Updating ‘be prepared’ for the 21st Century

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, Ripley, Amanda

Amanda Ripley has taken an interesting premise and turned it into an excellent book. A writer for Time magazine, she’s turned her attention to the lessons to be had from the ordinary people who survive extraordinary situations; those who got out of the World Trade Center on 9/11, who survived the tsunami in 2004, who make it out of burning planes and burning buildings. In place of the “be afraid” messages conveyed by the nightly news and by too many of those in positions of authority, she digs into the psychological dimensions of “be prepared” for the range of risks, real and imagined, that confront today’s average citizen.

There are two overarching messages woven into her fascinating storytelling around disasters big and small. The first is a simple model of the psychology of response (and non-response) to the unexpected threat; an arc of denial, deliberation, and decision. Ripley touches on our generally poor abilities to assess risk, how the physiology of fear interferes with our ability to think, why some people are more likely to be resilient than others, and why panic happens far less often than we think. More importantly, she demonstrates how small doses of attention and both mental and physical rehearsal improve the chances that you will be able to do the right thing should the need arise.

The second theme is about the central importance of regular people who are prepared to act when the moment comes. Through all of Ripley’s stories, whether of the World Trade Center or an ordinary car accident, by the time that official “first responders” and the authorities arrive, it’s too late. When the unexpected occurs, what you have with you and who you are surrounded by are what you get to work with. More often than not, that’s also more than enough.

Of course, there is a website and a blog associated with the book. Both appear to be better than the norm for these sorts of thinks. In particular, I’ve found the Unthinkable Blog to be worth adding to my list of RSS subscriptions.