The Survivors Club

Sherwood, Ben. (2009). The Survivors Club.  New York: Grand Central Publishing.

The whole field of studying survival is called “human factors in survival.”  The question researchers are trying to answer is, “Why do some people live and others die?” Some people are able to find a way to survive the most difficult situations and some are not.  Why?  A question that occurs to me is how do adults in organizations survive?  What support systems help people survive?  How do some bounce back from adversity? And, how do we help kids survive the most difficult environments full of challenges mostly not under their control?

As I found out in this book, there is a lot we don’t control AND there are some things we can control.  So, survival and resilience is important to long-term health physically and emotionally.  There are many stories of difficult situations throughout this book.  I found it a good read and I learned some important strategies.

The first story was a grabber. A Knitting Needle Through the Heart. A woman fell and a knitting needle went through her chest.  First and foremost, should they try to pull it out? “No, don’t touch it. “It was pure instinct”:

  • She didn’t want anyone to go near the injury until she was at the hospital. Doctors would say later this was the first decision that helped save her life.
  • Waiting for the paramedics was a second lifesaving choice.
  • She needed to stay alive for Callie. (her daughter)

This made me think of the first rule of assessing any situation.  Honesty.  A ruthless assessment of reality.  “Denial is inactivity that prepares people well for the roles of victim and corpse.” This denial shows up in many of us and in organizations.  I have a three whine rule in my coaching and leading.  If you create options to solve problems with individuals and they keep returning without implementing any of the agreed upon suggestions three times, I assume they just want to complain and take no action.  If they return after trying a solution and it doesn’t work, that is different.  They have taken some affirmative step to find a way to solve the issue.

Another story that caught my attention was, The Mystery of the Unopened Parachutes. I don’t mind saying I am not going to intentionally jump out of an airplane.  The following two lessons were from skydiving. The two lessons researchers studied were:

  1. Situational Awareness- people forget where they are and the situation they are in.
  2. Brainlock – They freeze under pressure and can’t think. The focus narrows and the person can’t think of options.  I know I have worked with people like this and, at times, I have done the same thing. (true confession).

Two things can help under extreme pressure.

  1. Keep trying to solve problems no matter what happens. They refuse to quit and sometimes die trying to save themselves.
  2. The second type of person gives up quickly. They resign themselves and surrender.

Here are three survival lessons from authors Griffith and Hart for those of us who don’t jump out of airplanes.

  1. Try to relax. Some skydiving instructors have a special signal when they’re free falling with anxious students: They pat the top of their heads. It’s a sign to stay calm.
  2. Remember where you are. It may seem obvious, but situational awareness can mean the difference between life and death.
  3. Never give up. Many parachuting deaths could have been prevented if skydivers kept working on their problems.

Those three suggestions may help us as we navigate our own personal and professional challenges.

Another major learning for me in this book was the Theory of 10-80-10. In any emergency people divide into three categories.

  1. There are survivors who manage to save themselves.
  2. There are fatalities like the passengers on the Estonia, ocean liner, who never had a chance and died immediately when the waters came.
  3. There are victims who should have lived but perished unnecessarily.

A caveat:  Reality Principle. “There are times when you have no choice, you die. Full stop. It’s just the way it goes.” You may do everything right to save your life, but some crises simply aren’t survivable. They’re fatal from the outset. People didn’t do anything wrong. They lost the “cosmic coin toss.” It just wasn’t their day.

Theory of 10-80-10.

  1. Around 10 percent of us will handle a crisis in a relatively calm and rational state of mind. The top 10 percent are the survivors. Under duress, they pull themselves together quickly. They assess situations clearly. Their decision-making is sharp and focused. Psychologists call this process “splitting,”’ and it’s common among people who keep their cool under the greatest stress.
  2. Leach says the vast majority of us, around 80 percent, fall into the second band. In a crisis, most of us wind up “quite simply stunned and bewildered.” Our reasoning is significantly impaired and thinking is difficult. We’ll stare straight ahead. We’ll barely hear people around us. We’ll lose sense and sight of what’s going on around us. It’s okay—it’s not necessarily fatal—and it doesn’t last forever. The key is to recover quickly from brainlock or analysis paralysis, shake off the shock, and figure out what to do.
  3. The last group—the final 10 percent—is the one you definitely want to avoid in an emergency. Simply put, the members of the third band do the wrong thing. They behave inappropriately and often counterproductively They make the situation worse they freak out and can’t pull themselves together.

I am looking forward to applying the Theory of 10-80-10 to leaders and organizations I work with.

There is a story in the book about plane crashes and how to survive.  As a frequent flyer, I paid attention to this part of the book.

A quote: “It’s not the crash that kills most people, It’s what occurs after the crash during the fire and evacuation.” This reminds me of a quote I heard years ago, (I paraphrase) it’s not what happens to you, it is how you respond to what happens to you that determines what you learn.

I was struck by this Rule of 3. I think it has great application to life.

The Rule of 3 states that you cannot survive:

  • 3 seconds without spirit and hope
  • 3 minutes without air
  • 3 hours without shelter in extreme conditions
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food
  • 3 months without companionship or love

According to Helmreich, here are ten characteristics that accounted for success in life:

  1. flexibility
  2. assertiveness,
  3. tenacity
  4. optimism
  5. intelligence
  6. distancing ability
  7. group consciousness
  8. the ability to assimilate the knowledge of their survival
  9. the capacity to find meaning in life

Helmreich said, All of the Holocaust survivors shared some of these qualities, Only some of the survivors possessed all of them.

Here are some great questions you might ask yourself and others.

  • Which of these ten traits is the most important?
  • Which do you possess?
  • Which ones do the people you are working with have?
  • Which ones do you or others want to develop?

Helmreich continues, “The gift of intelligence, Thinking quickly. Brains accompanied by common sense.” This kind of basic intelligence is different from book smarts or IQ. It enables people quickly to size up situations, break down and analyze problems, and make good decisions.

Effort alone is seldom sufficient because of all the things that could go wrong. Mostly it is a mixture of effort and luck that is needed to be successful.

Here are some characteristics from Dr. Charney who studied the Stockdale Paradox and resilience models:

  1. Stay positive and hopeful while confronting reality.
  2. Find a resilient role model.
  3. Develop a moral compass and unbreakable beliefs. Resilient people find strength in God, and in ideals and principles greater than themselves,
  4. Practice altruism. By helping others, Dr. Charney says, you can help yourself feel better in tough times.
  5. Develop acceptance and cognitive flexibility, meaning the ability to learn and adapt your knowledge and thinking to new situations.
  6. Face your fears and learn to control negative emotions
  7. Build active coping skills to handle your problems.
  8. Establish a supportive social network to help you.
  9. Stay physically fit.
  10. Laugh as much as you can.

A hopeful message from Dr. Charney, “The greatest surprise of his career, he says is the “hidden capacity” of most people to rebound from adversity.”

I have heard this quote before. “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Nietzsche

Some of the above can be overwhelming. So I end this summary with a concept that gives me hope and a new focus for myself and others. It’s a little-known phenomenon that they named post traumatic growth. Dr. Calhoun believes that most people actually are transformed for the better from their battles with life’s toughest stuff.

Here are some statistics that were surprising to me. Survivors experience greater compassion and sympathy. Trauma isn’t purely negative and destructive: Growth through suffering is “an experience as old as humans.”

            The Surprise of the POWs – 61 percent of POWs reported “favorable” psychological changes after captivity, including a deeper understanding of themselves and others and a clearer sense of life’s priorities.

            Korean War, one quarter reported that they learned so much from the experience that they “would be willing to go through it again.”

            “Human beings aren’t as vulnerable as some people think.” Over the course of our lives, he goes on, between 70 to 75 percent of us experience major traumas and crises that are sufficient to trigger stress related disorders

            Only 8 to 12 percent of us experience symptoms of PTSD. That means more than 80 percent of us experience trauma but don’t suffer psychiatric disorders as a result. 

            Dr. Mitchell smiles and says: “A lot of people just don’t have enough faith in what they’re able to do.”

Are You a Survivor? A survival situation brings out the true, underlying personality. Our survival kit is inside us.  – Laurence Gonzalez

I’ll end this summary with the Survival Toolkit: Which ones do you have?

  • Adaptability – You’ve got the capacity to adjust readily to different situations and to change your attitude and behavior to handle new challenges. . Charles Darwin “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.
  • Resilience – An African proverb says the wind does not break a tree that bends. The Japanese say nana korobi yaoki: Fall down seven times, stand up eight.
  • Faith – You trust God to “fill the gap” between the challenges you face and what you’re capable of handling;
  • Hope – Dr. Groopman continues. “For those who have hope, it may help some live longer, and it will help all to live better.
  • Purpose – Viktor Frankl, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
  • Tenacity – Your tenacity is your superglue in the toughest times.
  • Love – Purpose—a survivor tool described earlier—is defined as a calling greater than yourself. For you, love is the ultimate purpose.
  • Empathy – It may seem counterintuitive, but in a crisis, your ability to help others turns out to be a very powerful way to help yourself.
  • Intelligence – Your intelligence is a powerful weapon against everyday adversity, too. You see complex and dangerous situations very clearly. You examine problems from all angles in search of realistic solutions.
  • Ingenuity – You are clever, inventive, and resourceful. The proper term for MacGyver’s gift is bricolage: the art of building things from whatever materials are available Swiss Army knife and duct tape, his two favorite tools for improvisation.
  • Flow – “the harder we try, the more complex our plan for reducing friction, the worse things get.” You understand the futility—and danger—of trying to control the uncontrollable. Facing a crisis, some fight and others flee, but you flow.
  • Instinct – Latin tuere: to guard, to protect. “You, too, are an expert at predicting violent behavior,” he writes. “Like every creature, you can know when you are in the presence of danger. You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.