This post contains my personal notes about the big ideas in Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. My book notes are different from many of the book summaries you’ll find on the web. Instead of following the structure of the book in question, we’ll isolate and examine the key ideas and themes that make the book useful. Enjoy!
At first blush, this book has absolutely nothing to do with business - it’s a book of wilderness survival stories. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find a wealth of principles that explain how human beings get into trouble… and how they survive the worst.
Here are 10 big ideas from Deep Survival.
1. Humans notice patterns in the world, simulate potential consequences, and make predictions about what will happen next - constantly and automatically.
The human mind is essentially a prediction machine. Every moment of every day, your brain is collecting information about the world around you. Your mind’s Pattern Matching capability isolates the important parts, and your capacity for Mental Simulation helps you figure out what to expect.
Our pattern matching and mental simulation capabilities evolved to keep us alive. The better we’re able to predict what’s next, the better we’re able to stay safe and take advantage of opportunities.
2. When our mental models don’t accurately reflect reality, we can suddenly find ourselves in big trouble.
Your mind’s ability to predict what happens next is limited: it’s only as good as the accuracy of the information you have and the patterns stored in your memory. If a fact is wrong, or a pattern is not quite accurate, you can find yourself in dire straights very quickly.
In business, even markets that have been solid for decades can experience sudden and extreme difficulties. Publishing was a stable and profitable business for hundreds of years - until it wasn’t. Housing prices always went up - until they didn’t.
3. You must train yourself to see what’s really happening and changing around you without freezing or denying the truth of the situation.
When the Environment around you changes, your mental models must change along with it. Failing to update your patterns and predictions can lead you to make disastrous decisions.
Unfortunately, Threat Lockdown makes us prone to freeze when we face the unexpected. Gonzales calls the situations that trigger threat lockdown the “Four Poisons of the Mind": Fear, Confusion, Hesitation, Surprise.
4. Always have a backup / failsafe /contingency plan.
Since we’re not omniscient, unexpected situations will always arise - some very good, some very bad. You never know when or where something bad will affect you, so it pays to be as prepared as possible in advance.
Fail-Safes and backup plans are invaluable. Having resources in reserve or a retreat/regroup option at the ready helps cover you in the event of disaster.
Here’s the catch - your fail-safes and backups have to be prepared in advance. If your computer hard drive crashes, it’s too late to look into backups. A little planning and preparation now can save you a world of hurt later.
5. Sunk costs can kill you - know when to walk away.
Sometimes, it’s not worth pushing a project to completion. If you’re a day’s climb from summiting Everest and a killer storm blows in, you’re better off descending… and living to climb another day.
It’s important to realize how difficult these decisions can be in the moment - and be emotionally prepared to make them. Sunk Costs kill because we’re emotionally invested in the result we’re seeking, so we throw caution to the wind and push forward. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Define your success criteria in advance, and if something critical changes, be prepared to walk away.
6. Learn enough about what you’re doing to recognize early warning signs.
Ignorance in certain fields is fatal. If you don’t know what’s important enough to be life-threatening, you can find yourself in a great deal of trouble.
For example, one of the biggest threats nature presents to humans is hypothermia: a life-threatening drop in body temperature. When you’re about to go for a hike, hypothermia is the last thing on your mind, particularly if it’s a pretty day.
If a mid-afternoon thunderstorm strikes, chilling winds and soaked cotton clothing can create hypothermic body temperature very quickly. A little advance preparation and knowledge can give you the foresight to do things to reduce the risk, like wearing wool instead of cotton and packing rain gear.
In the same way, what you don’t know about running a business can sink your venture. There are three primary causes of business failure: running out of Purchasing Power, financial insufficiency, and irreconcilable differences between business partners. If you’re not aware of these common issues, and how to prevent them, you increase the probability you’ll experience them accidentally.
A little knowledge can help you prevent these common mistakes. For example, books like Accounting Made Simple can help you understand your business financial records, while The Partnership Charter can help you think through the details of establishing a business relationship and agree on certain decisions before things get ugly.
7. Excitement can be more dangerous than fear - impulse control is critical.
Often, it’s the things that make us excited that present the greatest risks. Neurotransmitters called catecholamines are released whenever we notice something exciting - it’s the way our brain primes our body for action.
This neural response happens automatically, even if what we’re excited about isn’t a good idea. A vivid story in the book illustrates this point: a group of snowmobilers roared ahead when they saw a wide-open area of snow, even though they were rationally aware of an avalanche risk. Their excitement buried them.
Potential business opportunities and partnerships are exciting, and they prompt the same release of pleasurable neurotransmitters. Evaluating the direct and Counterparty Risks before signing on the dotted line is absolutely essential if you want to stay out of trouble.
I’ve found a mandatory waiting period (usually 48-72 hours) before committing to major decisions or projects a prudent strategy. It’s long enough to ensure you evaluate the risks dispassionately, but not so long that it stalls the deal.
8. When the going gets tough, keep calm and carry on.
When something unexpected or negative happens, Threat Lockdown is your worst enemy. Your first priority is to assess your current situation, and focus on keeping your wits about you.
Stop, think, observe, and plan. Keep yourself busy to avoid panic. Use Scenario Planning to consider your options, and Counterfactual Simulation to sanity test potential courses of action before you move forward.
9. Do everything you can to maximize your flexibility and resilience.
A little preparation goes a very long way. Knowledge, tools, and skills make you more able to withstand sudden changes, and more able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.
The more you prepare, the more resilient you become. Preparation, however, has an Opportunity Cost - spending too much is sub-optimal. The more basic skills, tools, and knowledge you possess, the better the probability of success.
10. Positive Mental Attitude is the key to survival.
No matter how bad things are, you must continue to have an unshakable faith that you’ll find a way to make things work. This isn’t a form of denial: you still need to accurately assess the current situation. Pretending things aren’t bad doesn’t help you.
"Positive Mental Attitude" is different - a belief in your ability to survive the situation, and a commitment to do whatever it takes to live to see another day. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fighting for your survival or trying to find a job after being laid off - having confidence in your ability to prevail makes an enormous difference.
Never give up on yourself, or give up hope that a solution will be found. You can handle this.