1. Perceive and Believe: Don’t fall into the deadly trap of denial or of immobilizing fear. Admit it: You’re really in trouble and you’re going to have to get yourself out. Many people who in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, died simply because they told themselves that everything was going to be all right. Others panicked.
2. Stay Calm – Use Your Anger: In the initial crisis, survivors are not ruled by fear; instead, they make use of it. Their fear often feels like (and turns into) anger, which motivates them and makes them feel sharper. Aron Ralston, the hiker who had to cut off his hand to free himself from a stone that had trapped him in a slot canyon in Utah, initially panicked and began slamming himself over and over against the boulder that had caught his hand. But very quickly, he stopped himself, did some deep breathing, and began thinking about his options. He eventually spent five days progressing through the stages necessary to convince him of what decisive action he had to take to save his own life. When Lance Armstrong, six-time winner of the Tour de France, awoke from brain surgery for his cancer, he first felt gratitude. “But then I felt a second wave, of anger… I was alive, and I was mad.” When friends asked him how he was doing, he responded, “I’m doing great… I like it like this. I like the odds stacked against me… I don’t know any other way.” That’s survivor thinking. Survivors also manage pain well. As a bike racer, Armstrong had had long training in enduring pain, even learning to love it. James Stockdale, a fighter pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and spent eight years in the Hanoi Hilton, as his prison camp was known, advised those who would learn to survive: “One should include a course of familiarization with pain. You have to practice hurting. There is no question about it.”
3. Think, Analyze, and Plan: Survivors quickly organize, set up routines, and institute discipline. When Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, he organized his fight against it the way he would organize his training for a race. He read everything he could about it, put himself on a training schedule, and put together a team from among friends, family, and doctors to support his efforts. Such conscious, organized effort in the face of grave danger requires a split between reason and emotion in which reason gives direction and emotion provides the power source. Survivors often report experiencing reason as an audible “voice.” Steve Callahan, a sailor and boat designer, was rammed by a whale and sunk while on a solo voyage in 1982. Adrift in the Atlantic for 76 days in a five-and-a-half-foot raft, he experienced his survival voyage as taking place under the command of a “captain,” who gave him his orders and kept him on his water ration, even as his own mutinous (emotional) spirit complained. His captain routinely lectured “the crew.” Thus under strict control, he was able to push away thoughts that his situation was hopeless and take the necessary first steps of the survival journey: to think clearly, analyze his situation, and formulate a plan.
4. Take Correct, Decisive Action: Survivors are willing to take risks to save themselves and others. But they are simultaneously bold and cautious in what they will do. Lauren Elder was the only survivor of a light plane crash in high sierra. Stranded on a peak above 12,000 feet, one arm broken, she could see the San Joaquin Valley in California below, but a vast wilderness and sheer and icy cliffs separated her from it. Wearing a wrap-around skirt and blouse, with two-inch heeled boots and not even wearing underwear, she crawled “on all fours, doing a kind of sideways spiderwalk,” as she put it later, “balancing myself on the ice crust, punching through it with my hands and feet.” She had 36 hours of climbing ahead of her– a seemingly impossible task. But Elder allowed herself to think only as far as the next big rock. Survivors break down large jobs into small, manageable tasks. They set attainable goals and develop short-term plans to reach them. They are meticulous about doing those tasks well. Elder tested each hold before moving forward and stopped frequently to rest. They make very few mistakes. They handle what is within their power to deal with from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day.
5. Celebrate your success: Survivors take great joy from even their smallest successes. This helps keep motivation high and prevents a lethal plunge into hopelessness. It also provides relief from the unspeakable strain of a life-threatening situation. Elder said that once she had completed her descent of the first pitch, she looked up at the impossibly steep slope and thought, “Look what you’ve done…Exhilarated, I gave a whoop that echoed down the silent pass.” Even with a broken arm, joy was Elder’s constant companion. A good survivor always tells herself: count your blessings– you’re alive. Viktor Frankl wrote of how he felt at times in Auschwitz: “How content we were; happy in spite of everything.”
6. Be a Rescuer, Not a Victim: Survivors are always doing what they do for someone else, even if that someone is thousands of miles away. There are numerous strategies for doing this. When Antoine Saint-Exupery was stranded in the Lybian desert after his mail plane suffered an engine failure, he thought of how his wife would suffer if he gave up and didn’t return. Yossi Ghinsberg, a young Israeli hiker, was lost in the Bolivian jungle for more than two weeks after becoming separated from his friends. He hallucinated a beautiful companion with whom he slept each night as he traveled. Everything he did, he did for her. People cannot survive for themselves alone; their must be a higher motive. Viktor Frankl put it this way: “Don’t aim at success– the more you aim at it and make it a target,the more you are going to miss it.” He suggests taking it as “the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
7. Enjoy the Survival Journey: It may seem counterintuitive, but even in the worst circumstances, survivors find something to enjoy, some way to play and laugh. Survival can be tedious, and waiting itself is an art. Elder found herself laughing out loud when she started to worry that someone might see up her skirt as she climbed.
8. See the Beauty: Survivors are attuned to the wonder of their world, especially in the face of mortal danger. The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, opens the senses to the environment. (When you see something beautiful, your pupils actually dilate.) Debbie Kiley and four others were adrift in the Atlantic after their boat sank in a hurricane in 1982. They had no supplies, no water, and would die without rescue. Two of the crew members drank sea water and went mad. When one of them jumped overboard and was being eaten by sharks directly under their dinghy, Kiley felt as if she, too, were going mad, and told herself, “Focus on the sky, on the beauty there.” When Saint-Exupery’s plane went down in the Libyan Desert, he was certain that he was doomed, but he carried on in this spirit: “Here we are, condemned to death, and still the certainty of dying cannot compare with the pleasure I am feeling. The joy I take from this half an orange which I am holding in my hand is one of the greatest joys I have ever known.” At no time did he stop to bemoan his fate, or if he did, it was only to laugh at himself.
9. Believe That You Will Succeed: It is at this point, following what I call “the vision,” that the survivor’s will to live becomes firmly fixed. Fear of dying falls away, and a new strength fills them with the power to go on.
10. Surrender: Yes you might die. In fact, you will die– we all do. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be today. Don’t let it worry you. Forget about rescue. Everything you need is inside you already. Dougal Robertson, a sailor who was cast away at sea for thirty-eight days after his boat sank, advised thinking of survival this way: “Rescue will come as a welcome interruption of… the survival voyage.” One survival psychologist calls that “resignation without giving up. It is survival by surrender.” Simpson reported, “I would probably die out there amid those boulders. The thought didn’t alarm me… the horror of dying no longer affected me.” The Tao Te Ching explains how this surrender leads to survival:
12. Never Give Up: When Apollo 13′s oxygen tank exploded, apparently dooming the crew, Commander Jim Lovell chose to keep on transmitting whatever data he could back to mission control, even as they burned up on re-entry. Simpson, Elder, Callahan, Kiley, Stockdale, Ginsberg– were all equally determined and knew this final truth: If you’re still alive, there is always one more thing that you can do. Survivors are not easily discouraged by setbacks. They accept that the environment is constantly changing and know that they must adapt. When they fall, they pick themselves up and start the entire process over again, breaking it down into manageable bits.