Check out his full August 2008 column (excerpted below) at National Geographic Adventure. You can read the whole article by clicking on the title below.
Most survival guides fail to consider some very useful tools: an individual’s character, wits, and worldview. The tips assembled here will change the way you approach each and every day—and help you survive a particularly bad one.
Text by Laurence Gonzales
Photograph by Dan Saelinger
Long ago I believed that survival meant having a pack full of equipment that would allow me to make fire and build shelter and trap varmints to eat in the wilderness. But then I kept coming across cases in which someone had survived without any equipment or had perished while in possession of all the right tools. Obviously something else was at work here. After more than three decades of analyzing who lives, who dies, and why, I realized that character, emotion, personality, styles of thinking, and ways of viewing the world had more to do with how well people cope with adversity than any type of equipment or training. Although I still believe that equipment and training are good to have, most survival writing leaves out the essential human element in the equation. That’s why I’ve concentrated my efforts on learning about the hearts and minds of survivors. You can start developing these tools of survival now. It takes time and deliberate practice to change. But new research shows that if we adjust our everyday routines even slightly, we do indeed change. The chemical makeup of the brain even shifts. To make these lessons useful, you have to engage in learning long before you need it—it’s too late when you’re in the middle of a crisis. Presented here are 14 concepts that have proved helpful to survivors in extreme situations, as well as to people trying to meet the challenges of daily life.
1. Do the Next Right Thing
"Debriefings of survivors show repeatedly that they possess the capacity to break down the event they are faced with into small, manageable tasks," writes John Leach, a psychology professor at Lancaster University who has conducted some of the only research on the mental, emotional, and psychological elements of survival. "Each step, each chunk must be as simple as possible.... Simple directed action is the key to regaining normal psychological functioning." This approach can sometimes seem counterintuitive. And yet almost any organized action can help you recover the ability to think clearly and aid in your survival. For example, Pvt. Giles McCoy was aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis when it was torpedoed and sank at the end of World War II, tossing some 900 men into the black of night and the shark-infested Pacific. McCoy, a young Marine, was sucked under the boat and nearly drowned. He surfaced into a two-inch-thick slick of fuel oil, which soaked his life vest and kept him from swimming—although he could see a life raft, he couldn’t reach it. So he tore off his vest and swam underwater, surfacing now and then, gasping, swallowing oil, and vomiting. After getting hoisted onto the raft, he saw a group of miserable young sailors covered in oil and retching. One was "so badly burned that the skin was stripped from his arms," Doug Stanton writes in his gripping account of the event, In Harm’s Way. McCoy’s response to this horrific situation was telling. "He resolved to take action: He would clean his pistol." Irrelevant as that task may sound, it was exactly the right thing to do: organized, directed action. He made each one of the sailors hold a piece of the pistol as he disassembled it. This began the process of letting him think clearly. Forcing your brain to think sequentially—in times of crisis and in day-to-day life—can quiet dangerous emotions.