By Ben Sherwood
By Ben Sherwood
Why do some people escape airplane crashes while others don’t? Why do some people bounce back from bankruptcy while others never recover? Why do some men and women overcome terrifying medical diagnoses while others give up hope and perish?
For the past few years, I've explored the secrets of the world's most effective survivors and thrivers while researching and writing The Survivors Club. I met people slammed by life who managed to recover, repair and rebuild. What are some of the personal qualities that make the biggest difference in survival situations? And what strengths should you try to muster when you face a crisis?
What follows are the top five strengths you need in your crisis tool kit:
Hold Fast. Along with inked etchings of anchors and knots, hold fast is one of the most popular sailor tattoos. Seamen ink the eight letters on their arms or knuckles. When they tie down lines (a.k.a. ropes) and work the riggings, they're reminded of these two essential words. Holding fast is a fundamental mindset in the merchant marine. It means being strong and never letting go.
In survival, holding fast is synonymous with tenacity, the capacity to keep going and never give up. In Vietnam, American POWs shared a similar mantra. "Steady strain" was the phrase they whispered to each other or tapped in code. No matter the torture and beatings, the POWs urged each other to shoulder the strain with steadiness and stoicism. Above all, they knew the dangers of getting too high and or getting too low. Steady strain meant finding a middle ground and holding on.
The Fighting Spirit. No matter the odds, the most effective survivors keep fighting and never give up. Remember the story in April 2009 of Capt. Richard Phillips who was held hostage by Somali pirates in a little dinghy? Phillips embodied the fighting spirit. For starters, he was a flinty New Englander from Vermont. He was also a 20-year veteran of the merchant marine with a reputation for intensity on the high seas. He's also an aggressive athlete and competitor who broke his neck diving for a catch in a pickup football game.
Capt. Phillips demonstrated the fighting spirit by trying to escape his captors. He reportedly jumped into the ocean and tried to swim for the nearby USS Bainbridge. One of the pirates opened fire with an automatic weapon and Phillips was pulled back onto the lifeboat where he was bound and beaten.
Realistic Optimism. A positive mental attitude is an incredibly important part of survival, but a naïve or foolhardy attitude can be dangerous. It's a phenomenon known as the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American prisoner of war in Vietnam. In the POW camps, optimists were the first to die, Stockdale told author Jim Collins in his bestselling book Good to Great. Optimists were always hoping to be released at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but were crushed when those holidays passed and they were still imprisoned. They couldn't stand the disappointment and gave up fighting, Stockdale said. Soon after, they died.
The Power of Purpose. Back to the example of Capt. Phillips, who offered himself as a hostage when pirates first stormed his ship, the Maersk Alabama. From the very start, he was ready to sacrifice himself for his crew and his ship. Many of the world's best survivors and thrivers possess a sense of purpose or a calling greater than themselves. They're driven by a larger mission. And they're capable of enduring tremendous hardship.
The Power of Faith. Religious belief is an incredibly powerful and universal survival tool. Some 80 percent of the survivors I interviewed around the world expressed the conviction that God had somehow guided or delivered them from their trials. Of course, there is no proof for this kind of belief. That’s why it’s called faith. And without a doubt, faith makes a profound difference in the toughest situations.
Beyond religion, there are other kinds of faith too. For instance, there is faith in one's country and the conviction that its leaders (and armed forces) will do everything possible to save your life. This conviction proved very important to the survival of the POWs in Vietnam.
Of all the lessons I learned about survival, here’s the most important. Some challenges are truly and absolutely out of your control. A devastating earthquake in Haiti. A colossal tsunami in the Indian Ocean. A high-speed car crash. A terminal cancer diagnosis. We all know that some crises simply aren’t survivable. Some people lose the cosmic roll of the dice, as one survival expert calls it. But if you’re still standing after you-know-what hits the fan, your life and future are very much in your hands. Survival is learnable. It’s a constant process of anticipating twists and turns on the road ahead and steering yourself to safety. I’m not recommending paranoia or stashing canned goods and flares in your jeans pockets. Hysteria and panic will only make things worse.
Instead, I’m recommending that you master the Survivor Three-Step:
1. Recognize that bad things don’t just happen to other people.
2. Create Plan A and Plan B (because Plan A never works out).
3. Stay alert and vigilant.
If you learn to dance the Survivor Three-Step, I venture that you’ll feel more confident and capable whenever crisis comes. That’s the ultimate truth about The Survivors Club. Eventually, we will all be challenged. It’s your choice if you want to be prepared and save your life and family.
# # #
Ben Sherwood is the author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, a New York Times bestseller. An award-winning journalist and former executive producer of ABC’s Good Morning America, he is the founder and CEO of TheSurvivorsClub.org, an online resource center for people facing every kind of adversity.