This Christmas brought another pile of coveted books to my library. One of them was “Survive the Savage Sea” by Dougal Robertson. I had seen the film and wanted to delve into a more comprehensive account. It took me one sitting to plough through the 200+ pages. I realised when I finished that books about “survival” fascinated me. Tales of hardship against the most extreme odds, most limited resources, and non-existent contingencies situations were far more compelling and relevant to the daily cut-and-thrust of business than most business guru BS . I think these memoires have much more relevant insight to offer business executives than the stacks of dross littering to the business section.
Conventional business books tend to take two forms…
- Lottery Memoires – Anecdotal reflections of some company founder who hit it big. History is written by the victors and usually these are the same old self-congratulatory santisations.
- Ivory Tower Treatises – Academics assembling a catalogue of regurgitated constructs and concepts.
Like Geoffrey James, I’ve never gotten much out business books, though I confess to having had a go at Jim Collins (who is one of the best of the lottery chroniclers) and Clay Christiensen (who is one of the best ivory tower analysts). Both of these styles focus too heavily on the “upside”. So much so that they really start to become executive fairy tales. Heroic stories or sacred treasure maps recounting the path to hidden business gold.
The survival stories I’m referring to are not the contrived gentlemen’s adventures like Ranuph Fienes or charity expeditions where people are well resourced and have strong back-ups. Just add some grit and, voila, mission achieved. Supposedly they are all life-threatening to the extreme, but most of the time these publicity heavy charity stunts are little more dangerous than driving to the local store.
No, what I am intrigued by are those adventures where circumstances have surprised the heroes. Most businesses are as much about surviving as thriving.
My reading list of gems include…
- Touching the Void
- 127 Hours
- The White Spider
- Ocean Lifeboat
- 117 Days Adrift
- Survive the Savage Sea
- Ninety Degrees North
- Some Like It Cold
And the video clip above has its own ‘Top Ten True Survival Stories’ list with a few repeats and often distinctive by lack of Hollywood-endings (because real life doesn’t always work out in the end)…
- 127 Hours
- Into the Wild
- Touching the Void
- Rescue Dawn
- Rabbit-Proof Fence
- The Way Back
- The Perfect Storm
- White Squall
- Open Water
All of these stories share a few common themes…
- Surprise – These problems haven’t been planned for and prepped. These are outliers catastrophes beyond the most diligent anticipation. A nod to Taleb’s admonition of “Black Swans”
- Resourcefulness – The creativity that is unleashed in the desperation of these hero’s plights is jarringly insprired.
- Appreciation – The tiniest crumb or drop of water becomes a celebratory blessing. When I went to live in West Africa, I experienced the slightest tinge of this sensation being deprived of so many comforts that the smallest treats (that I took for granted every day back home) became the most treasured moments.
- Boredom – As adventuresome and riveting as these tales seem, one of the most pervading qualities and challenges is…boredom. Boredom is one of the great torments a human can face. It is especially acute in the solitary confinement of those shipwrecked solo (captured stirringly by the film “Cast Away” conspicuously absent in the top 10 list of the video).
- Pain – These hardships are not just about exhaustion and stress, but real, searing, riveting pain. When you have one shot for the morsel of food or reaching that next step, you endure every shock of pain your nervous system throws at you. The power of mind of misery demonstrated is truly astonishing.