Book Review: “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales

The Jason Bourne Book Club is a selected reading list for the Bourne-in-training, covering diverse topics of interest to the covert anti-heroes living among us.

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales is an examination of what it takes to survive a traumatic near-death events, and the characteristics that separate the survivors from the dead. Through plane crashes, mountain climbing accidents, river drownings, or people being cast adrift in the middle of the ocean in a tiny raft, Gonzales digs into the psychology and actions that can help even inexperienced adventurers survive. Sadly, the opposite is true – even experienced, well-equipped wanderers die when they forget the basics.

If nothing else, this book is an examination of acute and medium-term stress and its effect on decision making.  When a true life-or-death situation arises, those that survive are typically those that can separate the academic from the actual – the type of distinction which Nassim Taleb might describe as a “ludic fallacy”.  The survivor typically abandons their pre-conceived notion of how survival “should” work in favor of looking at the world around them, taking stock of supplies, physical and mental  condition, and making a plan for definite action.

Admiral James Stockdale described the attitude of the long-term prisoner of war who typically did not survive – the eternal optimist. When conditions got tough, they would reframe their expectations for rescue to “Easter” or “We’ll be home by Christmas”. When eventually their chosen date passed without rescue, their spirit was broken, never to return. In the same way, the most dangerous attribute in a survival situation is this sliding window of optimism. The hiker who expects to see a lake comes across a small creek and reframes it as an offshoot of the lake they expect, or a little hill to the north for the mountain they should see in the east. They continue following these invented signs until they’re thoroughly and irrevocably lost.

This fatal path is an evil offspring of unrealistic optimism and the sunk cost fallacy. The action that could save them is to admit they’re lost, backtrack to a known point and either return to their start point or reorient. It’s also a common trend among unsuccessful startup founders.

In emergent situations beyond the adventurer’s control, such as Steve Callahan’s account of being lost at sea, basic preparedness and the attitude of the survivor makes all the difference.  Callahan pretty quickly decided that he wasn’t going to be rescued, and had to make his way to land on his own power.  This common thread of constant positive self-talk repeats through most of the survivors’ stories, which is essential to focus the mind on prioritisation. Also common is continual work – whether it’s repairing gear, collecting firewood, or journalling progress, their time is spent on activities that improve their situation. A large percentage of those who died simply gave up.

Deep Survival isn’t the book to pick for tips on how to create a snare or build a fire, but it has possibly far more practical use in that it will allow you to recognise the warning signs at the intersection of optimism, ego, and attitude that can result in disaster. Highly recommended, I I read this in one sitting.