Skip to content

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

Jason Shen
Jason Shen
4 min read
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

In Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why journalist Laurence Gonzales combines his own personal adventure history with time spent with white water rafting experts, mountaineers, fighter jet pilots, and wilderness survival guides to understand how people survive (or fail to survive) in extreme wilderness situations like plane crashes, avalanches, and getting lost in the woods.

This is of course relevant to resilience in that the people who survive extreme wilderness events are by definition the ones who can adapt in the face of change and hardship. The book definitely isn’t for everyone—some readers find the author’s personal stories of skillful (and sometimes stupid) acts of survival grating, but overall I think it’s held up over time (the book was originally published in 2003)

We don't fully understand why some survive and others don't

Those who survive are just as baffling. I knew, for example, that an experienced hunter might perish while lost in the woods for a single night, whereas a four-year-old might survive. When five people are set adrift at sea and only two come back, what makes the difference?

Like hiring and dating, survival is more complicated than we care to admit. The ones who look like obvious winners don't always make it and vice-versa.

Survivors try to understand the world around them, especially when it's looking bad

The first rule is: Face reality. Good survivors aren’t immune to fear. They know what’s happening, and it does “scare the living shit out of” them. It’s all a question of what you do next.
Psychologists who study survivors of shipwrecks, plane crashes, natural disasters, and prison camps conclude that the most successful are open to the changing nature of their environment. They are curious to know what’s up.

To be a survivor, you can’t pretend things are ok when they’re not. People who are lost in the woods often trudge on, thinking they’re close to getting back on the trail instead of backtracking to safety. In the Resilience Rules framework, we call this “Confronting reality”.

2. Survivors think for themselves

Psychologists who study survival say that people who are rule followers don’t do as well as those who are of independent mind and spirit. When a patient is told that he has six months to live, he has two choices: to accept the news and die, or to rebel and live. People who survive cancer in the face of such a diagnosis are notorious. The medical staff observes that they are “bad patients,” unruly, troublesome. They don’t follow directions. They question everything. They’re annoying. They’re survivors.

Often the things that keeps survivors alive is being stubborn and willing to buck authority. Gonzales references workers trapped in the World Trade Center who got all the way to the ground floor and were turned by back the office staff (and complied) instead of just saying - fuck it, I’m getting out of this building. That unwillingness to disobey authority killed them.

Survivors are cautious

The practice of Zen teaches that it is impossible to add anything more to a cup that is already full. If you pour in more tea, it simply spills over and is wasted. The same is true of the mind. A closed attitude, an attitude that says, “I already know,” may cause you to miss important information. Zen teaches openness. Survival instructors refer to that quality of openness as “humility.” In my experience, elite performers, such as high-angle rescue professionals, who risk their lives to save others, have an exceptional balance of boldness and humility. So do astronauts.
We have a saying: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” That’s true in all hazardous pursuits.

If you take big risks on a regular basis, you will eventually strike out hard. And unlike in business, where bankruptcy laws (at least in the US) are fairly lenient, striking out in the wild means permanent damage or death. Gonzales makes the point that mistakes that would be merely an inconvenience in the human world (lost the charger for your phone - buy a new one) become catastrophic in wild (lost supplies cannot be replaced).

Survivors often focus most on helping others

That lesson was driven home again and again: Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you’re a rescuer, not a victim. And seeing how your leadership and skill buoy others up gives you more focus and energy to persevere. The cycle reinforces itself: You buoy them up, and their response buoys you up.
Count your blessings (be grateful—you’re alive). This is how survivors become rescuers instead of victims. There is always someone else they are helping more than themselves, even if that someone is not present.

One of the less intuitive lessons from Deep Survival was the importance of helping others. They have what Adam Grant would call the “Giver” mentality. By focusing on either helping those around you or those you wish to help back at home (your family, coworkers) survivors were less likely to give up and maintain a good spirit under trying conditions. Because a lot of the battle is just mental and not losing all hope. In the Resilience Rules framework we call this strategy “Give back"

Survivors "embrace the suck"

Surrender (let go of your fear of dying; “put away the pain”). Survivors manage pain well. Lauren Elder (chapter 13), who walked out of the Sierra Nevada after surviving a plane crash, wrote that she “stored away the information: My arm is broken.” That sort of thinking is what John Leach calls “resignation without giving up. It is survival by surrender.” Joe Simpson recognized that he would probably die. But it had ceased to bother him, and so he went ahead and crawled off the mountain anyway.

It's clearly unpleasant and often deeply agonizing to fight to stay alive under harsh conditions. But by surrendering to the desire for comfort, for ease, and embracing the struggle, survivors find a way to carry on.

Survivors find joy along the way

Celebrate your successes (take joy in completing tasks). Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. That is an important step in creating an ongoing feeling of motivation and preventing the descent into hopelessness. It also provides relief from the unspeakable stress of a true survival situation.

Finding food or water while lost in the woods can be a moment for celebration, even if you’re not any closer to being found. You still have chanced on additional resources that will keep you alive. No matter how bad the situation is, any improvement or progress can be a reason to take joy. In the Resilience Rules framework we call this “Celebrate every step”

ArticlesBook Notes

Jason Shen

Human(e) technologist on a mission to help build resilient teams and organizations. Former NCAA gymnast and three-time startup founder.