Volume 39, Issue 4, April  2004


Survival of the Fittest

Everyone tells me the same thing nowadays—that they are surviving, but not really happy with their returns. 

“We are in what I call survival mode,” one fabricator told me, “we are maintaining the business until the economy rebounds enough to let us grow.” 

“There are two main differences between doing business now and doing business when the economy is good,” said another contract glazier whom I highly respect. “The first is that we are not making any real money and the second is that it is just not fun.”

Ah, fun. Fun is the difference between a walk in the woods and a march against death. Fun is the difference between a swim in calm waters and a live-or-die fight against a riptide. 

With that in mind, I recently completed reading the book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. While not on my list of must- or best-reads, it was interesting nonetheless. Gonzales included some actual survival stories of heroic proportion, but most of the book focused on what internal characteristics led certain people to survive while others did not. It occurred to me that most of what he found out about people holds true for companies in survival mode as well.

Gonzales says those who survive go through many of the same stages that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified in On Death and Dying. They pass through the stages of fear, anger, bargaining and acceptance in much the same way as a terminally ill person might. In order to survive, however, they must move quickly to acceptance—acceptance of and adaptation to their new world. They do not spend their time on what they should have done. They accept where they are and turn their single and total focus to surviving in that new world.
He feels the single-most important trait of survivors is their willingness to develop a new “mental map” of their situation quickly and adapt to it with speed. For example, he says most people who remain lost are those who continue to try to retrace their steps in an attempt to recapture where they went wrong. Those who survive recognize that what they thought to be the case isn’t and immediately begin developing a new mental map based on where they are now.

Finally, Gonzales says all the survivors with whom he spoke had three additional traits: they were able to assess their situation accurately and never denied the fact that it was precarious and they might not make it; they did not panic; and they never lost their sense of humor (even if it did become black humor over time). Finally, Gonzales says each survivor had the ability to do things that might be perceived as cold emotionally in order to survive. He tells of those who had to toss their dead friends overboard to lighten boats so they wouldn’t sink or cut ropes on mountains to save themselves. In each case, logic overrode emotion.

Though he doesn’t draw it himself, Gonzales’s research has implications for business owners as well. It’s harder to survive in a tough economic environment. But those companies that are able to accept the situation and adapt quickly, assess their situation accurately and make difficult, rational choices have a better chance of doing so than those who don’t. Then, maybe, they will be able to look toward having fun again. —Deb


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