By Diana Hsieh
Daniel Wahl was kind enough to permit me to publish the following interview with John Heatherly, the author of The Survival Template. I've not yet read the book, but it sounds quite interesting... and you'll definitely see some paleo connections here! -- DH
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with John Heatherly, author of The Survival Template -- a short book that applies survival skills and the mentality of those who survive extraordinarily harsh conditions to the task of succeeding in ordinary, modern times.
Daniel Wahl: I appreciate you joining me today, John. What motivated you to start learning survival skills?
John Heatherly: Growing up I always did well academically, so in college started looking for knowledge outside of the academic realm. My childhood and upbringing were good, but like a lot of college-aged kids, I wondered if I had missed something or if suburban life had neglected to teach me some of the truths I was looking for. I studied primitive survival skills and the cultures that surrounded them as part of a personal approach to education, and continued to practice them after I joined the military.
DW: How did you acquire these esoteric skills -- from others, from trial and error?
JH: Much of my early training came from survival classes. The first survival course I attended was at Tom Brown's Trackerschool in New Jersey, a school that presents information clearly with little dogma. I remember Tom saying, "Don't believe every word I tell you -- prove me right or wrong." Later I went on to complete a number of military survival training programs that would serve as a foundation for trial and error learning to come. Unfortunately the "error" parts of the process became my biggest teachers, though I am happy now about what I learned from these many mistakes.
Books have been important teachers as well. Viktor Frankl, Hyemeyohsts Storm, Tom Brown, Norman Vincent Peale -- all of these authors have been helpful to me. Even fiction has been helpful at times. As Stephen King says, "Fiction is the truth inside the lie."
DW: In The Survival Template, you say something that may surprise readers -- namely, that one of the most important survival skills is the ability to identify objectives in writing. Does this mean that being able to jot down "gather firewood" is more important than being able to, for example, run an 8-minute mile?
JH: Yes, after attitude, which I consider to be the most important skill, written objectives can make all the difference. In your example, jotting down "gather firewood" is definitely more important than physical fitness, assuming that firewood is a legitimate objective in your circumstances.
DW: Most people in the West today never have to worry about surviving life-threatening conditions -- but you argue that the "object-oriented mentality" needed to do so remains vitally important. Can you share an experience in your own life -- or that of a friend -- where this mindset has proven especially effective in the modern world?
JH: Definitely. Often people allow familiarity or the lack of familiarity with a given environment to determine their mentality. For example, many of us (myself included) have developed an object-oriented mentality when dealing with nature, and then revert to a confused, helpless mentality when faced with problems in our day-to-day personal lives. Failures in relationships, jobs, and financial matters have occasionally caused us to "punt" mentally without considering that the mental faculties used in a survival scenario can be applied to a personal scenario. The written lists of objectives prescribed in the book help to capture and focus your mental abilities in any environment.
DW: Whether struggling to obtain a life-serving object out in the wilderness or achieve a life-serving goal in the city, how important is it to specify exactly what it is that's wanted? For example, will "seek shelter" and "get in shape" do -- or is "find stones to reinforce shelter" and "do 100 push-ups" better?
JH: In both pursuits it is best to consider a term (from Jim Collins' book Good to Great) called "The Stockdale Paradox." This paradox describes Vice Admiral James Stockdale's mentality during seven years of captivity in Vietnam. He said, "I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade."
When asked who did not survive captivity, Stockdale answered: "Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart...
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end -- which you can never afford to lose -- with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."
So concerning your question about the nature of obtaining an object: it is better to define exactly what is wanted, and then to flex as conditions dictate. Note that Stockdale chose to make the negative experience of captivity a defining event. This mental device can be valuable when things do not go exactly as planned.
DW: I particularly enjoyed the parts of your book where you discuss the three-day ruck rule, which highlights the importance of sticking with some new habit for at least three days -- after which it becomes easier -- and the creation of "crucible" experiences that are both opportunities to use and tests of what you learned. Which if any of these skills did you find helpful in writing your book?
JH: After carrying a heavy ruck sack beyond the "three day barrier," and feeling my body adjust to the stress, I decided to mentally frame other circumstances in my life as similar "crucibles." Over time these experiences became part of me, so in writing a book I had no doubts whatsoever in the effective value of my ideas. Much like my teacher Tom Brown, I do not expect readers to believe every concept in my book, but to try them out and prove me right or wrong.
DW: At one point in The Survival Template, you encourage readers to write out what they want to achieve over different lengths of time and then to connect those goals to the extent possible. How do you connect such seeming unrelated goals as "be able to do a certain number of pull-ups" and "make a certain amount of money each year"?
JH: First it should be noted that great minds like Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss, and others have pointed out that physical exercise improves productivity. I also agree with Mark Sisson (author of The Primal Blueprint) who says that our genes have evolved to handle physical challenges, and exercise can "optimize the expression of our genetic potential." All of these efforts tie together, and writing them down helps.
But it is not necessary for every single goal, like achieving a certain number of pull-ups or a certain amount of money to be directly related. Most important is that a person learns to develop an awareness of the mental mechanisms that they use to accomplish things, and an awareness of how their thoughts are tied to the reality that they experience. A written template facilitates this kind of awareness.
DW: How and when did you come to realize the universal value of survival training skills?
JH: Over a three-year period in my early twenties I trained hard, dealt with lack of food, lack of sleep, extreme cold, etc... and began to realize that the worldview I had grown up with was limited. Truthfully, I had more control over events than I gave myself credit for. After experiencing a new perspective in the woods, and then considering the heroic experiences of Frankl, Stockdale, and others like them, I started to believe that this type of study had hidden value. Later on, many of these concepts were tested in the unexpected ups and downs of life, and I learned to appreciate them in a real way.
DW: Interesting. Did you decide to write the book at that time or did something else spur you to make that decision?
JH: The idea for the book was born in those days, as I saw people succeed in the woods by chronicling objectives before wasting energy on plans that were not well conceived. Over the next decade I experimented with personal "survival templates" to manage my own life, eventually coming to the realization that these techniques are extremely powerful.
In 2010 my son was born, and I finally wrote and published the book with him in mind. When he is older I want this book to help him to avoid many of the mistakes that I made along the way as well as teach him how to use a survivor's mentality toward the development of his abilities.
DW: As a new father, I definitely understand that feeling. It's amazing how much more motivation I have for any project that my son might one day get value out of.
JH: So true. Your whole perspective changes when you have a kid.
DW: Let me ask you one final, somewhat related question. I particularly enjoyed your observation that being object-oriented is useful in dealing not only with the elements of nature but also with other people. How has this realization helped in your own life?
JH: After years of developing written templates in my own personal life, I started to consider: "What if my boss, or my co-worker, or my customer, were to write a template of objectives -- what would be important to them?"
The practice has helped me to strengthen relationships with all of these people even though I rarely discuss it with anyone directly. Even when stressed or angry, people can sense when you notice and appreciate or help them move toward their objectives. The process facilitates trust, and in business trust can accomplish a lot.
DW: I agree. And I trust, given the "survival template" you've developed, that you'll continue to accomplish a lot in the future.
JH: Thank you, Daniel. Same to you.
Note from Diana: You can buy The Survival Template from Amazon.