Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Laurence Gonzales, the best-selling and award-winning author of Deep Survival, about why smart people do dumb things. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
“All accidents are the same. You kind of have to put them together from pieces. They don’t just happen. You have to assemble them.” — Laurence Gonzales
In this episode of Outliers, I’m talking with Laurence Gonzales (@deepsurvivalsm0), an award-winning author of numerous books about the psychology and neuroscience of survival . We discuss why smart people make stupid decisions, what causes accidents and why some people survive and others don’t, how habitual behaviors under extreme stress are behind police shootings, and the neuroscience of unconscious processing.
Laurence Gonzales is an award-winning author of several books, including Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, and Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival. He received the Miller Distinguished Scholarship from the Santa Fe Institute in 2016, as well as two National Magazine Awards and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:05):
Welcome to another episode of Outliers. I'm your host, Daniel Scrivner. On Outliers, we decode what the top 1% of performers have mastered and what they've learned along the way. In each episode, I dive deep to uncover the tools, habits, and ideas that we can all apply in our own lives. Today I'm talking to Laurence Gonzales. And to be honest, I'm not even sure where to begin to properly introduce him. Laurence started his career as a journalist and earned a Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. He then went on to become an editor for multiple magazines, including Playboy back in the day. And he won two national awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors for his work on National Geographic's Adventure magazine.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:46):
He's the bestselling author of multiple award winning books. He was awarded the Montaigne Medal from the Eric Hoffer Society in 2018, and won the prestigious Eric Hoffer Award in both 2018 and 2019. He's been a Miller scholar at the illustrious Santa Fe Institute, which is one of my favorite places in the world. And today we go deep on Laurence's work around survival, including why smart people make dumb decisions, what separates those who survive from those who don't, what life and death situations do to your brain. And we talk about a ton of fascinating neuroscience.
Daniel Scrivner (00:01:17):
Well, the topic of survival may seem like an odd one to study. There's a ton we can all learn from Laurence's writing and research, like how to think better under pressure, how to assess risk more accurately, how to control our emotions and intense situations, and how to overcome trauma. I promise after listening to this conversation, you'll be replaying it in your mind for a long time to come. So with that, please enjoy my conversation with Laurence Gonzales. Laurence Gonzales, it is a huge honor to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining me on Outliers.
Laurence Gonzales (00:01:48):
Daniel Scrivner (00:01:49):
So I'm super excited about everything we're going to talk about today. Just to try to tee up quickly a little bit of what I want to cover, you've had a fascinating line of inquiry throughout your career until what you call as a high level wrapper, why smart people make stupid decisions, which is fascinating in and of itself, but you also have written multiple books around the concept of survival. And at a high level I think some people will find that really interesting, but what I found fascinating is all the areas that feeds into. There's fascinating things that you have uncovered about how we're wired. There's fascinating things about how really intelligent trained people end up getting overwhelmed by emotion and make dumb decisions. And so I think there's a bunch of ways that that breaks down and gets applied today. So where I wanted to start is if you wouldn't mind telling the story of your father's plane crash and how that may be kicked you off a little bit into your inquiry into survival.
Laurence Gonzales (00:02:47):
Sure. My father was a combat pilot in World War II. He was a B-17 bomber pilot. And in 1945, near the end of the war, he was in one of these big missions out of England where they'd take hundreds and hundreds of planes at the same time over Germany. And on this particular day, which was January 23rd, 1945, he was with a mission of 700 planes. And he was the first guy. He was the very lead guy in this whole thing. One of the reasons he was the lead guy was that his boss was riding co-pilot that day. So he gets to see everything, right? Of course the first to the scene of the accident, as we pilots always say. So they got over their target and he had his left wing shot off. They were at 27,000 feet starting the bomb run.
Laurence Gonzales (00:03:42):
And once he lost his left wing, the plane rolled inverted and started spinning in a kind of leaf, fluttering leaf type of spin. And the spinning was so great that it actually tore the aircraft in pieces. It flew apart from centrifugal force and he was unable to get out of the cockpit. And his piece of the cockpit fell about 27,000 feet. He never got a parachute and he survived. So this is a completely unlikely event. It's not a unique event, but it's very unlikely. That was 45. I was born in 47, at the end of 47. And so I was a little kid growing up, hearing these stories about him, that I thought, "Is that really true? Did that really happen?" But as I grew up I realized it really did happen. And one of the most peculiar elements of this was that I would think if he had died, I wouldn't be here.
Laurence Gonzales (00:04:38):
And of course I'm the most important person in the world. So this is a kind of existential thinking for a little kid to have. And my mother every January 23rd would make a special meal, and bake a cake and have a celebration of the fact that on that day he survived. So survival was a word in my house, it was a concept in my house from a very early age. And so as I became a journalist and began writing, I started writing about airline accidents. I started writing about other kinds of dangerous things and catastrophic things. And I seem to be drawn to that subject matter. And eventually developed a theory, which is expressed in my book, Deep Survival, that really all accidents are the same. You have to put them together from pieces, they don't just happen, you have to assemble them.
Laurence Gonzales (00:05:37):
And I got into an area of study where you look at things like nuclear power plants, industrial shipping, things like that and you start to see similarities with accidents in aviation and accidents on oil rigs and things like that. So it was a whole area of study of, "Well, how do these things happen? Why do smart people do stupid things? And how is the brain working to trick us?" Because these people, the important part of that phrase, why smart people do stupid things, is that the people are not stupid, they're smart. And so how did they make this mistake? And that's really what my books are about.
Daniel Scrivner (00:06:18):
That's a great encapsulation. And I've heard, is I've listened to several interviews, obviously I've read your books and I understand and I think you do a really great job of breaking down accidents and traumatic events. And obviously a piece of that is how we're wired, a piece of that is emotions and other factors that play in. But can you maybe break down at a high level how you think about the inputs to an accident or something? And how much of that is the people? How much of that is the situation? How much of that is external factors? And maybe what are some commonalities there you've observed?
Laurence Gonzales (00:06:51):
So there is a feature of our brains. And when I say brain today, neuroscientists understand that the brain does not work by itself, it has to have a body attached to it. So there's a lot of intelligence going back and forth between brain and body. We just don't have a word for it. In modern day science we say brain so you can think when I say brain that I really mean the brain body complex that makes these behaviors. We tend toward habituation. So if you do something over and over again, it becomes an automatic habit. And we don't like to stray away from that because it requires thought and we're lazy, essentially by which I mean we're efficient. So most people have automatic reflexes that they've developed, for example, for how to drive a car.
Laurence Gonzales (00:07:40):
Now, this is a very complex operation and yet we can drive a car while talking on the phone, and drinking that latte, and correcting the kids in the backseat, and never know what happened in the 12 blocks that we've gone. And so that shows you how this brain body complex can operate very efficiently on its own. So that's the first trap that we have set for us, is that we tend to do what we've done before. And I'll tell you a little story by way of illustrating how to assemble an accident. So I used to fly aerobatics. I flew what some people call stunt planes for a number of years. And I was going to fly my plane across country for a trip. And I had to go from the Chicago area to Santa Fe, which is a long way for a little plane like I had. It's basically a hundred mile an hour plane. That's a bit of a hike.
Laurence Gonzales (00:08:32):
And I had brought my lunch and I had brought some music and I was going to just toddle along. And I had a lunch stop planned in Kansas. And I had been having trouble with the plane with one tank was drawing fuel faster than the other. And I had tried to fix it. I'd had mechanics look at it, but we were never able to pin down what exactly was going on. And I had a routine where I would fuel the plane myself to make sure everything was right. Screw the caps on, there was one fuel tank in each wing, the wing and the wing was above the plane, so above my head. But I was in a hurry that day because I had a long way to go to Santa Fe. So I parked the plane at McPherson, Kansas, and I went in to eat. And I let the line boy fuel the plane instead of doing it myself.
Laurence Gonzales (00:09:21):
So that was a departure from my normal routine. And the normal routine of a pilot is basically operating a lot of safety checks on your aircraft before you take off. And so my first duty in that checklist was gone, and it threw me a little. I would normally have had the fuel caps in my hands and seen them. And I didn't, I just went up and felt that they were tight and went about my business. Then I got in the plane to go fly and it smelled like fuel. And that it'd never smelled like fuel before. And I thought, "Well, the line boy probably spilled some fuel." So I make an excuse.
Laurence Gonzales (00:09:58):
So I taxi down to where you test your engine and all that. And I ran up the engine, you have to run it up to 1800 RPM and check to see if it's working correctly, and I smelled a lot of fuel. And I thought, "Well, he probably just spilled some fuel. And so I'm entering into this deep state of denial here and going deeper and deeper into territory I should have immediately recognized, "This is not normal. This is not the way things work when I fly this little plane." And I knew the plane very well, I owned it. And I flew it all the time. So I took off and as I was cleared for departure from the pattern of the aircraft, I mean the airport. So I'm up about a thousand feet, I make my left turn to go get on my way and a whole bunch of gasoline starts gushing out of the side of the plane onto me. So I'm covered in gasoline suddenly. And I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm going to die in a fireball."
Laurence Gonzales (00:10:58):
Well, I could make this story much longer, but I won't. The long and the short is that I declared an emergency, I turned around, I came back and I landed safely. The firetruck was out there to meet me. And I got out and I sort of collapsed on the grass because I was so scared. And then afterwards when I was writing Deep Survival and thinking about this, I was thinking, "Wow, I had to go to great lengths to have that accident." And I had to put it together in a really careful fashion. It wasn't an act of God, it was an act of me. And so one of the first things that I say in Deep Survival, when I talk about the rules, here are the rules, the first rule is perceive and believe. And that means the first time I saw that my routine wasn't right, I should've gone back and checked my routine. And the first time I smelled gas, I should have stopped. So this is a typical, typical accident.
Daniel Scrivner (00:12:00):
Yeah. And that perceive and believe piece, obviously what you just hinted at is the perceive piece, but I find that concept pretty incredible because what you're really, I guess, trying to encapsulate inside that is your story illustrates we can all trick ourselves or it's very easy to just slough it off and say, "I don't know, it's fine. Or what about this?" So I guess, how does someone get over that? And truly how can we all train ourselves to kick in those believe muscles sooner or not let ourselves be deceived?
Laurence Gonzales (00:12:30):
It's a matter of habit. And it's a matter of day to day habit. It's not like you have to go to survival school and it's not like at the moment of emergency you're going to invent new behavior. In the moment of emergency you're going to do what you've done before. And the important thing about that is to develop a habit of editing yourself, looking at what you're doing and asking, "What am I really doing here?" Like, you've got your baby in the backseat of the car and you're trying to cross a really busy street and you're on your way to the grocery store. And you get impatient, and you're about to just take that little break in traffic that isn't quite big enough and you stop yourself and you think, "What's the most important thing I have to do on this mission?" And it is to keep the baby safe. That's really what I'm doing. I'm in a car. Cars are probably the most dangerous thing any of us ever handle in our lives unless we're Everest climbers, and most of us aren't.
Laurence Gonzales (00:13:39):
So you're in this very dangerous vehicle, you've got the baby and you need to get to the grocery store, but what you really need to do is protect the baby. So it's a way of redefining, "What am I really doing here?" And most people never do that. And so I speak about what I call a risk reward loop. What is the risk I'm taking? The risk I'm taking is that my baby might be harmed. If I pull out too soon and get hit by a gravel truck, I've failed in my one mission in life, which is to protect the baby. The reward is I get to shop for groceries and bring them home and have food. That's a pretty good reward, but it's not worth dying for. And so if you actually bothered to think through what you do on a day to day basis, you're much more likely to do it in exceptional circumstances and say, "You know what, if I wait another two minutes here, it doesn't make any difference."
Daniel Scrivner (00:14:32):
Yeah. And it's interesting. So part of that is maybe might be described as making sure what we practice is actually what we want to be doing when the moment of disaster strikes. And you have a really interesting story there that I've heard you tell about a, I think it was a police officer who practiced disarming a suspect and maybe practiced that a little bit incorrectly. He gave it back every single time and how that backfired in real life.
Laurence Gonzales (00:14:57):
Yeah, he was an FBI agent. And I believe this story is told in a book called On Combat by David Grossman, but I retell it. And in this incident, the FBI agent decided it would be a good idea to learn to snatch a gun out of an assailant's hand. So he practiced. As you say, he practiced and practiced and practiced, actually got quite good at it. And one day, sure enough, he's walking along with his partner and a bad guy pops out with a gun and he snatches the gun out of the guy's hand. And then he gives it back to him. And his partner has to shoot this guy because the guy's now pointing a gun at them. And of course the baffling thing about this is, here's a man who did an action that intellectually he knew was absolutely the wrong action to do and yet he did it.
Laurence Gonzales (00:15:46):
And what he did is actually it relates to the current plague of police shooting people that they shouldn't be shooting. And I can talk about that if you want. But essentially what had happened is he practiced with his partner snatching the gun, and of course he did repeatedly. And in order to do it repeatedly, he had to hand the gun back. And his body learned this whole suite of behaviors that involve taking the gun and giving it back and taking the gun and giving it back. And that's how this system works that I was talking about earlier, that you learn automatic behaviors and they kick in and they play out by themselves. It's why you can do a good golf swing. It's why you can do a good tennis serve. It's why you can tie your shoe. And once you've learned it, it's really hard to disassemble it.
Laurence Gonzales (00:16:34):
So then you add to that the high stress, obviously, if the man was thinking clearly and in a calm situation, he would know that he's not supposed to give the gun back, but under the high stress his body takes over and does the action he practiced. So I always say, we are always practicing something. The question is, what is it? And is it the thing we want under high stress to emerge as our behavior? And so it's a lot of this takes what they call mindfulness. You have to be aware of what you're doing and why you're doing it, and what's going to happen under stressful circumstances.
Daniel Scrivner (00:17:13):
Yeah. I'd love for you to expand on what you touched on there, which is just sharing some of your thoughts on what I think you described pretty well, the plague of police shootings that we're seeing and witnessing, and I think all trying to understand.
Laurence Gonzales (00:17:25):
So I was called by a man about I think a year and a half ago who had read Deep Survival. And he said, "I run an outfit that trains police, and we have a problem. And I want to know if you have any thoughts on it. Can we meet, can we talk?" And I said, "Sure." And he told me that they have a new police training, and it's called force on force. And in this kind of training the police are given guns that are exactly like their real guns, except they don't shoot real bullets, they shoot the thing like a paint ball. And the police get geared up so that the paintball doesn't hurt them. And they actually have confrontations in which they shoot each other. And when they're taught to shoot, they're also taught to take people down physically. They're taught all this forceful stuff, and they do it with each other, with real policemen. Some of the policemen pretend to be bad guys, some pretend to be good guys.
Laurence Gonzales (00:18:22):
And so it's very, very different from traditional police training. In the old days if you were a cop, and my uncle was a cop, so I knew about their training, you go down in the basement to the firing range and you shoot a circular target. And you're done, that's your training. And then they started making a silhouette of a person, and then they started making more active targets that popped out at you. And it got more and more and more sophisticated until today when we have these actual running gun battles where police empty their guns at each other in training. And so the guy said they had been experiencing this accident in which... And when during this training, they pop out from doorways and weird things happen to surprise you, and you're supposed to shoot the other guy.
Laurence Gonzales (00:19:08):
And so the accident goes like this. They finish training, they put their real guns back on, somebody pops out of a doorway and the cop shoots him. And it's another cop who just happened to be coming back into the building. And so these terrible accidents were happening, horrible sad, sad accidents. And the guy said, "Can you help us understand what's going on?" And I said, "Yeah, I can stop this tomorrow for you if you want me to." And he said, "How?" I said, "Don't point guns at each other." I mean, it's a fundamental rule of handling firearms that we all learned very early on. And he said, "Well, we can't do that because this training is now very popular and it's the norm." And so we had long discussion about other things they might do, but going back to the FBI agent, when these guys train in this way, if they have to fire on a bad guy, they empty their gun.
Laurence Gonzales (00:20:01):
So it's not like bang, I'm going to shoot you in the toe so that you stop walking. It's like you aim for the center of the body and you aim and shoot all your bullets. And you do it really fast. And it becomes that reflex like the FBI agent handing back the gun, you're not thinking in that high stress environment. And these training exercises although they aren't meant to be lethal, they're very high stress. You just go bang, bang, bang, bang and it's over, it's over in seconds. So on the street when these cops who are all trained up to that adrenaline rush feeling get in a situation like that, they do what they trained. And they pull the gun and they fire all the bullets. And so that's exactly what's happening. And I think this force on force training is a big mistake. It's causing a lot of fatalities in civilian life and among the police themselves, so bad idea.
Daniel Scrivner (00:20:57):
If you were to maybe tear that down, because I can understand the counter argument of yes, but at some point they still need to learn how to use these weapons, they need to learn how to use them in a defensive scenario. But clearly it seems like they're just getting trained and primed in all the wrong ways. So if you were to try to keep in mind that goal of they still need to have familiarity and be able to know how to use it when they need to, I guess how would you reshape that training to make it so that it ended up in less accidents or less accidental mistakes?
Laurence Gonzales (00:21:32):
Well, I think that training to fire multiple shots is probably not. I mean, it's not what most police officers need in most situations. And so to have that as a hair trigger response in your pocket is a bad idea. Taking another point from this subject matter, the police are now armed with military gear. And so that in itself makes everything more lethal. So they're not only trained in this odd way, but they're carrying military gear. So your average police officer, at least around here is going to have something like a 45, a nine millimeter, a 40, big guns that are meant to kill immediately. It used to be the police carried a 38 special revolver, which is a fine weapon. And lots of people got shot with 38 who didn't die. But if you get shot with a 45, your chances are not very good.
Laurence Gonzales (00:22:35):
So I disagree with arming police with military gear. First of all, because they're not supposed to be attack forces, they're supposed to be mediating forces in society, which there aren't any longer. Like I say, my uncle was a police officer. He refused to carry a gun. He was in San Antonio, Texas, his whole career. And I said, "Uncle Albert, why don't you carry a gun? Don't you want a gun?" He said, "Listen, you got a gun, the other guy's got a bigger gun. They're not afraid of a gun, they're afraid of crazy." And he said, "I carry a knife and they think I'm crazy and they're afraid of me."
Laurence Gonzales (00:23:12):
And most people don't know this, but the police in Ireland do not carry guns. They don't have guns. And there's a reason for that, because police shouldn't be attack forces. And that's what they've become in this country, really it's sad to say. And so I think that a complete overhaul of the way they're armed and trained is necessary to stop these kinds of reflexive shootings that are happening. Because I don't think any of those officers, like the FBI agent handing back the gun, I don't think any of those officers or at least most would say, "I think I'm going to go kill this guy now," and pull a gun and deliberately kill somebody. I think they did exactly what they were trained to do in reflex.
Daniel Scrivner (00:23:53):
This is exactly why I wanted to have you on and talk about your book, because I think there's a lot of areas society that I think people would really benefit from applying some of those principles. One thing that I wanted to spend a little bit of time on, some concepts that you share in your book that I find just really insightful that now I think are great terms or great ideas or great kind of rappers for things. And one of those, which relates to what we've been talking about, is this concept you have of hot cognition. And I just found that fascinating. Would you mind expanding on that and describing what that is and how that influences behavior?
Laurence Gonzales (00:24:26):
Yeah. It's like what we've been talking about. It's what you do under extreme stress. And what you do under extreme stress is usually going to be an automatic behavior of some kind. You don't sit down and start inventing new behaviors when you're under stress. And that includes, under stress includes things like being afraid. And I do a lot of public speaking at places like conventions of firefighters, for example, and police and military. And I had a police officer in connection with this training we discussed tell me, "The way they train us nowadays I think everybody is going to shoot me. I'm constantly afraid that I'm going to get shot at." Which is, it puts you in this territory of hot cognition. You're not being deliberate and thoughtful about what you're doing if you're afraid.
Laurence Gonzales (00:25:19):
And so when I talk about the rules that I have in deep survival, and I said the first one is perceive and believe, and the second one is to stay calm. So reason and emotion or stress work like a seesaw. If you're in high stress or high emotion, you can't think straight. If you can manage to get yourself thinking straight, your emotional level or stress level will go down and you'll be in better shape. And so this is one of the struggles of controlling your behavior rather than letting your behavior automatically control you.
Daniel Scrivner (00:25:53):
And you've told, I've heard you tell one really interesting story related to that, which is about the USS Indianapolis and how in a stressful situation you can try to... What are techniques we can use or what are things we can do when we find ourselves in that fight or flight mode in order to calm ourselves down and center ourselves? Could you maybe tell that story or a similar story?
Laurence Gonzales (00:26:15):
Yeah. And so the idea is, if you look at this is an oversimplification, but if you look at reason and emotion as a seesaw, then if you're in a highly stressed state, highly emotional state, you're fearful, you're panicked, whatever, just the act of trying to do something that engages the other part of the brain, the thinking part, the rational part, which is the neocortex, by doing something that engages the part of the brain you can that emotional side down and be able to think better and make a plan. And so in the case of the USS Indianapolis, which was the last ship sunk in World War II, it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. And about a thousand guys were thrown into the water as the ship sank. And it was in the Pacific, it was shark infested waters. It was a real mess.
Laurence Gonzales (00:27:07):
And making things even more interesting, nobody knew the ship was out there. There was a mistake in record of it having docked somewhere, so nobody came to rescue. But in the initial minutes after the sinking, one of the officers was swimming through this sea of fuel that was spreading out. And he came upon a lifeboat with a bunch of sailors in it. And they were all covered in that sticky diesel fuel. And he said they looked like they'd just given up, they were lifeless, they weren't doing anything to help themselves. And he got in the boat with them and he took out his service pistol, his 45, and he took it apart and he gave each person a piece of it. And he said, "Now we're going to clean this weapon and we're going to put it back together."
Laurence Gonzales (00:27:54):
And there was no point in that, he didn't have anything to shoot with his gun. It was just an exercise in forcing them to think in a linear fashion and do something with a purpose. And there's a bigger... And it did, it worked. They calmed down, they got organized and they survived in this boat. But it was the first step in tamping down emotion and getting them thinking clearly. And there's an overarching message in this. This is something that we naturally find ways of doing. There are two circuits in the brain that I want to talk about that are of interest in this regard. So all mammals have a circuit that neuroscientists call the rage circuit or the rage pathway. And it's an area of the brain through which signals pass under certain circumstances that necessitate a certain kind of behavior.
Laurence Gonzales (00:28:46):
Easiest way to see it is, step on your cat's tail and you'll see it. The cat will scream, his claws will come out, his jaw will clench, his teeth will bear, he'll struggle and fight. This is all part of an automatic behavior. You don't have to think about it. In fact, you can't think about it. You don't have control over it. It will happen naturally. And we've all seen it happen in ourselves. Like if you stub your toe or if you hit your thumb with a hammer, you'll see this rage circuit activated. If you are exposed to trauma enough, you can get to the point where that rage circuit is either hair-trigger, it goes off all the time next to nothing, or it's maybe activated all the time when you're constantly in a state of anxiety and rage. And this is a problem. Even if you've only experienced a little trauma, you'll still have some of this. People call it PTSD, but it's just the normal functioning of the system we have.
Laurence Gonzales (00:29:43):
There's another circuit in the brain that neuroscientists call the seeking circuit or the seeking pathway. And you can see this in a cat as well. When the cat is stalking prey, the cat gets down low. It gets very quiet. It gets very organized, methodical, goal oriented, step by step kind of movements. And this is not so much different from what I was describing in doing something that engages the cognitive part of the brain. Cats may or may not have cognition of that kind, but nevertheless, they still have this circuitry and you can see this circuitry work in an MRI machine. Well, people being clever find all kinds of different ways to activate the seeking circuit. And the seeking circuit runs through the rage circuit, and so it deactivates it. So if you're feeling anxious, if you're feeling enraged, there's nothing better than to find that activity that dampens the rage circuit and engages the seeking circuit.
Laurence Gonzales (00:30:44):
For some people it's a game of golf, for some people it's running, for some people it's cooking a gourmet meal. I mean, it can be anything because we're so adaptable as people, but people tend to find that activity and do it to excess because it feels good, especially if you've been traumatized in the past. And so what we see is a messed up kid, like Glenn Gould discovers playing the piano really calms him down and he doesn't feel so messed up anymore. So guess what? He plays piano all day. And pretty soon people are going like, "Hey, Glenn Gould is a genius. Listen to him play piano." And of course it's because he practiced.
Daniel Scrivner (00:31:28):
Now, that's fascinating. And one of the things that I love, you touched on it a little bit, but you have one book, Deep Survival, which is all about people, stories of people in extreme traumatic scenarios, but those stories end when they're rescued or when they're taken out of those scenarios. And then you have a followup book called Surviving Survival, which is about what goes on after someone makes it through the other side of one of those events, and it turns out actually that there's a long road coming out of that to figuring out what to make of and how to get on with your life after going through one of those. But one thing you touched on there that I find really fascinating and I'd love to talk about is that PTSD, you think the D in that word for disorder doesn't belong there. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Laurence Gonzales (00:32:13):
Yeah. Well, essentially we're talking about a system of memory and neuroscientists now believe that we probably remember everything. We have a limited capacity for conscious rational thought, it doesn't have a lot of bandwidth. And so much of what we remember doesn't rise to the level of consciousness. The stuff we need in a day to day world does, but that there's a lot more there that we aren't aware of, but so this business of storing memory works like this. In Surviving Survival I write about a lady and her husband who were attacked by a grizzly bear in a national park in Canada and badly mauled. They were out hiking in the Canadian Rockies and just happened by bad luck to stumble upon a bear. Just before this, the lady had sat down, they were sitting for a rest and she took some pine needles and broke them and smelled them because she really loved the smell of pine. After the attack, when she was recovering and trying to get on with her life, she discovered that the smell of pine would send her into a panic attack. She couldn't stand the smell of pine after that.
Laurence Gonzales (00:33:24):
And this is exactly how our memory system works. It makes things together to give us as much information as possible for the next time something happens. And so it's not a very sophisticated system, it's a very blunt instrument. So it paired the smell of pine with an attack by a grizzly bear so that in the future when she smelled pine, she'd be sure to turn and run away, which doesn't make any sense at all. But there it is, that's how this system works. So we're constantly getting all kinds of matched things in our environment that don't have the right meaning. And we have to use our thinking to interpret them. However, it's just a system of memory, and memory includes feelings. And so as I was saying before, it's not just the brain, it's the body too.
Laurence Gonzales (00:34:14):
So when you get a feeling like that, it's usually expressed as a gut feeling. And so I don't think disorder is right, I think post traumatic stress is correct. It's after trauma that you get these effects most powerfully. And it's stressful because you're high, your emotional level is very high. But it's not a disorder, it's the way the system works. And we all have it to some degree or another. I had an experience years ago, and I want to say it's 20 years or more, in which I was visiting somebody. I was in an unfamiliar bedroom getting dressed. And I was putting my shirt on and I put my hands over my head to put my tee shirt on. And there was a ceiling fan there. And I stuck my hand in the ceiling fan, and boy did that hurt. And I didn't break anything, but man, it was really painful. Those things are wood and they go fast.
Laurence Gonzales (00:35:05):
To this day my wife makes fun of me for that. I can be the room where the ceiling is 12 feet high and there's no ceiling fan. And then when I go to put my shirt on I look up, and it's completely reflexive. And she always jokes with me about this because it's indelible. And so that's a fairly minor trauma in life. I mean, I didn't lose a limb or even bleed, it just hurt. And so by understanding how this system works, we can take apart some of these places in our lives where we feel anxiety, or anger, or sadness, or any of these negative emotions that may stand in the way of our functioning and we can put something in their place. We can decide when I'm feeling this way, I'm going to play tennis or whatever it is that does it for you, it's different for everybody. And it just makes for a better quality of life. You can actually control these things.
Daniel Scrivner (00:36:07):
It seems like your book Surviving Survival would be great for anyone to read. And I think one concept that I took away from it, and one of the reasons I was so excited to talk with you is just this notion that all of us at some point in our lives experienced trauma. And we all have some form of, like you just described, even in a really minor way, post traumatic stress that we have to work through in our own lives. So maybe as a way to make it a little bit more personal and give you an example of it. I have two younger brothers. My youngest brother is a green beret. And I think he's recently qualified for Delta Force. So long story short, he's career army and is often in harm's way.
Daniel Scrivner (00:36:43):
And when he was deployed to Afghanistan, he went through a significant amount of trauma, as you know, most soldiers do. But the most traumatic event for him was he was out on one of their routine patrols. They ended up triggering two IEDs. The first one sent them to begin rescuing one of their team members. And then on the way back to the vehicle, while they were carrying this team member, they stumbled and triggered a second IED. And I as the older brother, I got to see a little glimpse of what that was like, but I know that that is nothing compared to what it's like to be in a relationship or be the partner of someone that's struggling with that.
Daniel Scrivner (00:37:23):
And you talked about a second ago that this rage circuit can become, have a hair trigger on it or it can be triggered all the time. And that the person that's happening to has no control of that, or it takes a very long time to figure out how to control that. I guess, can you maybe flesh out a little bit of, how can we all be compassionate when we're with somebody who has some sort of significant form of post traumatic stress? And what advice would you have for them to maybe just help better understand that this isn't controllable or just have more compassion and empathy for the person going through this?
Laurence Gonzales (00:37:56):
I think it's not controllable, I wouldn't call it controllable, I would say that you can mitigate the effects. And the psychiatrists who work in war torn countries and try to deal with the people who are just ordinary people, not combatants who suffer all this trauma and are trying to get back in their lives, they have a saying, which is, work, work, work. And you find... I was talking about Glenn Gould and practicing piano all day. It's not that different from it. There has to be something you can engage in. That's really important, to find that thing. And one of the things to engage in, and now I'm speaking for the traumatized person, not the partner of the traumatized person, but the partner can certainly encourage this kind of thing, one of the most effective things to become absorbed in is helping other people.
Laurence Gonzales (00:38:55):
I know a lot of military that I've talked to get traumatized over there. They come back and they find that the best thing for them is to get with other traumatized people and help them. And because suddenly you're not a victim now, you're a rescuer. And it's a different frame of mind. And the other thing, and I say this in Surviving Survival, is find somebody who's worse off than you are, because there's always somebody who's worse off than you are. And I know even in my work, I have tried to engage in the work that way, in the sense I'm writing these things to help people in part because it makes me feel better than just doing something to gratify myself. And I think most of us if we're not totally twisted or that way, that people like to help other people. And I've seen this my whole life, that people are exceptionally compassionate and helpful for the most part.
Laurence Gonzales (00:39:53):
So to engage that with an activity that will activate the seeking circuit I think is a really good strategy and it doesn't make the trauma go away, the trauma does live on. It's like if you think of it like, one of the people I talk about in Surviving Survival is a lady who got attacked by a shark. And she lost the use of her right hand as a result of the attack. And she didn't get a new hand. She had to learn how to live with a hand that she couldn't use, because although she didn't actually physically lose the whole thing, it was disabled to the point that she couldn't use it. So she made all these adaptations to being one handed.
Laurence Gonzales (00:40:31):
And she had special devices made so she could chop onions. She had a knife made that fits over her wrist and all these clever things that she did to get back to her life. And she at first had a lot of trouble. She was going into panic attacks and having episodes of depression and all that, and worked through it by working. And her thing is horses. She loved her horses, is fortunate enough to have horses. And that's her seeking circuit activity. And many people have multiple seeking circuit activities that they can engage. And they can go from one to the next all day long until they drop into their bed at night and get up in the morning excited to do the next one.
Daniel Scrivner (00:41:16):
What advice would you have to the partner? I guess there I'm thinking of the mom, the dad, the partner of the person going through trauma.
Laurence Gonzales (00:41:25):
Well, what you do is you buy my books and you wrap them up in paper that's festive and you give them to-
Daniel Scrivner (00:41:32):
And you read them together.
Laurence Gonzales (00:41:34):
You read them. No, but I mean, I would say that to somebody who is, you read about a soldier and he comes home and his family wants to go to a restaurant. And he sits down in the restaurant and he's got to put his back to the corner. And then that's not enough and he has to get up and go outside. So he can just get some air because he's feeling a panic attack coming on. If you have somebody who's having problems that severe, I think it would help to say let's figure this out. Let's find something that makes you feel good, that dampens down that panic activity, and that gets you fully engaged and fully busy, being busy is very important, and having some goal and having to do something. And so like I say, it's different for everybody. I know one traumatized person who discovered woodworking. And wow, did that work. I mean, just constant 12 hours a day of making beautiful things with wood. Not only is it engaging him, activating his secret circuit creative activity, but it's beneficial to other people. He makes beautiful things for them and they pay him.
Daniel Scrivner (00:42:48):
Yeah. Find the thing or the activities that nourish you. And it sounds like a big part of it is taking advantage of that concept that's commonly called flow, where you lose a sense space and time. You're just all engrossed in the activity. And it feels like that... I don't know what's going on behind the scenes there, but it sounds like it's engaging that seeking circuit or doing something to help short circuit that other part of your brain.
Laurence Gonzales (00:43:11):
That's exactly right. What they call flow is engaging the seeking circuit. And I believe I quote Tolstoy in Deep Survival in a scene where he describes a guy cutting grass with a scythe. And the rhythmic cutting action puts him into this kind of trance state where he's perfectly content. And that's what these things do. This is one of the reasons that I believe such things as dancing and drumming have evolved in human beings, because if you imagine our life a hundred thousand years ago, it was probably pretty brutal. And there was probably, trauma was probably a given in that way of life. And people naturally developed ways to activate the seeking circuit and make themselves feel better. And at the same time, religion developed as a part of this, a belief in powers that we can't understand. But yeah, definitely this is the real thing, it works.
Daniel Scrivner (00:44:17):
This interview would not be complete if we didn't spend time going through some of the big topics and big things that you've spent your life on. What I mean by that is, there's all these fascinating worlds that you've spent time on. One is around planes and plane crashes and studying that as a journalist, and even in that book that you described in your career. Another is all of your work that you've done with firefighters. So I wanted to see if we could spend a little bit of time on just planes and plane crashes and your love of flying. And one thing I thought would be interesting there is, I've heard you tell one story that's almost too good to believe about not getting on a DC-10 plane in 1979. Could you tell that story and any other stories that you feel are relevant? Because I'd be curious to know what at the end of the day as you reflect back on that work you really take away. And then if you could just share a story or two.
Laurence Gonzales (00:45:10):
So like I said, my father was a combat pilot, so I was always obsessed with the idea of flying. And I assumed that the coolest thing in the world would be to fly. And the even more coolest thing in the world would be to fly upside down with smoke-
Daniel Scrivner (00:45:25):
In stunt planes.
Laurence Gonzales (00:45:26):
In stunt planes, right. Which I ultimately did those things. But in the course of being a journalist very early on I got interested in plane crashes. And I thought, "well, this is a machine And it's designed by these really smart people. And we've got great engineering here in this country. And these planes are crashing. I wonder what we can do to make that better." So I started studying aviation disasters. And I realized that the National Transportation Safety Board which investigates these would write their reports and they'd say this and that happened, and this caused that, and then the pilot drove his plane into the ground, so this crash was pilot error. And I'd go to them and I'd say, "Well, this guy drove his plane into the ground. It's a little mysterious to me because he's an ex military guy, he's got 30,000 hours, he's got a master's in engineering. I mean, he's a really smart guy. How did he do the stupidest thing you can do with a plane if he's such a smart guy?"
Laurence Gonzales (00:46:25):
And they'd say, "Well, we'd like to know that too, but he's dead, so we can't interview him. So we don't know what he was thinking." And that to me became the beginning of work that would ultimately lead to Deep Survival because it was the most interesting piece of the puzzle to me. It's like, "What were they thinking?" So this became a key chunk of my whole approach to aviation disasters. And in some cases it was just a mechanical thing. In the course of doing that research, I realized that the DC-10 aircraft was one of the very few aircraft that fell out of the sky of its own accord most of the time. It didn't generally crash because of pilot error, it crashed because it was a flawed aircraft. It had some really serious problems that had caused fatal and near fatal crashes repeatedly. And it hadn't been grounded.
Daniel Scrivner (00:47:17):
And how rare is that?
Laurence Gonzales (00:47:20):
I think it's pretty rare. I think we're seeing it again in the Max 737, which I can explain that whole thing. But before that, the DC-10 at that time was a victim of a race that took place between Lockheed, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas to see who would get the winning jumbo jet. The thinking was there was only going to be one, this world is not big enough for several of them. And it turned out to be the 747. But in the case of these races, McDonald Douglas made a mistake of cutting corners and indeed rewarding people for saving money, which often means saving weight. And they just made some bad decisions and wound up with a design that was extremely vulnerable to small, small accidents. So we talked about how you assemble an accident earlier, and this was a case of that, where you could have tumbling dominoes bringing the whole plane down. For example, the hydraulic lines ran through the floor of the aircraft.
Laurence Gonzales (00:48:24):
The floor of the aircraft wasn't that strong, but it was strong enough to hold the people. But if you lost pressure in the cargo hold, the floor would collapse and cut the hydraulic lines and you'd have no steering while. And that actually happened, it happened twice. It happened once over Detroit and the guy had just enough steering left to get the plane on the ground because it happened on takeoff. And it happened in France in 1974 and the plane went down and I forget how many hundreds of people were killed, but everybody was killed because there was no steering. So I knew a lot about the DC-10 by 1979. And I had already made it a practice of not flying DC-10s. Whenever I had to fly somewhere, I would ask the person on the phone, because yes, we used to use phones to do this, I would ask the person on the phone what type of aircraft is this. And if it was a DC-10, I'd say, "Well, give me a different flight, period."
Laurence Gonzales (00:49:21):
So it wasn't like I had some mystical vision. When I learned that our flight, we were all going to Los Angeles. I had been the article's editor of Playboy magazine and I was publishing my first novel. There was a book convention in LA. My boss, Shel Wax, was going with his wife, Judy Wax, who had just had a book published. We were all going into this book convention. Our fiction editor was going and our foreign rights editor was going, Mary Sheridan and Vicki Chen Haider. So we were all just going together. I mean, it was no big deal. And then I found out, "Hey, this is a DC 10." And I said, "I'm not going to go. I'm going to take a different flight." And in fact, I told Shel, I said, "I'm not going to get on the DC-10." And he made fun of me like, "Oh, you've been reading too much of that airline research of yours."
Laurence Gonzales (00:50:13):
Anyway, the flight lasted 31 seconds. And in this case, multiple causes brought that plane down. The primary cause was that American Airlines had made a mistake in putting the engine on the left wing and cracked a pylon. And the engine actually, when they accelerated for takeoff, the engine actually ripped off departed from the wing. And as it rolled around the front of the wing and went back behind the plane, it tore the hydraulic lines. And a sequence of, again, a sequence of events happened, none of which individually would have brought the plane down, but all of them together did and everyone was killed. So I didn't get on that plane because I had not been getting on DC-10s for quite a while.
Daniel Scrivner (00:50:56):
Well, and that was your, I guess, an example of perceive and believe as well too, because you had uncovered in your research that the issues with that plane and then clearly you're putting that in action, trying to make smart decisions there.
Laurence Gonzales (00:51:08):
Yeah, exactly. And when you study airline accidents a lot, you start to get, you learn what all the funny noises are. First of all, being a pilot I knew anyway, but you learn what all the funny noises are and you learn what the wrong funny noises are. And so you tend to become a rather alert flyer at some cases. And I didn't want to have to be thinking about a DC-10 anyway, a stroke of luck in some ways.
Daniel Scrivner (00:51:35):
Truly amazing call and obviously a truly tragic event. In air travel airlines aviation in particular, there's obviously a super developed safety muscle. You talked about all the safety checks that pilots do, and it seems like so much of just what's involved in being a pilot and in piloting a plane, training to be a pilot, is safety training. And I guess what strikes me is that seems like it's completely normal in aviation and people in that field embrace it. And I think there's a love and an appreciation of safety there, but it also doesn't seem like that's been broadly applied to other fields. Do you have any thoughts on why that is? And I guess any thoughts on why that's not applied to other places or maybe that's not the case that it actually is?
Laurence Gonzales (00:52:24):
So pilots like to say, "Take off is optional, but landing is mandatory." And encapsulated in that little phrase is the philosophy about safety that I certainly adopted as a pilot, which is that I don't have to go. And I belong to flying clubs over the years in which a bunch of people are flying the same aircraft. And you come to the field and you say, "I want to fly for an hour." And you pick a plane that's available and then you check it over before you use it. And I always had a rule that if I found three things that were wrong, I would reject the plane because I would assume there was a fourth that I didn't find. And the airlines operate somewhat like that, in that they have what's called a minimum equipment list. So an airliner, a modern airliner is a machine complicated enough that it cannot be working a hundred percent at any time. So you'd never take off in an airliner where every single component is working.
Daniel Scrivner (00:53:25):
Just slightly frightening.
Laurence Gonzales (00:53:27):
It's too complicated. And the mathematics of that is very easy to construct because I use what I call the dinner paradox. There's a new restaurant, just come to town. It's extremely popular. You have to have a reservation. You have to have your whole party there at the time of the reservation or you lose your reservation. So you want to invite reliable people to this party. So let's say we're all 90% reliable for showing up on time. How many people can you invite before you have less than a 50% chance of having dinner? And the answer is nine times nine, times nine, times nine, et cetera, till you get below 50%. That is 0.9 times 0.9. And the answer is about a half a dozen. When you get to seven people, you're not going to have dinner.
Laurence Gonzales (00:54:16):
And so if you look at an aircraft, the DC-10, for example, I just happen to know had 250,000 parts roughly. And let's say we assign a percent chance of their reliability. You can very quickly figure out that not all those parts can be working at the same time. It'll never happen. And so that's why they have this, what they call the minimum equipment list, which means you're flying a broken air airplane every time you can fly.
Daniel Scrivner (00:54:42):
But it still has to be above some threshold, so you're just determining that.
Laurence Gonzales (00:54:42):
It's above some threshold, that's right. And flying is, airline flying is very safe until it's not. I talked earlier about a risk reward loop. The risk in flying an aircraft is that you will die. So it's not like, "Well, I might lose some money or I might break my leg." You will die. If most of the big airline crashes that's what happens, they're not very forgiving. And so the obsession with safety is aimed at that concept, we're going to try to keep these passengers alive.
Laurence Gonzales (00:55:22):
Now, having said that, there's been a cultural shift that's very scary in a way and promising in another way. And that's that the airline industry for some years has been working to get the pilot out of the cockpit. So starting years and decades ago, they began trying to automate things that pilots do. And a modern airliner you can punch in, you can sit in Chicago and punch into the computer, New York, LaGuardia, and the plane will take itself off, fly itself there and land itself all without you touching anything. And in fact, there's lots of pilots who don't touch things, which is why some of the accidents we're seeing today are happening. The Air France accident where the plane went into the Atlantic Ocean is an example of what happens if you don't know how to fly the plane.
Laurence Gonzales (00:56:13):
And so in this transition between airplanes that are flown by the pilots because they know how to fly and airplanes that fly themselves and don't need a pilot, except as a guy who watches instruments, there's a dangerous place. And we're in that place right now. And part of the reason the 737 Max ended up the way it did is because of being in that place and because of corporate decisions that were made. And that's a whole long story in itself, but essentially I see in my future no 737 Maxes, just as I saw no DC-10s. It's too much of a can of worms at this point. The old 737, by the way, are excellent clients.
Daniel Scrivner (00:56:59):
It's just this new inclination. Yeah.
Laurence Gonzales (00:57:02):
Yeah. The pre Max 737s in a sense, the older, the better, but they're fine planes, they are terrific planes. And in general, Boeing has historically made some of the best planes in the world.
Daniel Scrivner (00:57:14):
You talked a little bit about the incentives that are there, and I'm just curious to get your take. So it seems like there's both good incentives and I can imagine bad incentives for wanting to automate flying a plane. The good incentives are you want to reduce human error, you want to make it safer. The bad incentives or incentives that maybe aren't bad on the surface, but can clearly have bad consequences or maybe things like, "Oh, we maybe need to have less pilots or we can sell more planes to airlines because now we're automating more of what they do." What's your sense of what those incentives are that are forcing or encouraging plane manufacturers to automate more things? And how is that going wrong?
Laurence Gonzales (00:57:54):
Well, it is cheaper. Training pilots is very expensive. You have to pay them salaries and have benefits for them. The pilot is an expensive thing and that's one of the reasons that planes today have only two pilots instead of three. So in the days of the DC-10, all the aircraft had a captain, a first officer and an engineer in the cockpit. And they worked very hard to get that engineer out of the cockpit, and they did. And so this was the beginning, probably in the 70s of the move away from, toward automation and away from having pilots in the cockpit.
Laurence Gonzales (00:58:35):
I think we're at a point where we still need pilots and the trouble is we need them to know how to fly a plane. And the training is failing them. And not just the training, but once you've trained a pilot, he's got to be practicing, he's got to be actually flying the plane. And we've seen quite a number of accidents that show that many of the young pilots flying out there today really don't know how to fly a plane. And that's crazy. And so, again, we're in this dangerous interlude between manned flight and unmanned flight, so to speak. And we don't yet have the perfect mix.
Daniel Scrivner (00:59:16):
And it's slightly frightening to then think about all the other areas where that's happening, like in self driving cars, for instance, where I'm sure we'll have that same issue. Any thoughts on that?
Laurence Gonzales (00:59:28):
Well, I have not studied self driving cars per se, but I have studied industry and accidents all my life. And when I hear self driving cars, I think of everything I know about how accidents are put together and how the thing you don't expect is the thing that's going to bite you. I talk about the work of a guy whose name is Charles Perrow. He wrote a book called Normal Accidents. And it essentially says that if you have a system that's complicated enough, accidents are part of its normal functioning. It's just like I said, you can't get on an airliner that's completely a hundred percent working. If you have a machine that's as complicated as the airliners are, this is the dinner paradox, you're going to have a problem. And so the self driving car is complicated in a whole lot of ways that I don't completely understand because I haven't studied it, but I guarantee you it's one of these complex systems. And it's going to have things you can't anticipate.
Laurence Gonzales (01:00:32):
So for example, just to use a simple example in airliners, the toilets operate on this blue flushing liquid, it's like chemical toilets. And if you throw paper towels in the toilet, you can clog the system up. And when you flush it, it makes pressure. And it breaks out through the seal. And this blue liquid gets to the outside of the airplane where it's 60 degrees below zero. And then you get this blue liquid leaking out and freezing solid on the outside of the aircraft. And after a little while you form a big blob of ice that breaks loose and goes into the jet engine and you lose an engine.
Laurence Gonzales (01:01:10):
So who would have thought a toilet can bring down an airliner? They're not connected at all. So this is one of Charles Perrow's pieces of advice insights, is that complex machines connect things in ways that the engineer's never intended. And this will happen with self driving cars and they'll go kill people. And this will happen for a while. That self driving cars you'll read about it in the newspaper or there won't be any newspapers, you'll read about it online, but it will happen, mark my words.
Daniel Scrivner (01:01:48):
I want to touch on two mental concepts. One is this concept of your brain having a night shift, and what happens there, and what it's doing and why that process is there in the first place, which relates to a few things we've been talking about. So maybe just to start there, can you flesh out where you got that term and how that shows up in some of your work and how you think about that?
Laurence Gonzales (01:02:09):
So there's a famous story that makes the rounds periodically about a German chemist named Kekulé in the 1800s. And he was working on the structure of benzene. He was trying to figure out how benzene was constructed. And he couldn't figure it out. He worked and worked and worked and it was really frustrating him. And one evening he had been working and was sitting in front of his fireplace with his work in his lap and he fell asleep. And as he was drifting into sleep, he started dreaming and he saw in front of him the molecules of the benzene dancing in front of his face. Like if you'd been playing Tetris all day, you might see the Tetris pieces before you go to sleep. And these molecules shaped themselves into the shape of the snake. And then he saw a snake biting its own tail.
Laurence Gonzales (01:03:03):
And he woke up and realized that benzene is a ring, it's a ring of carbon atoms. And he had the solution. And so the question... And my friend Cormac McCarthy, the novelist who I've known at the Santa Fe Institute for many years, wrote a nice little essay about this in a magazine called Nautilus. And it's called the Kekulé Problem, I think. And he talked about how this result comes from a place in the brain body complex that does a whole bunch of our work for us, all our lives without coming to their level of consciousness. And it helps us in every way. And everybody's familiar with this, how you can be working on a problem and suddenly the idea comes to you when you're not just sleeping, but maybe you decide I've been working on this problem so hard, I'm going to go on vacation. You go to Hawaii and it comes to you while you're lying on the beach, or it comes to you while you're in the shower.
Laurence Gonzales (01:04:00):
So this invisible processing power of the brain body complex is called by many the unconscious. There's a neuroscientist named Michael Gazzaniga that calls it non-conscious processing. There are lots of words for it, but there's a physicist who's a friend of Cormac's who calls it the night shift, because a lot of times it happens at night. And I just liked that term and Cormac liked that term as well. And so that's what we call it. And it's an integral part of your life. And when you ask Cormac what it is, he'll say it's a program for operating an animal. It means you do not have to think in order to scratch the itch that's on your shoulder right now, your body will do that for you. You don't have to think about it. You don't have to analyze it.
Laurence Gonzales (01:04:48):
So there's a whole constellation of behaviors that you carry out every day that's part of this unconscious processing. And it not only does unconscious processing, but it leaps to conclusions for you. It solves problems. And every artist, every scientist is aware of this. This is how it happened. And when I talk about, for example, how writing for me was like being in a trance, all my life when I've come to a stumbling block in my writing, the answer to that has come to me just as I wake up out of sleep. It'll be like, "Oh, I get it. I know what the next chapter is." And I'll get up and I'll write it.
Laurence Gonzales (01:05:31):
And so it's a ubiquitous part of our being, and yet we know nothing about it. Cormac calls it black to opacity. It's never been studied. How do you get a grant to study something you can't even describe? And yet we're all aware of it. So that's the night shift, and we all use it. And this is tied in, I think, to the fact that the memories that we make during the day get consolidated during sleep to become longterm memories. And I think somewhere in that process lies the night shift, but nobody knows where.
Daniel Scrivner (01:06:04):
Yeah. Or how it works.
Laurence Gonzales (01:06:05):
Or how it works.
Daniel Scrivner (01:06:07):
So you touched on it there, your work with the Santa Fe Institute, I'm a huge fan of what they do. I think generally there are many nerds like myself that are aware of them, but I think largely the Santa Fe Institute is still under the surface. Can you talk about the purpose of that institute and then the work that you've done there?
Laurence Gonzales (01:06:25):
So because of Deep Survival, Deep Survival came into the hands of a man named Bill Miller, who was an investor. He's a legendary investor, in fact. And Bill at that time, this would have been 2004 maybe, was the head of the trustees at the Santa Fe Institute, chairman of the board. And his wife gave him Deep Survival and said, "I think you'll like this." She gave it to him because it looked like an outdoorsy book and Bill is an outdoorsy kind of guy. But it turned out not to be quite what she thought it was and Bill read it. And then he invited me to his company in Baltimore, Legg Mason Capital Management, because they have a book club there. So everybody would read the same book, then they'd invite the author and that we'd have a meeting and talk.
Laurence Gonzales (01:07:14):
And so I finished my talk with them after that, and Bill said to his right hand man, friend of mine named Michael Mauboussin now. He said, "We got to get this guy out to the Santa Fe Institute." And I thought, "Santa Fe Institute." It was like he had said to me, "I think Bob Dylan might like to sing some of this guy's songs." Because I had known about the Santa Fe Institute for years and never dreamed I'd have some kind of entree to it. Anyway, in 2006, Bill and Michael brought me out there for the first time. And I've been going back ever since under various excuses. They'd either invite me out to give a talk or invite me out for some meeting or whatever. Almost every year since 2006 I've been there for some of the year. And then I got a fellowship there in 2015. And then I was named as a scholar there in 2016. And was a scholar there for basically four years, ending in this past February. But I'm still planning to go back. I was about to go in March when I was stopped, stopped by a tiny thing.
Daniel Scrivner (01:08:20):
Yeah, by a tiny global pandemic.
Laurence Gonzales (01:08:22):
So the Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984 by a man named George Cowan, with the help of Murray Gell-Mann who was a Nobel prize physicist, and several other people, Phil Anderson, another Nobel prize winner physicist, Ken Arrow, who won a Nobel prize in economics. And these guys all got together and decided to help found this thing. And this thing was a new way of doing science. So if you go back to Newton and you look at the history of science going forward, it's an attempt to see things smaller and smaller and larger and larger, and reduce everything to simple concepts. And it's called reductionist science, because you take things apart and look at the pieces and tell what's going on, right? But if you take a cat apart to look at the pieces, you no longer have a cat.
Laurence Gonzales (01:09:18):
And so this is a problem for science. How do you deal with that? And so as I spent time at the Santa Fe Institute, I learned that science over the 350 years since Newton has told us more and more about less and less, and almost nothing about almost everything. And so the people who founded the Santa Fe Institute said, "Let's start looking at ways that we can instead of reducing things, we can look at the whole thing and see if we can make sense of it." And this came right at a moment when personal computers came into their own. So prior to this, anyone would have told you the world is too complex to study in that way. In order to have a map of a cat, you'd have to map every single cell and you'd have a cat. So what does that tell you? However, if you have a computer that can do calculations by the millions and billions per second, you can simulate a cat and see what happens.
Laurence Gonzales (01:10:20):
And so essentially they realized that this little machine that we all have on our desks now was a great scientific tool for trying to get at the underlying workings of nature. And this was called complexity science because instead of reducing things to simple terms, the way Newton did, which was very useful, it tries to take on the whole. And it's made wonderful progress in many ways. And in fact, one of the complex systems that the Santa Fe Institute started studying right at the beginning in 1987 was pandemics. So a pandemic is a complex system. It's actually complex systems, several complex systems interacting. It's the virus itself which works like a complex system and spreads in a way that's not straight forward. Works with the complex system of society, which has very complex collective behaviors. And it works with a complex system of individual human behavior, which determines where the virus goes and the humans themselves are complex systems.
Laurence Gonzales (01:11:25):
And so the system, complex system interaction is giving us what we're seeing today with this pandemic and people from the Santa Fe Institute are running the forefront of trying to figure out how to deal with the pandemic. So people who came from the SFI are right now at work, helping to try to stop this pandemic and telling us how we can do that. And they have a meeting. Actually, I go to these meetings virtually several times a week. They have a meeting every day at 9:30 in the morning to tell where we're going and to talk about the pandemic. That's one. The Santa Fe Institute is not really interested in practical applications, they're a theoretical institution, but it shows you how very suddenly something that for 33 years has been theoretical becomes practical, and now it's being applied. So it's a fascinating place on the cutting edge of science in many, many fields. And most of the fields are combinations of existing fields. So we have physicists studying biology and economists studying sociology, and everything crosses the boundaries of traditional academics.
Daniel Scrivner (01:12:36):
That was a wonderful description. I learned a ton that I didn't know. So thank you so much for that. So I want to just ask our two closing questions that we ask all guests and we can wrap up. And the first one is, I imagine there's a lot of these in your life, like by studying accidents, by going through even just your backstory, the things that you've seen, I'm sure there's a lot that you're grateful for in your life. But one thing I'm curious is if there's a single experience or a person in your life that you're eternally grateful for and why, and if you'd be comfortable sharing that story, sharing that person or idea.
Laurence Gonzales (01:13:09):
Yeah, sure. Of course. I would say that it's my wife. She has made possible. I've been more productive since I've known her than I was in my life. And she... We've been together about 20 years and she takes care of everything but what I have to do to be the writer and speaker, if we count this, that I am. And so I literally the tool that has been most important to me in my life is my brain. And again, I'd say brain body, the intelligence of my being, being able to function. So in order for me to function as a writer, I have to have my thoughts. And she knows how to allow that and has done so, and I don't have to think about anything else. I do not have to think about the visa bill, the income taxes, or whether the heating bill was paid. She takes care of everything. So it's hugely important.
Laurence Gonzales (01:14:09):
I would just add as a gigantic footnote to that, my father. I mean, my father shaped my thinking. My father would have loved the Santa Fe Institute, because the Santa Fe Institute's philosophy of life and science is everything is interesting. If you think something is boring, you're missing the point. You look at something. I used to teach writing at Northwestern University and the students would say, "Well, I don't know what I want to write. I don't have a subject. What should I write about?"
Laurence Gonzales (01:14:38):
And I'd come in with a book by a man named John McPhee, that's called Annals of the Former World. It's a thousand page book. It weighs like six pounds. And I'd just hold it up and I'd say, "This is a book about a rock. And so if this guy can write a thousand pages about a rock, you can figure something out." And it's so it's about geology and it won two Pulitzer prizes. It's a wonderful, wonderful book. But my dad's philosophy of life is nothing is uninteresting, everything is interesting. And if you hang out at the Santa Fe Institute for even a day, you will find people talking about everything under the sun, it's the most fascinating place. And so I have to thank my father for instilling in me that kind of curiosity because he was that kind of guy.
Daniel Scrivner (01:15:24):
That's beautiful. And the second closing question, one of the goals of the show is to help everybody find ways to show up as their best self and level up in life. And you've clearly obviously there, you've got a clear idea of what your gifts and talents are and what you need to show up as your best self, but what I'm curious about is what you do daily. And these could be things that you practice, routines you follow or tools that you use that help you show up as your best self every day. And if you have any of those that are top of mind that you could share.
Laurence Gonzales (01:15:56):
I'll tell you a little story. So the joke among computer engineers is if you invented a computer that could really think, the first time you turned it on it would say, "That reminds me of a story." We're not there yet. But that reminds me of a story. And the story is a real one, a true one. There was a, what is it called, triathlon. The swimming part of which was in San Francisco Bay. And it's icy cold water, choppy water, very nasty stuff. And this was a seniors contest. So the guy who I'm talking about was probably my age and he won. And so afterwards he got out of the water and they said, "Well, tell us about your training. How did you train? What's your method?" And he said, "Start slow and taper off."
Laurence Gonzales (01:16:49):
And so I took that as a model because I was always a fast go getter kind of person. And I would write really fast and I would do my assignments really fast and try to think fast. And after a while I realized, and my older daughter, Elena, when she was probably, I don't know, seven or eight, said, "You know something about everything, don't you?" And I said, "Well, yeah, kind of." She said, "Well, you're a mile wide and an inch deep." And I thought, "Well, I'd like to get a little deeper." And so I tried deliberately to slow down my natural tendency to jump from place to place and go deeper. And so oftentimes when I sign the book Deep Survival for someone I will put in the place where I sign it, I'll right, go deep.
Daniel Scrivner (01:17:44):
Laurence Gonzales (01:17:45):
And so going deep into a subject, I guess, is something that in my maturity has become very important to me, to learn the underlying stuff.
Daniel Scrivner (01:17:54):
And to take your time with it and not be heard.
Laurence Gonzales (01:17:59):
And not do anything until it's right. And so in Deep Survival I talk about Steve Callahan who was lost at sea for 76 days and had to survive. And he had all kinds of problems, things breaking on his life raft and all that. And he was constantly telling himself, "Take your time. Make it right. You only get to do this once." And it's like Alex Honnold, I don't know if people know this climber. There was a movie made of him called Free Solo, in which he free solos without ropes El Capitan at Yosemite. And the whole the point of the drama of it is that if he slips he dies, there is no do over. And I've come to feel that way about my work, make it right.
Daniel Scrivner (01:18:50):
Yeah. Take your time. That is perfect note to end on. Thank you so much for all the stories, for all the wisdom that you brought in and for being on the show.
Laurence Gonzales (01:18:58):
You're quite welcome. Thanks. It's a great show.
Daniel Scrivner (01:19:04):
Until next time, thank you so much for tuning in. For show notes, including links to anything and everything mentioned in this episode, please go to outliers.fm. If you enjoyed this episode, sign up for my weekly newsletter. You'll be the first to hear about new episodes before they're released and you'll get the best quotes, themes and ideas from each episode in a weekly update I call Inside the Episode. To sign up for that just go to outliers.fm/newsletter.
Daniel Scrivner (01:19:33):
Just two more things before you take off. Number one, if you enjoyed this episode, please leave a review in iTunes. My amazing team and I invest countless hours planning, researching and editing each episode because we want all of them to be amazing. And we hope you enjoyed listening. If you did, please consider taking 30 seconds to leave a short review in Apple Podcasts or iTunes. Reviews are crucial in helping us get the best guests and helping more people find Outliers. So if you have 30 seconds, please take a moment and leave a short review.
Daniel Scrivner (01:20:05):
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On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today.
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