
So he fell and fell and fell and fell. And he fell into a curvais down to the bottom of a curvais, so now he’s completely screwed. And by a miracle this curvais had filled up with a cone that had just drifted in over time. And he was able to climb this cone and get all the way to the top and get himself out of the curvais. And this story just goes on and on and on and on. Every time you think the guy is about dead why he thinks of something else. And he did in fact basically crawl off this mountain and save his own life.
So it’s a tremendous story, just a terrific story and very, very unlikely.
SPP: For somebody like that are there certain characteristics that are going to, aside from the training but maybe inherent characteristics that are going to lead you to be more successful in a dangerous situation? Are they genetic? What is that?
Laurence: Well and this is really the sinful business of the book “The Survival” is that if you read the Joe Simpson material there, for example, it goes through all of these different characteristics in him that made him able to survive the next step. And then in the end of the book I go through and I list these characteristics as the 12 essential characteristics of survivors so that people can see them all in one place and relate them back to all the stories that they have been reading.
And so yes this is definitely what the book is about it’s about what are the things that I need to develop in myself to make me ready to face these things when they come? And believe me they always come.
SPP: One of the key points that you touch on a couple of times throughout the book, and especially at the end, is when in doubt bailout.
SPP: I think that’s advice that seems so commonsense but people don’t take. For example, when Chris went to do the hiking of the Colorado Trail at some point he was like okay, I’ve got a bill on this I wasn’t prepared. How often do you see people pushing themselves to do crazy things when they know they’re completely unprepared?
Laurence: Yes no mind you the 12 rules of survival are assuming you’ve already failed to obey that rule.
Laurence: You’re already in trouble. But the when in doubt bailout is extremely important and it’s just the opposite of what we’re evolved to do. I mean we’re evolved to just keep going forward. The earth is populated because of that, and in fact the system and the brain that governs that moving forward, which involved Dopamine and other neurotransmitters it’s just really hard to turn around. And the worse stress is on you the harder it is to make that decision.
So if you’re out in the woods and you’re hiking and you’ve been hiking a long time and you’re tired and dehydrated and pissed off and maybe a little half lost chances are you’re going to be worse at making that decision to bailout than otherwise. But once again we’re talking about training and thinking and being able to think clearly about what you’re doing. I know a fellow who was killed because of that impulse.
He was on a trail in New York State and was just really on a pretty easy hike, there was nothing difficult about it, and he realized he was running low on food and decided to take a shortcut and got turned around and just kept going. And by the time he realized what was going on he was so profoundly lost that he died out there.
SPP: I bet that happens more often than we would give credit to.
Laurence: It happens a lot. And so the advice that I give is be careful where you get lost. Search and rescue in the United States is a local matter, and in some places they’re a great search and rescue teams like Portland, Oregon. And in other places it’s handled by the State Police or something like that, the Sheriff’s Office is not very good. So this guy got lost in New York State where the State Police have search and rescue wrapped up and that they didn’t find him.
SPP: That’s a good lead into one of the things I wanted to talk about was in your book you discussed both staying out of trouble and what to do once you get into trouble, which is the survival aspect. And I guess we just touched on the staying out of trouble. I guess I then wanted to ask so once you’re there what have you found to be the best thing that you can do when you’re in these life or death situations? What kind of serves people the best?
Laurence: Again this goes to the 12 things that I list in the book. The first one is Perceive and Believe, which means don’t enter into denial. If something bad is happening you have to admit it before you can do anything about it. So that’s the first step.
The second step we already talked about a little which is Stay Calm. You have to calm your emotional response so that you can think clearly. And then you take the next step, which is to think, to analyze the plan, to get organized, to figure out what your resources are and figure out what you’re going to do with them. And then once you’ve figured that out and created a plan you have to actually do something. So taking action is the next step.
In long term survival situations, and I include here things like emanate corporate failures or nasty divorces or a battle with cancer, things like that also fit in with the same framework. And it’s one of the reasons that I deal with people in those situations all the time because these same principles apply.
So once you’ve taken that fourth step and you’ve done something, you’ve taken action based on your plan you should celebrate your own success. You should be breaking things down into small steps that you can say “Okay now I’ve achieved that.” And that does something very important, that makes you feel good and feeling good is part of being able to survive in any situation you have to have some positive emotions going forward.
The next thing is Count Your Blessings. Be grateful. One of the things that all survivors I interviewed tell me is that they felt a feeling of gratitude, even though they were in a bad situation that they were doing something and managing it, and that they were ultimately lucky.
Another thing that they all do is they Play. They turn some of the work they have to do into a game of some kind. They do things like counting steps. Like when Joe Simpson was trying to climb down from the mountain at first when he broke his leg he developed a little pattern. It was almost like a dance where he would hop and skip on one foot and then change his high fax with the other hand. So people do these things that are innately playful, let’s say.
Another step is See the Beauty. If you’re in a natural environment there’s something beautiful to focus on. In fat in any environment there’s going to be. And one of the things survivals do to keep their spirits up is they’re able to pay attention to that and again positive emotion is a very important thing. They also have this deep conviction that they’ll succeed. So they have this belief that they’re going to do this.
Another thing they do is it’s called Survival by Surrender. Basically they give up concern about failure. So Joe Simpson, to use that example again at one point, said “Well it’s pretty obvious that I’m going to die, but I’m still breathing and I still got both my hands, so I think I’ll just take the next step and try this.” And that attitude of like well I’ll probably fail but I’m going to keep going anyway, that really goes a long way to getting people out of trouble.
The 11th step is do whatever is necessary so have the will and skill. That means you practice something you had some skills in reserve, and you’re going to do it no matter what, you’re going to do the next thing.
And the last thing is Never Give Up. Once you’re in that life and death situation, whether it’s your business life, your social life, or your real life surprising how many people can just give up and stop trying. And so that’s the final step of just continuing on.
SPP: You know it’s funny because you mentioned that these survival steps can be applied to the business life and then relationships, and things of that sort. And after reading those 12 steps and hearing you talk about them it really is surprising how much you can apply that to any situation in life, especially with relationships because that first step of perceiving and believing what’s going on within that relationship. I mean that’s the hardest part for I think humans to get past or our brains to get past is believing what’s going on is actually going on.
Laurence: It’s really true. And I do a lot of speaking engagements and most of the speaking engagements are to big corporate group, like financial groups and big businesses and bankers, and people like that. Because they want to know how do you manage risk? And they’ve read “Deep Survival” and said “Oh man this is about decision making and risk taking. That’s what we do.” So it’s interesting how broadly this can be applied.
And I’ve even used these ideals like I got to clean the garage. How the heck am I going to do that? Well I’m just going to do it like the survival climbed down the mountain. I’m going to do it one step at a time.
SPP: It’s true. I mean you set those small goals and when you accomplish them you get that little jilt of joy I guess right.
Laurence: Yes. And as a writer I’ve experienced this too, because basically writing is really an odd behavior, it’s a strange throwback craft. You’ve got these 26 letters and you’re supposed to create the whole world out of 26 letters and you have to put them down one at a time, and it’s really inefficient. And yet people event books right, people like to write books. And I always look at it when I’m stymied I think. Okay well if I write one page a day that’s 365 pages in a year. So I know this can be done.
SPP: I was actually going to ask you if we could divert from your book real quick and just talk about the writing process for a second. Laurence: Yes.
SPP: I was very interested to see what your process was. Because I mean you mentioned doing the one page a day, but even though the one page a day thing is pretty tough to do how did you go about doing it? I mean how did you force yourself to sit down and where did you find yourself most efficient at doing writing?
Laurence: Well so a couple of things about “Deep Survival” in particular. One is that it represents an accumulation of knowledge over most of my lifetime because of going back through all these experiences that I had. And then I did several years of research reading about the actual cases that I talk about. There’s millions of them. And then in terms of the actual writing, which was the last year, I get up very early in the morning. I get up about 4:00 because it’s really quiet and the phone doesn’t ring. And I write as much as I can for that day. And usually something will happen that will disrupt it and I’ll have to go do something else.
SPP: Like this interview.
Laurence: Like an interview, like my mom needs to be taken to the doctor, whatever. Life goes on but it usually doesn’t go on at 4:00 in the morning, so I get a head start. And my process is not one page a day, although that’s a convenient way of thinking about it. I generally will write for as long as I can when I’m in that mode. The thing about writing, for me anyway, is it’s not difficult for me to write it’s difficult for me to figure out what it is I want to say. So the actual figuring out what I wanted to say took a very long time. And then once I started the physical writing act of “Deep Survival” it really only took about nine months I would say.
SPP: I know we’re getting short on time here. I did have one other question for you. As I mentioned, it’s funny I’d read a book awhile ago about survival and it was concrete advice. Like for example it said, when you get on a plane most people don’t pay attention; pay attention, look for the exits, look for your life vest and things like that.
And sure enough I swear the next plane I got on I reached underneath the seat for the life vest and it wasn’t there. And I pointed out to the flight attendant and she was shocked. She was like oh my God this never happens. That’s an example of a concrete action to take. What I wanted to ask you is it is possible to learn to be more resilient? Is it possible to build the mental fortitude? Because I think that’s why I learned about I want to believe that I’ll survive anything. I don’t know what it is I’m just like if a plane went down I’m going to be the guy that comes off.
SPP: So while speaking to you, and you’ve done all this research, how can I or anyone listening become more mentally strong in anything they approach?
Laurence: Well first of all I do believe that it’s possible to become more resilient and strong mentally. Because it’s in literature if you read about survivors of Nazi Concentration Camps you’ll see this, not in every one but in some people, that they become stronger. So since we’re not going to a Nazi Concentration Camp how do we do that in our day-to-day lives? We practice these things in trivial ways. They seem trivial but they’re actually developing habits of mind in us.
So for example, are you the kind of person who you got to get somewhere, you’re driving, you get stuck in traffic, what do you do? Do you pound on the steering wheel and scream at the guy in front of you and honk your horn or do you say “Well this is life in the city I might as well listen to some Braums on the radio or do something else useful with my time because I’m going to be sitting here with everybody else anyway.”
So it’s little things like that in your life where you can start to learn to behave more adaptively. You can start taking a measure of your own emotional response to things around you. You drop a glass and break it what do you do? So all of the negative things that happen in your daily trivial life, are things that you can begin training yourself to respond to with equanimity. So do you yell at your dog when your dog has an accident or runs away? These are not constructive ways of behaving.
So the more you can do that in trivial ways then when something a little bigger happens you’ll bounce back from it better. So if somebody steals your bicycle that’s a slightly larger event and you learn to just shrug it off, and so forth and so on, on up to the big stuff.
SPP: I mean not only is that great advice but it’s also good advice to make you a happier person in general because it’s so much easier to pull the negatives and yell at your dog, as opposed to taking the time and teaching the dog what he did wrong and training him to do it the right way. So I mean that’s excellent advice to our listeners.
And Laurence I wanted to thank you for coming on our show. You’re awesome. Your book is great “Deep Survival”. And I just wanted to ask you if you had any Web sites that you wanted to plug?
Laurence: Yes www.deepsurvival.com.
SPP: And also if you got anything coming up; www.deepsurvival.com.
SPP: Awesome. We’ll link that to our Web site. Best of luck to you. And thank you again for being on the show.
Laurence: Thank you for inviting me. It’s been fun.