True grit—Review: The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood

wordsday_barDo you have what it takes?

survivorsclub-coverThat’s the basic question that drives Ben Sherwood’s book The Survivors Club. In a crisis, what determines whether a person survives? “Why do some people live and others die?” Sherwood wondered. “How do certain people make it through the most difficult trials while others don’t?”

The reasons, of course, vary—but they’re also quite surprising.

In The Survivors Club, Sherwood, a best-selling author and award-winning journalist, delves into the science of survival. He talks to survival experts, doctors, psychologists, training instructors, rescuers, and researchers in an attempt to find out just exactly what “it” is for a clearer sense of what it takes to survive.

For instance, Sherwood undergoes training at the Aviation Survival Training Center, run by the United States Marines, where helicopter pilots learn the skills they need to survive a crash-landing in the water. To learn about g-forces, he has the Navy shoot him out of a jet fighter’s ejection seat.

Sherwood writes about these experiences with deliberate attention to detail. After all, his account may be the closest any of his readers will come to experiencing the sorts of ordeals he puts himself through in the name of research. But by sharing his experiences with readers, Sherwood shares important insights into things that can help a reader improve his/her own “Survivors IQ.”

“When it comes to survival,” Sherwood writes, “there’s a whole lot you can’t control, and a surprising amount you can.”

Sherwood investigates whether “the will to live” makes a difference in survival. He looks at biological factors and genetic dispositions that affect survival. He looks at faith. He looks at preparedness. He looks at luck (and, importantly, whether an individual can manufacture his/her own luck).

But at its most compelling, The Survivors Club recounts some remarkable stories—a phrase I don’t use lightly—about some remarkable survivors. Sherwood finds people who have lived through a mind-boggling array of calamities and crises.

“[I]f you can conceive of a crisis,” he says, “I’ve probably interviewed someone who as gone through it and come out on the other side.” He sounds a little boastful, perhaps, but by the end of the book it’s apparent Sherwood was merely stating a fact.

There’s Anne Hjelle, who had her face eaten off by a mountain lion. There’s Ellin Klor, impaled on a knitting needle after tripping on a sidewalk. There’s Ken Hines, one of only twenty-eight people to ever survive a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge (Sherwood calls it “the world’s most exclusive Survivors Club”). There’s Vesna Vulovic, who survived a six-mile plunge to earth from an airliner.

There are well-known tales, too, like that of Trisha Meili, the “Central Park Jogger,” raped and beaten and left for dead by an unknown assailant. There’s Nando Parrado, a rugby player who survived a plane crash in the Andes Mountains by eating the remains of his dead teammates.

“After all these years,” Parrado says, “this is still the best advice I can give you. Savor your existence. Live every moment. Do not waste a breath.”

Indeed, Sherwood’s book is both cautionary and affirming. He offers practical tips for improving one’s chances of survival, and he talks about the mindset a person can cultivate to improve survival chances, too. The last section of his book includes a complex test that helps a person discover one’s own “survival personality” and the psychological tools one can draw on in times of crisis.

The survivors’ tales are both frightening and inspiring, but as compelling as those tales make the book, the additional research Sherwood pours into it, woven into well-written narratives, makes The Survivors Club endlessly fascinating.

The Survivors Club is not a book any aspiring backwoods survivalist would want to pack as a how-to bible, but it is a book for anyone else interested in improving their odds in a random, crazy world. The Survivors Club can give anyone a little extra “It.”

2 replies »

  1. Haven’t read the book yet, but I’m familiar with a couple of those stories — including Vesna Vulovic. I love crash survival stories, like those that came to the fore after Capt. Sully’s landing.

    But sometimes, if a person has a deep faith, it’s not that big a deal if they die. Life’s not reflexively worth hanging on to.

  2. I read the book and found great value. That being said, successful market traders all have an innate sense of “survivorship bias.” which is similar to the survival skills in the Andes at 16.000 feet.