When faced with adversity, what does it take to be a survivor?
New York Times Best Seller and Longmeadow native Michael Tougias answers this question in his new book, “Extreme Survival: Lessons from Those Who Have Triumphed Against All Odds.” The book is the culmination of three decades of interviews with people who have survived when faced with impossible situations.
Zydalis Bauer spoke with Tougias to learn more about the collection, the unimaginable circumstances his subjects faced, and what he hopes readers can take away from their stories.
You can hear the survivors’ tales in their own words on the author’s website.
Hear Michael Tougias read from “Extreme Survival” in a digital exclusive clip.
CORRECTION: The host misidentified the name of the book as “Extreme Survival: Lessons from Those Who Have Survived Against All Odds.” The title of the book is “”Extreme Survival: Lessons from Those Who Have Triumphed Against All Odds.” We regret the error.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: When faced with adversity, what does it take to be a survivor?
New York Times best seller and Longmeadow native, Michael Tougias, answers this question in his new book, “Extreme Survival: Lessons from Those Who Have Survived Against All Odds,” which is the culmination of three decades of interviews with people who have persevered through impossible situations.
I spoke with Tougias to learn more about the collection, the unimaginable circumstances his subjects faced, and what he hopes readers can take away from their stories.
Michael Tougias, NY Times Bestselling Author: For many years I’ve been writing true survival stories, where people might be out at sea for three days after they fell out of a boat, or trapped on a mountaintop, or in a crevasse. And as I was writing those and I would interview these people, I started to see some common mindsets that they use to get through the ordeal.
And I said, “What if I combined a book that had these edge of your seat stories with what I learned of how you get through adversity, real tough adversity.”
So while their adversity is life and death, I’m thinking we could all use these for everyday challenges when we’re struggling.
Zydalis Bauer: And I wanted to talk about that because this is one of several books that you’ve written on survival, including your book “The Finest Hours,” which was made into a Disney movie, so congratulations on that.
Tell me what intrigues you so much about this topic, when did this fascination start for you?
Michael Tougias: My first book of this kind was “Ten Hours until Dawn” and that took place off the coast of Massachusetts during the blizzard of 1978.
And I kept asking myself to the survivors, “How did you do it?” I would have burst out in tears and given up.
And that’s what drove me, so over the years, I would go to these survivor’s homes — in one case, I spent a whole week with them. And every night we’d talk about what happened and I dig deeper. Ok – “What were you thinking? This. “How did you make that right decision without getting panicked there?” And pretty soon it was coming, coming together.
So that was my — my impetus of I couldn’t do it, I want to learn how they did it.
Zydalis Bauer: So that if you find yourself in these situations, you can get yourself out of it as well, right?
Michael Tougias: Well, I have I have used it when I’ve gone through personal struggles in my personal life.
So I have used — you know, like the chapter one is the power of little steps that I learned from these extreme survivors. Don’t just think, ‘Oh my God, I’ll never get there. It’s so overwhelming. There’s so much and it’s so far fetched to ever make it.’
I’m thinking in my personal life, if I have a real problem, it’s like: just focus on the next hour, do the right thing for as long as it takes and you’re going to get there and give yourself pats on the back.
So I use — I use those techniques.
Zydalis Bauer: So before we get into some of those stories, because I’d love to hear about some of your favorite ones, I want to hear about some of the patterns that you’ve noticed amongst the survivors. What traits make a survivor?
Michael Tougias: I would, if I had to sum it up in just a couple of words, it would be tough skinned individualists.
They march to their own drummer, the very best survivors, and I did notice when I questioned them about their childhood, all of them had done something unusual in their teens.
For example, one of them said, ‘Oh, I, I rode a bike from Cali –, from Canada to Mexico. And I said, ‘A motorcycle?’ He said, ‘No bicycle.’ I go, ‘Who do you go with?’ He goes, ‘Nobody.’ I go, ‘Where did you stay?’ He said, ‘By the side of the road.’
I mean, I would have never done that at age 18 or 19. So you could see why he made it when he’s in the North Atlantic being tumbled in a life raft in November because he’d been doing some tough things on his own before.
So he was a real individualist.
Zydalis Bauer: And do you think if you aren’t born with these natural traits that you mentioned, like being an individualist or tough skin, is this something that you think we can develop as as we go on?
Michael Tougias: Partially.
Zydalis Bauer: That’s interesting, yeah, elaborate on that.
Michael Tougias: You know, for example, I would probably be okay with — okay for as long as it takes, power of little steps, just focused on the next hour, not the big picture, but I wouldn’t be very good at a lot of survivor’s strength of solving technical problems.
They were good like that, say their water purification system if they’re in the life raft, like Steve Callahan who drifted across the whole Atlantic Ocean in a life raft, he knew how to fix it. I would never have fixed it.
So, so some skills can be learned, you know, and others I think you’re you’re born with them.
Zydalis Bauer: No, that’s a really good point.
We can’t all be survivors. That’s why we hear these stories and we learn from them.
So speaking of the stories, you spoke to over 100 different people that have gone through extreme circumstances, what are some of your favorite accounts that we will come across in this book?
Michael Tougias: Well, many of the accounts didn’t make it into the book because they were too short, so I wouldn’t term those as extreme.
So I’m looking for people that survived a multiday event. And I open up with one of the most powerful ones, if you like I can read you a paragraph.
His name is Brad Cavanagh from — from Massachusetts, and he was in a life raft with five others, only two survived. And two of the men in the life raft, after a few days, were so dehydrated they started sipping seawater. That’s not good, it dehydrates your brain.
And one of them suddenly goes, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to the store and get some beer.’ And Brad goes, ‘No, no, no, you’re in a life raft.’ And the guy steps out and boom, the sharks get them.
The sharks have been circling the life raft for 24 hours.
So I open the book, you know, on a kind of a dramatic note.
It says “The five shipwreck survivors clinging to the 11 foot inflatable zodiac were in the trough of a 30 foot swell and looked up into the green walls of water. That’s when they saw the sharks. Brad Cavanagh, age 21, could clearly see three sharks, and one was larger than the Zodiac. Quote ‘It was bad enough seeing how large the shark was, but even worse was that the shark could clearly see us.'”
So I open the book that way, they’re in the life raft, and you’re wondering who’s going to make it and who doesn’t.
And Brad was kind enough to answer my many questions of ‘How did you keep it together and keep fighting?’
And he had just said from the very beginning, this is my new world and I’m going to take it as far as I can.
And I said, wow, that’s — that’s like what Ernie Hazard said. He said, ‘I’m going to go down fighting.’
So you began to see how their mindsets were really tough.
Zydalis Bauer: No, it’s chilling just hearing the accounts.
And I think I’m with you, I don’t know if I would be one of those survivors in those situations, but it’s absolutely inspiring.
What has writing this book taught you about yourself? And beyond the book — because you’ve been doing this for 35 years, collecting these stories.
Michael Tougias: I realize that we’re probably all much stronger than we think we are.
Because again, in my personal life with an illness, I used a couple of lessons I learned and it was just don’t set a deadline when you’re going to get better, but just keep making little steps each day and pretty soon you’ll string together a bunch of days and over time you’re going to feel better.
But if you set a deadline and you’re not better, then you’re going to be crushed.
And I learned that from survivors, that they just had that mindset.
Like John McCain, I write about him in the book. He was a P.O.W. and he said, ‘I would hear rumors about us being released.’ It was seven years of captivity. But he said, ‘I didn’t get too high from those because it would be crushing when it didn’t happen.’
Zydalis Bauer: And so what would be your key takeaway for readers when they read this book?
Michael Tougias: Well, they’re going to be entertained because everybody loves a good survival story and learn.
But I have a feeling this is one book that people aren’t going to lend out because they’re going to say, I’m going to keep this for the day that I’m in a tough situation –and we all will be.
And then I want to go over some of those lessons learned.
So I’m like my other — like “Ten hours Until Dawn” the one about the blizzard, once you get through it, you know what happened and you put it aside, you might give it to a friend. This one you’re going to want to go back to it.