Big Think Interview With Laurence Gonzales

A conversation with the author and survival expert.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Laurence Gonzales: My name is Laurence Gonzales, L-A-U-R-E-N-C-E G-O-N-Z-A-L-E-S.  I’m an author.

Question: How did you first get interested in survival?

Laurence Gonzales: Well the first time I became interested in survival, I was just a little kid and I was hearing stories about my father, who was a combat pilot in World War II, and I was realizing that for some reason he had survived and nine of the 10 in his crew had not survived.  And it started me wondering, why some people survive and some don’t.

Question: What have you learned through your research on survival?

Laurence Gonzales:  The most interesting thing, once I started studying actual cases of survivors is that search and rescue people would go out and they would find someone dead who was in possession of all the equipment he needed to survive and yet had hadn’t used it for some peculiar reason.  Conversely, they would find someone alive who they had expected to find dead, and this person would be in possession of none of the equipment they needed to survive.  And so the question became, what really was it inside these people that caused them to survive.  And that was the driving force behind my research was to see if we could find something out about that.

Question: What are the characteristics of a survivor?

Laurence Gonzales: What we found out was that the people who survived the best have certain particular qualities.  For example, they tend to be the ones who get the information about where they’re going, so they know something about what they’re doing.  It’s not a weekend warrior that happens onto the ski slope or onto the ocean.  These are people who like to be prepared.  There are people also who tend to be very persistent in what they do, they tend to be organized and be able to calm themselves in an extreme situation.  Once they are calm, they are able to formulate a plan.  They are able to organize things logically and take steps to help themselves. 

Interestingly enough, these people are also socially connected.  “I’ve talked to a lot of survivors who said that at the moment of truth, they said to themselves, I have to get back to see my son, or I couldn’t do this to my wife if I died, it would be horrible for her.  They always had some social connection back to the real world.  In other words, they had a motivation to get there. 

So this was a very important key.  And in the book, Deep Survival, I go through sort of 12 traits of good survivors that I go into a lot more depth with, but these are the types of things that we found generally.

Question: How long can we survive without food and water?

Laurence Gonzales: When you’re in a true survival situation, the survival schools will teach you that you can go three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food.  That’s kind of a rule of thumb.  And they’ll also teach you that basically, you’re training to survive for 72 hours.  They should be able to get to you and rescue you within that time.  The fact of the matter is most people who are going to die out there die within the first 24 to 48 hours.  This is an interesting phenomenon because, again, a lot of them have what they need to survive, and yet they don’t.  So there is definitely a phenomenon of giving up.  There are people who simply give up.  And it’s surprisingly easy to die out that if you give up.  So it’s very important to recognize what the outer limits are, but it’s also important to recognize that even though they say you can go without water for three days, there are cases where people have gone for nine days.  Anything’s possible.

Question: In all your research, which survival story stands out as the most unlikely or unusual?

Laurence Gonzales: There’d been a number of survival stories that have really surprised me because of how bizarre they were or unusual they were, or unlikely that the person was to survive.  One in particular involved a lady named, Debbie Kiley, who was on a ship that sank in a hurricane.  And she and a group amounting to five people were thrown into a small boat together on the ocean.  They had no water, they had no supplies at all, and they drifted for several days this way.  And it was very interesting because of how the people broke down into the various characters. 

Debbie Kiley was very determined, very organized, she was pretty wobbly at first, but she pulled herself together and with one other member of the crew was able to form a pact that they were going to stay together, help each other, watch each other when they slept and not drink sea water.  One member of the group was badly injured and was destined to die anyway. 

The two other members of the group, the Captain and the First mate, both were very wobbly from the start.  They really had no resolve and they began drinking sea water.  And after a time, first one of them said I’m going to the 7-11 to get some cigarettes, and he got over the side of the boat and swam away and was eaten by sharks.  And then the other one said, I’m going for a swim or something like that and he went over the side and was eaten by sharks.  And they could hear these people being eaten by sharks during this whole episode. 

So it kind of showed how really some people are destined not to make it from the very beginning.  One of the people who died, when the boat was sinking was screaming, “We’re all going to die!  We’re all going to die!”  And I always say that if that had been in a movie, that would have told you which character was going to die in the end. 

Question: What knowledge about survival could we use to deal with panic and challenging situations we confront on a daily basis?

Laurence Gonzales: One of the things that I found about Deep Survival is that people from all walks of life are interested in it because the principles apply in every day life and in business and every way you look, they apply.  The reason for that is because, at the heart, it’s about how you think and how you make decisions. The better you are able to stay calm and not panic, the better you are able to make good decisions.  Reason and emotion work like a seesaw, the higher the emotion, the lower your ability to reason.  So in a high state of stress, you literally can’t remember your own phone number.  So these things apply whether you’re losing your business, getting a divorce, being diagnosed with cancer.  All of these situations produce stress and so you have to learn to be calm and think clearly.

Question: Are there any techniques that can help people remain calm in the face of extraordinary situations?

Laurence Gonzales: The best way to put these things into practice is to put them into your daily life.  You can’t suddenly find yourself stranded on a mountain and say, now’s a good time to become a good survivor and learn how to be calm.  You have to be doing it day by day.  So if you find that you are the kind of people who, oh, let’s say you’re in a traffic jam and you find yourself pounding the steering wheel and screaming at the other drivers, this is not a good sign. 

You can begin to learn to approach life’s challenges calmly and think through logically what you should do, how can this benefit you?  This is another trait of survivors; they are always looking for opportunity even in adversity.  So when bad things happen, the real survivor is going to say, okay, I got it, this bad thing happened, now how can I turn that to my advantage, or how can I learn from this, and how can I come out the other end even better. 

Question: Is gut instinct more important than reason for survival?

Laurence Gonzales: One of the other things that survivors do is that they tend to find a good balance between their gut instincts and their ability to reason.  Sometimes people will go into a situation and they will get a feeling something’s not right here on this ski slope.  I don’t like the look of that mountain.  I’ve heard this from firefighters a lot, they approach a fire and they say, “You know?  There was something just – I didn’t like about it, I couldn’t say why.  We didn’t go in and then the house exploded.” 

Question: What should you do if you’re stranded in the wilderness?

Laurence Gonzales: The first thing that you should do when you find yourself lost in the wilderness is to sit down and calm yourself.  Usually finding out that you’re lost and it comes as a revelation is very shocking and it can cause panic.  The worst thing to do is to run around trying to find your way again.  The best thing to do is sit down.  If you have some food or water, have some food and water, and then examine everything you have, look at your resources and start thinking about making a plan.  That is the single most helpful thing you can do. 

Oftentimes people realized they are lost and they start running around trying to find their way and they hurt themselves.  Pretty soon they’re incapacitated and they wind up dying.

Question: How can we increase our chances of surviving airline crashes?

Laurence Gonzales: Many airline crashes are survivable and there are a number of things you can do to help make sure that you are one of the people who does survive.  First of all, you should wear closed shoes.  You shouldn’t wear open-toed shoes on airliner because you may be stepping on sharp stuff when you’re trying to get out of there.  The plane maybe on fire too, so you shouldn’t wear synthetic clothing, which will melt in exposure to heat. 

Whenever I get on an airliner, I count the number of rows between me and the window exits, and I notice where the other exits are too because the first thing you’re going to do is make your way to those exits.  And the other thing is simply to bring yourself to a state of calm where you can do simple things, like open your seatbelt to get out of the seat.  It sounds like anyone would do that but in fact, accident investigators have told me that they found people dead in their seats with their seat belts on after a survivable accident that the plane had filled with smoke and they hadn’t even unbuckled their seatbelts they had been so frozen with fright. 

So you need to kind of go through these things in your mind and be prepared to act if something happens.

Question: How should we prepare for and survive a terrorist bombing?

Laurence Gonzales: If you want to prepare for something like a terrorist bombing, there are certain things that you can do; there are certain things that you can’t do.  If you’re in the vicinity of a bomb that goes off, chances are, you’re not going to survive it.  But if you’re not and it simply does damage to your building, or sets it on fire, then it’s a very good idea to know exactly where you are going and to plan this before and perhaps even rehearsed it. 

Whenever I travel and I’m in a hotel, I go down the stairs on purpose, avoid the elevator and go down the stairs to see where the stairs are and what it’s like to go down there.  Because if you can imagine waking up, you know, with the building in flames at 3:00 in the morning and you’re groggy and you’re frightened and you think you know where you are, but you really don’t.  It’s a good idea to let your body know where that exit is and once you practice is once or even twice, you will know. 

Question: Why do we take risks?

Laurence Gonzales: If you think about the idea of risk, it’s very simple.  In order to do anything, you have to take a risk of some kind.  So if you’re a baby, you know, you have to stand up, risk falling down in order to learn to walk. 

Every time you eat something; you’re taking a risk of being poisoned.  You get married you risk divorce, you get a job you risk getting fired, everything’s a risk.  So how do you approach that? 

Well I like to tell people to do what’s called a risk/reward loop.  You ask, what is my goal, what am I trying to achieve?  And then you ask, what am I willing to pay for that?  So for example, if you’re going, oh let’s say, white water rafting, you say, well what am I trying to achieve?  Am I going to be the world champion?  Am I just out for the weekend?  Am I willing to die for this thrill?  And the more you do that the more likely you are to come up with some reasonable system of checks and balances on those extreme risks that you might take.  

If you’re just crossing an intersection for example, how much of a hurry are you in?  Are you willing to get a broken leg or a broken head to get across that intersection?

Question: Has your research given you any insight into the risk taking on Wall Street?

Laurence Gonzales: A lot of these principles of survival that I talk about can be easily applied to business and financial affairs and Wall Street.  And one of the things I frequently point out is that most people don’t do a good job of distinguishing between luck and skill.  If they do something and it works out to their benefit they say, “See how good I am?  I’m going to do it again.”  That’s the other thing that success does for you.  

Success tells you you’re doing the right thing and it tells you to do it again.  So on Wall Street before the recent recession, traders were rewarded for doing very stupid things.  And it was pure luck, it was pure chance of the circumstances that they were rewarded and they did it again and again and again because it rewarded them again, and again.  And nobody ever stopped to say, boy this is really stupid, but I think I’ll do it again.  The reward made them think it was smart and that they were skilled instead of just being the victims of chance.  And of course, finally when the luck ran out, everybody collapsed.