A Survival Mindset

Plane Crash - Photo by Lennart Heim on Unsplash

Our mental state may not be at the top of the things we consider when thinking about Bushcraft and Survival; but in extreme circumstances can be the difference between life and death. I’m going to highlight two stories I found particularly relevant, The Stockdale Paradox & Juliane Koepcke – stick with me, I have a point.

The Stockdale Paradox is named after James Stockdale, who was a United States Vice Admiral and the most senior member of the US armed forces to be shot down and captured during the Vietnam War. The term was coined by Jim Collins, a business management researcher and author of books such as “Good to Great”, after he interviewed Stockdale.

The Stockdale Paradox:
James C. Collins related a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp. When Collinasked, who didn’t make it out of those systemic circumstances as well as he had, Stockdale replied: “The optimists. Yes. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.” Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and he said, “This is what I learned from those years in the prison camp, where all those constraints just were oppressive. You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.” Collins called this the Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox has been on my mind since we first got the strong hint in February 2020 that it was only a matter of time before our lives changed, perhaps forever. This story together with the story of Juliane Koepcke resonated with me as an area of bushcraft and survival we often overlook when developing our own skills and one relevant to the ever-changing situation we find ourselves in now.  So, what’s the story with Juliane Koepcke? Well, the full story is detailed in her book ‘When I fell from the sky’ but as an overview…. 

During a flight to Pucallpa, Peru the commercial airliner Koepcke was in was struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm and broke-up in mid-air, disintegrating 2.0 miles above the ground. Koepcke, still strapped onto her seat, survived the fall to earth, suffering a broken collarbone and several other injuries. Koepcke’s first priority was to find her mother, who had been seated next to her, but her search proved unsuccessful. She would later learn that her mother initially had survived the crash but died of her injuries several days later. 

Surviving on food she found at the crash site, Koepcke waded downstream through knee-high water, as her father had taught her that tracking downstream should eventually lead to civilization. After ten days, she found a boat moored near a small shelter. She poured gasoline from the fuel tank on her wounds to clear them of maggots and spent the night in the shelter. Koepcke didn’t want to take the boat because she didn’t want to steal it. The next morning, a small group of local fishermen discovered her and brought her to their village. The following day, a local pilot volunteered to fly her to a hospital in Pucallpa, where she was reunited with her father.  

It’s worth pointing out the line “her father had taught her that tracking downstream should eventually lead to civilization” this hints at the survival training her father had given her. What fascinates me about this story, is that fourteen other passengers also survived the initial crash but only Juliane made it out alive. What did she have that helped her survive? 

The first is probably obvious, she had training. She had developed some skills (perhaps not regularly used them) and was able to call on these to help her survive 10 days in the jungle. The second is less obvious and linked to the Stockdale Paradox. Her mindset. – Juliane was realistic about the situation she found herself in and was able to recover from the shock of the initial crash. She recognised that her chances of being discovered by staying near the downed plane was limited, due to the dense jungle canopy. She then took the decision to then do something about a situation she could not change (being in a plane crash) and alone set out to try and improve her situation, and eventually survived.  

This for me is the fundamental lesson we can all take away from these stories. Be realistic about the situation you find yourself in, recognise those elements that you cannot control and work out the things you are in control of to better the situation. Whether it be in an extreme situation or in our day to day lives, we can all learn from this and improving our own skills through courses, reading and practice wouldn’t do any harm either.  If you’re interested in this story and others, as well as the additional stages to developing your survival mindset, I would recommend John Hudson’s book ‘How to survive’ and ‘Deep survival’ by Laurence Gonzales.

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