THE 12 RULES OF SURVIVAL
By Laurence Gonzales
As a journalist, I've been writing about accidents for more than thirty
Years. In the last 15 or so years, I've concentrated on accidents in outdoor
Recreation, in an effort to understand who lives, who dies, and why. To my
Surprise, I found an eerie uniformity in the way people survive seemingly
Impossible circumstances. Decades and sometimes centuries apart, separated
By culture, geography, race, language, and tradition, the most successful
Survivors -- those who practice what I call "deep survival" -- go through
The same patterns of thought and behavior, the same transformation and
Spiritual discovery, in the course of keeping themselves alive. Not only
That but it doesn't seem to matter whether they are surviving being lost in
the wilderness or battling cancer, whether they're struggling through
divorce or facing a business catastrophe -- the strategies remain the same.
Survival should be thought of as a journey, a vision quest of the sort that
Native Americans have had as a rite of passage for thousands of years. Once
you're past the precipitating event -- you're cast away at sea or told you
have cancer -- you have been enrolled in one of the oldest schools in
history. Here are a few things I've learned that can help you pass the final
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. Panic doesn't necessarily mean screaming and running
Around. Often it means simply doing nothing. Survivors don't candy-coat the
Truth, but they also don't give in to hopelessness in the face of it.
Survivors see opportunity, even good, in their situation, however grim.
After the ordeal is over, people may be surprised to hear them say it was
the best thing that ever happened to them. Viktor Frankl, who spent three
years in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, describes comforting
a woman who was dying. She told him, "I am grateful that fate has hit me so
hard. In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments
The phases of the survival journey roughly parallel the five stages of death
Once described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her book On Death and Dying:
Denial, anger, bargaining, depr ession, and acceptance. In dire
circumstances, a survivor moves through those stages rapidly to acceptance
of his situation, then resolves to do something to save himself. Survival
depends on telling yourself, "Okay, I'm here. This is really happening. Now
I'm going to do the next right thing to get myself out." Whether you succeed
or not ultimately becomes irrelevant. It is in acting well -- even suffering
well -- that you give meaning to whatever life you have to live.
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
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
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 d ay.
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; there must be a higher
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 counter intuitive, 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. Even as Callahan's boat was sinking, he stopped to laugh at himself
as he clutched a knife in his teeth like a pirate while trying to get into
his life raft. And Viktor Frankl ordered some of his companions in Auschwitz
who were threatening to give up hope to force themselves to think of one
funny thing each day.
Survivors also use the intellect to stimulate, calm, and entertain the mind.
While moving across a near-vertical cliff face in Peru, Joe Simpson
developed a rhythmic pattern of placing his ax, plunging his other arm into
the snow face, and then making a frightening little hop with his good leg.
"I meticulously repeated the pattern," he wrote later. "I began to feel
detached from everything around me."
Singing, playing mind games, reciting poetry, counting anything, and doing
mathematical problems in your head can make waiting possible and even
pleasant, even while heightening perception and quieting fear. Stockdale
wrote, "The person who came into this experiment with reams of already
memorized poetry was the bearer of great gifts."
When Lance Armstrong was undergoing horrible chemotherapy, his mantra became
his blood count: "Those numbers became the highlight of each day; they were
my motivation.. . I would concentrate on that number, as if I could make the
counts by mentally willing it."
Lost in the Bolivian jungle, Yossi Ghinsberg reported, "When I found myself
feeling hopeless, I whispered my mantra, 'Man of action, ma n of action.' I
don't know where I had gotten the phrase... I repeated it over and over: A
man of action does whatever he must, isn't afraid, and doesn't worry."
Survivors engage their crisis almost as an athlete engages a sport. They
cling to talismans. They discover the sense of flow of the expert performer,
the "zone" in which emotion and thought balance each other in producing
fluid action. A playful approach to a critical situation also leads to
invention, and invention may lead to a new technique, strategy, or design
that could save you.
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 Lybian 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
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 f ills them with the power to go on. "During the final two days of
my entrapment," Ralston recalled, "I felt an increasing reserve of energy,
even though I had run out of food and water." Elder said, "I felt rested and
filled with a peculiar energy." And: "It was as if I had been granted an
unlimited supply of energy."
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:
The rhinoceros has no place to jab its horn,
The tiger has no place to fasten its claws,
Weapons have no place to admit their blades.
What is the reason for this?
Because on him there are no mortal spots.
11. Do Whatever Is Necessary
Elder down-climbed vertical ice and rock faces with no experience and no
equipment. In the black of night, Callahan dove into the flooded saloon of
his sinking boat, at once risking and saving his life. Aron Ralston cut off
his own arm to free himself. A cancer patient allows herself to be nearly
killed by chemotherapy in order to live.
Survivors have a reason to live and are willing to bet everything on
themselves. They have what psychologists call meta-knowledge: They know
their abilities and do not over or underestimate them. They believe that
anything is possible and act accordingly.
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, Ghinsberg -- 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.
Survivors always have a clear reason for going on. They keep their spirits
up by developing an alternate world, created from rich memories, into which
they can escape. They see opportunity in adversity. In the aftermath,
survivors learn from and are grateful for the experiences that they've had.
As Elder told me once, "I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. And
sometimes I even miss it. I miss the clarity of knowing exactly what you
have to do next."
Those who would survive the hazards of our world, whether at play or in
business or at war, through illness or financial calamity, will do so
through a journey of transformation. But that transcendent state doesn't
miraculously appear when it is needed. It wells up from a lifetime of
experiences, attitudes, and practices form one's personality, a core from
which the necessary strength is drawn. A survival experience is an
incomparable gift: It will tell you who you really are.
DEEP SURVIVAL: WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, AND WHY (Paperback)
By Laurence Gonzales
Paperback: 318 pages
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