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“Everyone’s got a limit, but actually, it’s a lot further away than you expect” – How to Survive with John Hudson

“Everyone’s got a limit, but actually, it’s a lot further away than you expect” – How to Survive with John Hudson

Survival expert John Hudson. Credit: Rob Sixsmith

If you find yourself in a sticky situation, one man we’d all like to have on speed dial is survival expert John Hudson. He knows more than a thing or two about how to stay alive in some of the most remote and extreme environments around the globe.

John is the British Military’s Chief SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance & Extraction) Instructor and has written the UK’s joint services survival training manual, not to mention revising the RAF’s memoir found in all military aircraft survival packs.

He’s also been a resident survival expert on two series of Discovery’s prime-time TV show Survive That, or Dude You’re Screwed to our American friends, which showcased his serious survival skills to an audience of millions.

His brilliant new book, How to Survive, out later this month, is a collection of a lifetime’s worth of wisdom about how to apply the principles of survival to everyday life.

Here John cleverly weaves his own knowledge on the subject with some of the most incredible accounts of survival throughout history. It’s the perfect template to help us all get through the various challenges we face on a daily basis.

We spoke to John recently about how we can all prepare better for any eventuality. The practical techniques we can use to control stress and how situational awareness can be applied to our everyday life.

The MALESTROM: So How to Survive is essentially translating your wealth of survival knowledge into everyday practical use? 

John Hudson: Yeah, that’s the goal I suppose, hopefully, there’s a little bit of demystification as well. I’m currently at St Morgan Airfield where we train the pilots. Just across the fence line, I can see a Tornado, so the jets that until recently were doing bombing raids in the Middle East, they’ve been retired now.

But, if you look at the workload of somebody sat in a fast jet bomber, and the future ones are going to fly off aircraft carriers which is even harder, the workload of somebody like that, who is going to do high-risk missions in cheeky areas around the globe, even if they’re not on an actual mission, they’re still crossing vast swathes of the planet, they’re going across jungles deserts, and cold and wet areas being the hardest.

If you look at their mission set, they’ve got so much going on in their heads, military survival has to be something that’s taken back to core principles, down to those fundamental underlying things that you can translate anywhere. If we try to make a Royal Air Force pilot a bushcraft ninja in the classic sense, in any of those environments, it’s just too much.

These guys have to have stuff that they can remember, possibly if they’re injured, but, certainly, if they’ve got a massive dump of brain chemicals anywhere in the world. So, what I’ve tried to do is to get that overlay that you can apply anywhere.

And if you can apply it on the ground in the wilderness, I know you can apply the same principles in a career, in an urban environment or in any sort of stressful situation. Be it, just a personal one or a work-related one. So it’s just that, letting people know that, within us all, we’re not going to be tested like Lance Sijan,(one of the fantastic survival stories in John’s book) but we are capable of achieving more than we think when our backs are against the wall.

TM: Would you say we’ve all got the same primal survival instincts?

JH: Yeah, there’s an interesting part to this. Because we’ve now got such amazing technology where you can look at peoples brains in an imaging machine while they’re doing tasks which involve motivation and problem solving, we’re getting a much clearer view, by we I mean the scientists, of how that happens.

Because that sort of knowledge is out there now and I’ve tried to access it through certain access points that the reader can then do further research from. Some of the books that I’ve used cite articles, so I’ve just flagged up the book so it’s more accessible.

So, if you look at a bog-standard human being in the scale from left to right, and we’re all slightly different, there is something within us that means because you’ve got to the point where you’re reading the book, you are inevitably going to be a survivor. You’ve made it this far in your life, you’ve got that in you.

There will be things that test that, that innate core, but what I’m saying in the book like you can go to the gym and bulk up, we can also all improve how we respond to things psychologically and mentally. And it’s not as hard as you think. Essentially that’s all we do when we do military survival training for fast jet pilots.

They’ve got a load to learn anyway, all we’re doing is opening a door that shows that they can perform better, and they know that from other stuff that they’ve done like the emergency drills on the aeroplane. If you can get the reader to understand, that we all have this latent capacity, but equally we can expand and develop it, then we are capable of coping with things that at first glance you think, “oh no that’s too difficult”. Everyone’s got a limit, but actually, it’s a lot further away than you expect.

Survival expert John Hudson looks off camera with stick behind his shoulders. Credit: Rob Sixsmith
Credit: Rob Sixsmith

TM: One thing you talk about in How to Survive is preperation, how can we all build a better foundation by being prepared?

JH: There are two things I think answer that. One of them is psychological and one of them is physical. To do the physical one first, and I’m not knocking any schools, but there are a load of people out there that will do survival training if you want it, and I’m not saying that that is a bad thing, but, in line with all the other stuff that I’ve spoken about, if you’re going to prioritise what training you get, the very best bit of training people can get is first aid training.

If you’ve not done any first aid then you’re not going to be able to fix yourself, let alone your best friend or your family, if something really bad happens. So, in terms of practical, actual hands-on training, the best thing anyone can do is first aid.

I mentioned the Dr Heimlich story in the book because he was 96 before he got to use the manoeuvre he invented for a choking casualty. He’s kicked around for the best part of his adult life with this trick up his sleeve and he finally gets to use it in a retirement home! So first aid training would be the one thing.

If there are people out there who’ve done some first aid training then yeah get some survival training, get outdoors and experience it with slightly less equipment than you think you can get away with, because it can be done, but first aid training is the key.

The second part, the more esoteric bit, what can people use to prepare for anything, you can’t. And, it’s too much to try to troubleshoot every possible scenario because you just end up worrying too much and stress is bad for you anyway.

But, if there is a thing that you know is a high stakes event for you and I’ve tried to use stuff that we can all relate to from our day-to-day working life background. So if, there are some high stakes, if you’ve maybe decided you really want that career change or you want to go and do something a bit different, less mundane, if you have an interview for example, it would be daft not to prepare mentally, not just for the interview itself, but the important part is just the getting to it and making sure you’re on time and in the right mindset.

So it’s simple things like ‘what would I do if?’ Pilots have a lot of ‘what ifs’ already mapped out on a document before they go. So in the worst-case scenario ‘what would I do if?’ Dale Zelko is the perfect example, he preloaded his brain with a load of what if questions, but importantly, in the first person in his document he’d answered that ‘I will do this’.

So it was a surprise when he got shot down, but he wasn’t unprepared. The rest of the world their mouths were open but Dale had done the right stuff and just went, ‘ok yeah, this is bad but I know that I’ve got my radio, I’ll make some calls, actually I’m sat under my parachute, I’ve got a couple of minutes until I hit the cold wet ground, I might as well just get the radio out now’.

And, it’s that kind of mental preparedness where, for example, going for a job interview, you think right I’ve got a knackered old car, what if it doesn’t start? Ok, I’ll get the bus. How long’s the queue for the bus? If I’m going to build in some time for this, how much time is sensible, you don’t want to be there too early, so it’s little things like that, having a layered approach, having maybe four options.

So prepare mentally, prepare physically, but the nuanced detail would be prioritise all of it and if you’re going to spend your hard earned cash on physical training, start by doing some first aid because you might actually save your loved ones.

And, if you’re going to do anything that involves that mental workload, think about what would be the biggest threat to you on that day and then balance out how you can mitigate the risk from that threat, by doing a simple contingency plan. Even if that’s looking at Google maps, looking for alternatives in your travel. If you don’t have that in your back pocket, it will be properly stressful if the wheels fall off on the day.

TM: Your ‘Survival Triangle’ is brilliant, and makes total sense, but maybe if could just boil it down for our readers?

JH: So that was my epiphany moment when I was putting all my experience and knowledge into the book. I looked at the patterns that I’d done, I looked at the patterns that others had done and this was my Eureka moment.

So, there’s a psychologist called Martin Seligman who has got an excellent book called Learned Optimism, now Martin Seligman came to the fore in the 1970s and 80s with his theories about why some people can fall into a condition that’s called ‘Learned Helplessness’. And I looked at that and I thought well we could flip that over.

The experiment he did involved animals and electric shocks, so it’s a bit sketchy, and you wouldn’t want to do that, but it probably reflects the time; things were a bit different back then. But, what the experiment proved was that the feeling of hopelessness, that kind of “it’s all over for me”, “there’s nothing I can do”, that kind of bottom of the pile feeling, that isn’t just from suffering. So, if you’re suffering, it does not destroy your hope.

His experiment proved that hopelessness is born from a feeling of suffering that we cannot control. And, that’s kind of the core tenant of the ‘Survival Triangle’. So, if we feel like we’ve got a degree of control over our suffering, and suffering might be your email inbox or it might be being in the jungle with a broken leg, if you feel like you’ve got a degree of self-control over your suffering then you don’t lose hope. If you don’t lose hope, then you can act.

The key thing is just to act, to do something productive. So in Lance Sijan’s situation what he did was, he just started to move, and in work scenarios, you just start tackling the problem one bit at a time. So if you can match what you know you’re capable of to the task at hand, by setting yourself small goals, so you’ve got the hope to do it, you formulate yourself a little plan of how you’re going to do tackle it.

You can then achieve that plan by working, which changes your situation; you know that you’re in control of your situation even if it’s only by a small degree. That’s hope, and hope invigorates your plan and it kind of just cascades nicely around it. It’s what I like to call a ‘Persevere Engine’. You have some kind of life jolt, something bad happens, knowing that you’ve got enough stuff to get started, that you have got a degree of control, that’ll just keep the whole ‘Persevere Engine’ going.

Survival expert John Hudson propped on a gate smiling at camera. Credit: Rob Sixsmith
Credit: Rob Sixsmith

TM: Yeah that idea of hope is what really comes through, that’s key to most of the survival stories in the book. Another thing that’s fascinating is the techniques for panic, and how people can control that?

JH: Well there’s a couple of ways. All we’re doing with these exercises is just rebooting your computer. So your brain is the same hardware that your ancestors had, using the same software and the software that was written is like, human version 1, for the African plain and the leopard attacking, and unfortunately, you get that same stress chemical wash through your brain when you’re attacked by a passive-aggressive email.

So if you feel that panic response coming on, or heightened stress which is the correct way of describing it – because actual panic is very rare. But anyway, if a leopard jumping out gives you the fight, flight or freeze response, which is the supervisory attentional system being overloaded, then what we’re trying to do is engage the rest and digest, and there’s a couple of ways of doing that.

To balance out the chemicals you breathe slowly in through your nose, out through your mouth, and for a bit of leg up on that one, put your hand on your abdomen just below your rib cage and feel the breath going into your belly and out. And, the other one, which a friend and colleague, Surita Robinson, who’s a psychologist in Lancashire has come up with, is chewing gum! Which is kind of intuitive I suppose, because if you’re resting and digesting, you’re probably chewing.

So, what she’s done in her studies is measure the cortisol levels of firefighters and people in helicopters for underwater escape training when they’re chewing and it lowers your stress chemical response after a high-level stress event. So it’s simple techniques that work anywhere, even if you’ve got no gum, chew your empty mouth and breathe. The combination of those two things will lower the cortisol levels in your brain.

TM: Maybe you can talk to us a little bit about Situational Awareness, and what exactly that entails?

JH: Sure, so it’s a military aviation term that I think first came about in the 60s or 70s when they were doing an analysis of fighter pilots who were aces. So they’re looking at the guys who are the best of the best and trying to work out what were the factors that made them so good.

I think that the original book that describes it is called The Ace Factor, but they were guessing at stuff, is it to do with brilliant eyesight? Are they brilliant shots? Are they just capable of sustaining more G? Because Douglas Bader for example, without his legs, he could sustain a load of G – so maybe there’s a physical element to it all?

And what it turned out to be was just that, the best pilots were lucky because they were surprised and shot down without even realising something was going on and partly they made there own luck, so situational awareness born from that background is just a good appreciation of your surroundings and what’s happening in them.

And that’s obviously much more difficult if you’re flying a Spitfire over occupied France because you’ve got 360 degrees above and below you, a cone where the sun’s shining, that you can’t see into and you’re also listening to the radio and staying in formation with your friends and trying to look for little dots in the distant sky and all that sort of swivel neck stuff – which is why they wore silk scarfs, in case anyone ever asks.

So the part in modern society, things like if you’re in an unfamiliar city or environment, on holiday, or if you’re coming up at rush hour to cross a road. Take your earplugs out, because you want to open up all those different portals to increase the amount of local atmospherics that you can soak up to just really avoid falling into any obvious pitfalls, because you’ve turned off your ears, or you’re not paying enough attention because you’re texting when you approach the kerb. But yeah, situational awareness is born from fighter pilot parlance from way back.

John Hudson, author of How to Survive, in the desert dressed in camo with shades on
Credit: John Hudson

TM: You give a good example of going on holiday and going through an airport. A lot of tourists become a massive target, don’t they?

JH: Anyone who’s travelled, at some point has been seen off, because the guys who are trying to see you off, do it every single day. I mean I definitely fell victim to that when I was younger and used to go surfing all over the place.

It’s that thing, don’t be an obvious victim, because there’s plenty of other people that are. It’s like we were talking about earlier, have a little plan in your head of how you’re going to get to the next thing without being caught out in-between.

TM: Something that echoes through the book, is the need to be adaptable. Are we all capable of just switching our mindset like that?

JH: I believe we are. If you look at some of the preeminent psychologists, especially in America, there’s a substantial body of evidence that would suggest that we are as well. I mean we all know the odd person in our lives that is dogmatically refusing to move with the times or accept alternative viewpoints and I suppose that kind of proves the point that 99% of us are capable of it.

But I am convinced that even that one per cent could have a growth mindset if they chose to, but it’s an act of will. The good news for the guys that are reading the book is that by choosing to do so, they are already part way down that road as it is. So all they’re looking for now are ways to fine-tune that malleability, that mental light-footedness.

And if they can take their brain to the gym, in their own headspace, they don’t have to do anything complicated, just by doing a little bit of preemptive planning, then they’re already doing it. As you know, these sort of behaviours become habits, and before you know it, you’ll potentially be turning pessimists into optimists. That’s something Martin Seligman’s work insists we can all do. So it’s more than just being adaptable, it can improve your quality of life.

TM: You mention taking your brain to the gym; in How to Survive you talk about doing certain things to ensure we’re cognitively aware and functioning at full capacity. Any tips?

JH: There’s a couple of angles to this, so you’ve got the really simple easy to achieve end of the spectrum, where it’s just offloading a lot of the guff that you’re carrying in your head into a notebook. I’ve got two in my pockets and one in front of me while I’m talking to you because I’m obsessed with trying to unload my brain as much as I can.

So, just generating a bit of spare mental capacity for things that haven’t happened yet, like things that I need to do, just offload it in there. There are also ways to do that efficiently, which you’ll see in the book, how to streamline it and what order to tackle things in. Then the other part of how to expand your cognitive awareness I suppose is something as simple as going into an outdoor space, just a walk to a park bench or an equivalent thereof.

It’s getting out into a natural habitat because we’re tuned to be in the outdoors, we can detect more shades of green than any other colour for a reason. Just by pushing yourself a little bit, and doesn’t have to be much, people talk about the stretch zone or the groan zone, all your really doing is expanding your comfort zone.

If your comfort expands then you’re more open to new things. You’ll inherently feel more comfortable in more places, which is a good thing, and you start to get that what’s over the next hill type attitude, and that’s when opportunities find you isn’t it? You increase your chances of that lucky break.

TM: And that idea of tuning in your senses to an environment, by opening your mouth a little is fascinating…

JH: Yeah it is isn’t it? So especially at night when we’re doing the evasion type stuff, that’s a great one. And kneeling down, to get a different perspective on things. And then the other part to it with all these rufty tufty type military things is you’re actually just practicing mindfulness, which is of the moment I suppose.

You are, by tuning in to your environment, performing as we evolved to be. At hunter-gatherer pace, you’re walking at the right speed, creative thought will bubble to the surface. Your paying attention, which is good for your brain, good for your body and ultimately it’s good for the soul isn’t it?

TM: You talk about getting a PLAN. How does this translate to everyone’s lives, because we all need food, water and shelter?

JH: Well it works in two different layers that, so PLAN is a word everyone will recognise, but it’s an acronym for military survival to do with prioritising appropriately in any outdoor arena. So that could be the arctic, desert, jungle or at sea in a life raft. The same template applies, but then the other part to it is you’ve got all these practical skills that you’ve prioritised about the outdoors.

Survival expert John Hudson in the Arctic - Author of How to Survive
Credit: John Hudson

If you got through that analysis of why, and you ask why enough times, you get to the route of it. The actual fundamental question in military terms is what will kill me first? If you consider that in a day-to-day environment and you go what’s going to harm me first? That could even be professionally or personally, you prioritise your actions against the real threats, then you’re doing PLAN.

If you’re sat at your desk, doing admin, instructions and orders, then your attacking the priorities in the right order. That’s where that story about the Australians in the book is quite nice because of the lads on the raft…

TM: That’s mad, a brilliant story…

JH: Yeah, it’s amazing, the way they tackled such a multi-dimensional problem. A crocodile-infested swamp and then sharks in the sea, a desert island with no water, it’s a case of what’s going to harm us first?

You look at most of our everyday lives and you’re kind of doing the same thing. There’s a good ‘ism’ from the ‘David Brent Management’ that’s like, what’s the nearest crocodile to the canoe? And that’s got a point you know? Not, what’s the nearest but what’s the worst thing that could happen now.

And if you analyse that and go okay I’m going to deal with that first and all your doing then is just a logical overlay to your prioritisation objectively, rather than what most of us do which is prioritising instinctively, which is inherently subjective, and it’s going to be a process of our biases rather than our analysis.

TM: The final thing would be – what is the one thing you hope people take away from How to Survive?

JH: The bit that I want people to take away is, understanding that how you perform when the chips are down, you can improve. You can improve how you react to bad situations and things that happen.

You’re not born a certain way that predetermines your performance. If you choose to, with a little bit, not a lot, but a little bit of mental and physical effort, mostly mental, you can perform better if the worst happens, whether it’s a disaster or an email in your inbox. You can improve your own performance, there’s no such thing as a born survivor.

How to Survive: Lessons for Everyday Life from the Extreme World by John Hudson is out on June 27th.

John Hudson: How to Survive book cover

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