Getting Lost and Bending the Map

It’s summertime, and a nice time to immerse in a good book. It turns out that any book outside of our realm of work, particularly fiction, is valuable to our mental flexibility and creativity.

This past weekend I read Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival: Who Live, Who Dies, and Why. The book is studying the traits and behaviors of those who manage to survive calamities – plane crashes, lost-at-sea epics, mountain climbing disasters … – yet there is a strong metaphor for the types of behaviors among organizational leaders which allow them to rise up, with resilience, and survive economic and market storms, or maybe just company politics.

Maybe something goes wrong in a product roll-out. Like the introduction of Febreze, in which P&G banked on a market bonanza based on their unique and proprietary product, which they were certain would be a success. Then Febreze bombed. The folks at P&G created a new playbook which resurrected Febreze and made it the $1 billion dollar brand it is today. Their marketing and development group brought Febreze back from the brink of product extinction. But it doesn’t always go that way.

Gonzales identifies five stages survivors typically go through before turning the corner and building an action plan that allows survival:

  1. Denial – the first instinct people have is to deny the position they are in and stick with the mental maps they have built in the planning and early execution phases.  We each have a mental map we are following and if things don’t go to plan, we ‘bend the map.’  That is: re-create was is actually happening to fit into the mental construct we created originally. We deny the realities emerging around us, and instead reframe what is happening to match the original plan.
  2. Panic – Truth starts to set in, but there is no plan B. This is the stage in which people typically succumb to the rising sense of panic within and exhaust energy and resources.  People lost will often sprint to false peaks, dash in directions that fit the map they have ‘bent’ in their head.  The beginning of the end can start here if disastrously they break a leg, lose food, abondon gear, etc…Those in the late stages of critical hypothermia will often take off their clothes, falsely believing they are too hot.
  3. Adherence to an invented plan – what happens next is people create self-imposed rules.  Conditions changed, they feel isolated and try to create predictable rules to follow. The problem is, often these self-imposed rules are created in a vacuum. You are already on the precipice of disaster and the rules created have less to do with actual environmental circumstances, and more to do with creating a false sense of control. He cites the example of a firefighter lost in the Tetons who won’t make a fire to generate warmth and dry his clothes because open fires are banned in the National Park.  Or the example of 11 survivors of a plane crash who believe, falsely, that help will find them if they stay put.  A seventeen year old girl separated during the crash knows no such group-think and follows her instincts to civilization.  At this point, there clearly is no ‘plan’ and it’s the inventive and creative who figure novel ways to adapt and survive.
  4. Deterioration – by this point those lost are desperate and have squandered valuable resources and can lose the ability and willingness to make gainful efforts to survive, find help, and build strength.
  5. Resignation – finally once options are depleted the lost can lose resolve and will.  Those that survive at this point are often carried forth by the draw of someone waiting: a loved one, or an unrealized dream. If you have read Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand, Louie survives the Japanese prison camps, in part, for his deep love and longing to be reunited with family and friends back home.

Fantastically, often when people are lost in the wilderness very few will retrace known steps back to the car or point of departure even when the path they took is clearly understood.  Even when we know the five mile path back where we came from will lead to the car, we think, “just up ahead, around the next bend or over that river, there must be a shortcut back to the car.”

Interestingly, those who possess great survival instincts typically early on in the dilemma show very sharp mental acuity – Steve Callahan‘s boat sank abruptly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, at night, with no warning, and yet in the first minutes he quickly gathered survival gear, deployed his lifeboat, and took a second to marvel at the clarity of the stars and the weather.  Steve even found humor to offset the deluge of panic rising. All in less than a couple minutes. Awoken from a dead sleep. In the dark.

Possibly above all other attributes including ingenuity, clarity, focus, etc… Gonzales points to Resolve as the defining characteristic of survivors.

The following quote from the book is taken from Joe Simpson’s account of descending Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with his partner Simon Yates. Simpson suffers a broken leg and slides over a cliff into a crevasse. Believing his partner to be beyond reach and dead, Yates abandons his partner.

“Still hanging on his rope, Simpson began to experience a sense of wonder and even joy at his environment, that same spiritual and mystical transformation reported by many other survivors. It is always followed by a certainty of survival and a renewed commitment. With dawn came light, and with light came revelation: ‘A pillar of gold light beamed diagonally from a small hole in the roof, spraying bright reflections off the far wall of the crevasse. I was mesmerized by this beam of sunlight burning through the vaulted ceiling from the real world outside… I was going to reach that sunbeam. I knew it then with absolute certainty.”