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Big Think Interview With Laurence Gonzales
Laurence Gonzales won the 2001 and 2002 National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors for National Geographic Adventure Magazine. Since 1970, his essays have appeared in such periodicals as Harper's, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal, National Geographic Adventure, Smithsonian Air and Space, Chicago Magazine, San Francisco Magazine, and many others.
He has published a dozen books, including two award–winning collections of essays, three novels, and the book–length essay, One Zero Charlie published by Simon & Schuster. His latest book, Everyday Survival, published by W.W. Norton & Company, is available at book sellers now. His previous book, Deep Survival, is now out in paperback.
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.
A conversation with the author and survival expert.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
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Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.
Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
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- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
These new status behaviours are what one expert calls 'inconspicuous consumption'.