“There’s no way to stop these accidents from happening, but there’s a way to stop them from happening to you.” – Laurence Gonzales
Laurence Gonzales (@deepsurvivalsm0) is an award-winning author of numerous books about the psychology and neuroscience of survival . In this episode, Laurence and Daniel discuss his newest book, The Chemistry of Fire, a collection of exploratory essays that feed into his work on survival.
Laurence also authored Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, and Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival. He received the Miller Distinguished Scholarship from the Santa Fe Institute in 2016, as well as two National Magazine Awards and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Chapters in this interview:
- 00:00:09 – The concept of the chemistry of fire
- 00:03:43 – An adventure story of ice climbers on Mount Washington
- 00:09:26 – Why people keep going when they know they should turn back
- 00:14:14 – The importance of rules and systems for decision making
- 00:20:09 – The survival of a cross-country skier after a major mishap
- 00:25:52 – Laurence’s work with the Santa Fe Institute
- 00:36:37 – Words of wisdom for 2021
Links from the Episode
- Connect with Laurence: Twitter | Website
- Ice climbing
- Mount Washington
- Tesla self-driving cars
- Kelly criterion
- Pinnacle Gully
- Huntington Ravine
- Vito Seskunas
- Grand Teton National Park
- Michael Lachmann
- Max Plank Institute
- Nobel Prize - Gravitational Waves
- Geoffrey West
- Superconducting Super Collider
- Bill Miller
- Michael Larson
- Cascade Investment
- Santa Fe Institute
Books by Laurence Gonzales
- The Chemistry of Fire: Essays (2020)
- Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (2017)
- One Zero Charlie: Adventures in Grass Roots Aviation (2015)
- Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival (2014)
- House of Pain: New and Selected Essays (2013)
- Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience (2012)
- Lucy (2010)
- Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things (2009)
Daniel Scrivner (00:00):
Laurence. I am so excited to have you here again for part two of our conversation. Thank you so much for joining me again on Outliers.
Laurence Gonzales (00:07):
Daniel Scrivner (00:09):
So as a jumping off point, we're going to talk a bit about your latest book, which is called the Chemistry of Fire. And it's a collection of essays that you've written over a pretty long period of time. And where I wanted to start was if maybe you can expand on the idea behind the title. And I know the last chapter in the book is called the chemistry of fire, but was there something driving that idea in your mind?
Laurence Gonzales (00:32):
Yes. And it's interesting. I've had that title in my head for probably 25 years or so. And a long time ago, I don't know where it came from. It popped into my head and I started playing around with writing it as a novel, writing it as a screenplay, writing it is this, writing it as that. And I was trying to get to the heart of why that resonated with me. And I think finally having found its home, I can see now what it was about.
Laurence Gonzales (01:02):
And it was about the concept that one way to remain completely safe throughout your life is never to love anybody because you can't get hurt if you don't commit to loving somebody. And when I first had children in 1981, when my first child Alena was born, I was suddenly seized with this terrifying revelation that there was suddenly a fate worse than death.
Laurence Gonzales (01:27):
I mean, I had a child and if anything should happen to her, this was a fate worse than death. Not that I didn't love other people like my wife and my parents and siblings and friends and all that, but it was such a deeper commitment that it frightened me. I mean, it of course excited me and I was delighted and loved having kids, but also it's a deep sense of, "Wow, you're really committed. And you're really out there on a limb."
Laurence Gonzales (01:57):
There are all these things in life that you can do and you can undo, you can buy a house, you can sell it, you can get a new car. You can even get divorced and get a new wife. There's all kinds of things you can undo, but you can't undo children. And so that's a very deep concept, I think. And the chemistry of fire as a phrase means this kindling of that commitment and love and vulnerability. And so in this book, I've tried to capture among other things that sense of deep involvement that comes when you love people.
Daniel Scrivner (02:33):
And how does this book fit in with all the other books that you've written in your mind? Is this an expansion? Is this an encapsulation of stories around that theme?
Laurence Gonzales (02:42):
Well, this is the precursor work that I did that led up to my book Deep Survival. It's not all that, but a lot of it is that the title essay Chemistry of Fire was written after deep survival, but it was along the same lines. But the initial work that led me to Deep Survival is contained in this book, the Chemistry of Fire and the previous collection of essays, which is called House of Pain.
Laurence Gonzales (03:10):
And these are all exploratory essays that led me eventually to ask the questions that I try to answer in Deep Survival, not only having to do with physical survival in places like wilderness areas, but having to do with decisions in life that we all make. And many times we make and regret and look back and think, why did I do that? And so this was the initial exploration through a large part of my life to gather the background that allowed me to go deep when I wrote Deep Survival.
Daniel Scrivner (03:43):
Can you share for people listening, I'm sure they're going to be familiar with Deep Survival because we talked about that in the last interview quite a bit, but for people listening, can you share a little bit about the types of stories in this book? And if there are any that just have a special place in your heart or that you're especially fond of?
Laurence Gonzales (03:59):
The Chemistry of Fire starts out with an adventure story. So it fits in with the Deep Survival thematic material. And it's these two guys and they're learning to ice climb and they've been out a few times and they decide they're going to take it up a notch and they're going to climb on Mount Washington. And when I did this story, I went up to Mount Washington to do it. And there are these big signs as you go up the trail that say, "Stop Mount Washington has the worst weather in the world." It doesn't have some of the worst weather in the world. It has the worst weather in the world. And so I follow these two guys up there. I don't mean physically. I mean, historically I followed them up there where they climb this ice wall. They get about halfway up, the sun is going down.
Laurence Gonzales (04:49):
Everybody sees them. Everybody can see you up there. And they're thinking, "Why are these two guys still going?" It's five o'clock in the afternoon and the sun's going down and they're only halfway up. Night is going to fall on them pretty soon. And they just keep going and going. And of course, you can tell right from the beginning of the story, that this story is going to end badly, which it does.
Laurence Gonzales (05:11):
And this is an essay that, of course, it's about Mount Washington and about their experiences, but it's also about how we become prisoners of our own compulsion's and decisions or lack of decisions. And so that sets the stage for, for the idea of a book full of risk and adventure in different guises.
Daniel Scrivner (05:35):
What I would love to do is kind of walk through it and explore the decisions they made along the way and how they ended up getting beholden to some of these poor decisions. But I just want to start by reading off the first paragraph of the chapter, which is when Monroe Cooper and Eric Laddy left Harvard, Cameron and Huntington ravine. The weather was not bad considering that they were on Mount Washington. The temperature was in the teens and the wind gusts range from 40 to 60 miles an hour on the summit, the weather was forecast to hold.
Daniel Scrivner (05:59):
And since they didn't plan to go to the summit, they weren't worried. They were going to climb a frozen waterfall known as pinnacle goalie and be back to the cabin before dark. They decided to travel light and leave their larger overnight packs at the cabin. That last sentence in particular, leaving their overnight packs, maybe alludes a little bit to what's going to happen in the story, but can you walk us through the decisions that they made and how things ended up so poorly?
Laurence Gonzales (06:23):
Well, so first of all, anytime you go out in a wilderness setting, you have to assume the worst. It's like if you're going to run a river, the intelligent guides will tell you prepare to swim because you might end up in the water. And so if you're going out in the wilderness prepare to spend the night because you might have to do that. And there isn't any weather that you can't survive if you're dressed correctly.
Laurence Gonzales (06:48):
Scientists work in the Arctic all the time and you just have to have the right equipment. Well, leaving the packs at the cabin was a bad decision. Under the best of circumstances, it was a bad decision because that's what the pack is for. And this just, I think, showed their inexperience and enthusiasm for what they were doing. And they'd done a few climbs and they thought I'm starting to get to know this.
Laurence Gonzales (07:14):
So that was the first thing. The second thing is they actually hiked to where the climb was supposed to start and realized that they'd forgotten their rope. Now this is a game ender. So if something is wrong with you to the point that you're going climbing and you've forgotten your rope, this is a really bad sign and should have ended the trip right there. Anyway, they went back to the cabin, got the rope, and then made the hike again to start the climb.
Laurence Gonzales (07:41):
And this was the beginning of the end for them because first of all, it indicated that they really were dead set on climbing this thing, no matter what the signs were against it. And secondly, they'd already burned half their day. And there was no way they could get to the top in time. Anyway, they proceeded to climb and could have at various points along that climb, put in an ice screw and repelled to the ground.
Laurence Gonzales (08:08):
As one of the rescuers said, "You lose 50 bucks for your ice screw, but you come out alive." By the time they got up the a third or half of the way, they were both tired, they were hypothermic and they were not thinking straight. The first thing that happens when you start to get cold is your reason goes out the window.
Laurence Gonzales (08:30):
And as it does, you begin to make worse and worse decisions. And the usual decision is to just keep going. That's a very human, it's a very animal thing to do. And it's the simplest thing to do. And it's what they did. And it's what killed them just by keeping going. And they were clearly exhausted. It had taken them way too long to get it as high as they were. Anyway, not to spoil the story but when they got to the top, the weather had indeed changed.
Laurence Gonzales (08:58):
And along the way, they could see the weather in the distance coming Mount Washington it gives you a lot of hints. It's a place where you can see in the distance. My father was a pilot and he taught me as a pilot. He said, "There's one rule about weather. If it looks bad, it is bad." All you have to do is look at the sky. If it's black, this is not good news. And that's exactly what they did. They kept going in the face of it and the weather hit them and it killed them.
Daniel Scrivner (09:26):
You said there that continuing on and just being set on doing something is an animal behavior, which is really interesting. Can you expand on that a little bit and I guess talk a little about what you think drives people to just continue going, as opposed to being willing, to turn back around or cut something short?
Laurence Gonzales (09:46):
If you look at the history of humans, it's pretty clear that one of the things we're really good at is keeping going. You go back to early human type creatures on earth, and they didn't have much in the way of offensive physical attributes. We don't have claws. Our teeth are pretty small. We don't have venom. What do we have? One of the things we have is we can run a really long distance.
Laurence Gonzales (10:15):
We can't run as fast as a cheetah. We can't even run as fast as a deer, but we can run for days. And so if you are a deer and we see you, we can start running after you and you'll run away and you'll beat us, but we won't stop. So we'll just keep running and running and you will drop in your tracks and we will eat you. So this is a very ancient animal behavior that led to survival.
Laurence Gonzales (10:41):
And we're not the only creatures that are persistent in this way. If you watch cats stocking, for example, they're very good at long-term strategies that just keep them going and going in the right direction. And it's really true down to the single cell level. If you put a bacterium in a mixture that has sugar in it, it will swim upstream of the concentration to more and more sugar just as if it had a brain, which it doesn't.
Laurence Gonzales (11:12):
All living, things move toward what's good for them. And they keep doing it just as long as they can do it. So it's very basic. And when you get in one of these stupefying situations like hypothermia, you don't strategize. You don't think, "Hey, maybe this was a bad idea." You just keep going. And it's really a non-thinking behavior.
Daniel Scrivner (11:32):
And it seems like there's a lot of lessons to draw from that story. And I highly encourage people to read it because I definitely didn't do it justice, but it's a really compelling, really interesting story. But one of the things that you alluded to there was, it seems like where things really crossed a threshold into being very dangerous and what ultimately led them to both die up on that mountain was that before they got into a compromised state. So before they got hypothermia that they never pulled the trigger.
Daniel Scrivner (11:59):
For instance, when they decided or found out that they left the rope, they didn't just say, "Okay, this isn't going well, we're clearly not nailing this. We should just stop right now and we can try this again another day." Yeah. And it seems like where that starts and you spoke about this a little bit is just being able to sense out risk.
Daniel Scrivner (12:19):
You made that point earlier that typically in our daily lives, we're not dealing with many decisions that can cost us our life, but then we find ourselves in those places. And it seems like maybe what that leads to day in, day out, not ever dealing with real danger. Is we in one, maybe don't sense risk very well. And then two to that point, when we're sensing that the risk is a little bit elevated, we're not willing to pull the trigger. Is that an accurate assessment?
Laurence Gonzales (12:43):
Yeah, it is. And so what happens is because we're not usually in danger, we begin to feel like we're always safe. And especially in our cars because cars are built to feel like your living room, they have all this music and comfort. And even nowadays, some of them drive automatically like the Tesla, but they try to make you feel safe. As I said earlier, probably the most dangerous thing most of us will ever do is drive a car. Driving kills about 32,000 people a year.
Laurence Gonzales (13:18):
And if you invented the car, today the government would say, "Are you insane? Nobody's going to do that. We all do it all the time." So it's easy to get in the car and not think this could kill me, but it can. And so we just have to, I think develop an attitude that, "There are things in this life as safe as it is that can kill me." The most common fatal accident around the house is falling. So how much of a no brainer is that you get to be my age, you don't go up on a ladder, you get your son-in-law to do it.
Daniel Scrivner (13:54):
I love how you singled out the son-in-law.
Laurence Gonzales (13:58):
But I mean, seriously, or, my son, for that matter, he can do it too. But just thinking of things like that, it's really helpful. Of course, when I was younger, I did all kinds of risky things and fell off my sheriff ladders without getting killed. But it's a way of thinking.
Daniel Scrivner (14:14):
You brought up that notion of just the importance of having rules. And that's something I've been thinking about a lot recently is, to maybe share a little bit of context. So I do a lot of investing and obviously investing there's things like the Kelly criteria, which is all about how do you make informed decisions that where you avoid the risk of ruin, where you know, that obviously the goal of investing is to make money, but you're not going to make money if you ever go bankrupt or lose it, lose it all in an investment.
Daniel Scrivner (14:41):
And so in investing, there's a lot of precedents for approaching the way that you invest as a system and having a lot of rules in, I think on my part, I, earlier in my life, I think thought systems, they didn't make any sense to me, or I thought, "Oh, that's for other people," but it seems, I guess my thinking's evolved a little bit. And it seems like systems are almost a way for us to counterbalance the fact that we're all largely driven by emotions and that we make emotional decisions. Do you have anything to share there on the importance of systems and how that compliments or how that overrides some of our base instincts?
Laurence Gonzales (15:16):
Yes. And one of the systems I have is called the risk reward loop. And what that means is that every time you do something, you're essentially taking a risk of some kind, no matter what you do. If you're a baby, you stand up to walk, you've risked, falling down and so forth and so on. And as we talked earlier about interpersonal relationships, if you get married, you risk losing someone you love.
Laurence Gonzales (15:42):
There's always a way to look at what you're doing and say, "Now I'm doing this because why? Because it's fun because I need to, because it will save a life. What's the reward here? How big is the reward?" And then the risk is, "hat am I willing to pay for it?" If I'm a fire man, and the house is burning and there's a baby in the bedroom, I risk my life to get that baby out. And that's the deal that I've made in life."
Laurence Gonzales (16:08):
But again, going back to the Mount Washington story in my book, they really did not have a good bargain in mind. They had not really done what I call a risk reward loop. What's the risk, the risk is that you're going to die and you're just out for the weekend. And you'd like to go back to your family. And so the reward is, we got to the top. Okay, well, that's great, but it's not worth your life. So in many, many things, even trivial things, I try to think, "What am I risking here? And what am I willing to pay for the reward?" And it's a very simple system that I've used. Well, ever since I wrote Deep Survival, I guess
Daniel Scrivner (16:47):
Your masterclass in learning about risk reward. Yeah. I do think that makes a ton of sense, thinking back to that Mount Washington story because you're totally right. The reward was simply climbing something that's always going to be, it may not be frozen, but as long as you're there in the winter.
Laurence Gonzales (17:03):
Yeah. Well then I like the risk reward loop because it's simple. You don't have to have a big, long checklist of things to do. You just have to think for a second, which most people don't usually do,
Daniel Scrivner (17:14):
I guess, to talk about that a little bit more, the fact that yes, you should have these rules or these systems, these ways of framing up in making informed somewhat detached decisions. But those should also be as simple as possible. And I know just from reading Deep Survival and all the others, and you've talked about it a little bit, but with hypothermia and really any time you're in an environment where you're triggered emotionally or where you're exhausted or where your energy deprived or where you're in super cold weather, your decision-making faculties are going to suffer a lot. So is that part of the logic as well behind having, you want to have a system, but you want to have it be as lightweight, as simple as possible?
Laurence Gonzales (17:52):
Exactly. Well, to go back to Mount Washington in the case like Mount Washington, it's not a state secret. They're big signs everywhere. And all you have to do is read the literature and it'll tell you what kind of a place this is. And it is not a place that suffers fools lightly. And so if you're going to climb an ice wall in Mount Washington, there are obvious steps that you can take that will keep you from getting killed.
Laurence Gonzales (18:18):
And they are all right there in front of you. All you have to do is go talk to one of the rangers in fact, and they'll tell you everything you need to know, not to get killed there. And one of the things they'll tell you is if you're not on top of pinnacle gully waterfall by three in the afternoon, you're in bad trouble. You need to go down. I did this, you can literally walk into the Rangers hot there and say, "Hey, tell me about it." And they will. They're happy to tell you.
Daniel Scrivner (18:47):
Did you hear any other stories when you went and talked to them because I imagine that's not the only story that's happened up on that mountain?
Laurence Gonzales (18:54):
Yeah. They'd say things like, "If you want a lot of free gear, so you don't have to pay for it. Just go up to the bottom of Huntington ravine after a big powder snow dump, and it'll be sitting there because somebody will have broken both their legs and be carried off on a stretcher, leaving their equipment behind." It's just one story after another. And that's part of what I tried to document in this essay in the Chemistry of Fire is just that. There's no way to stop these accidents from happening, but there's a way to stop them from happening to you.
Daniel Scrivner (19:29):
And hopefully for us to learn and maybe make better decisions. One of the other quotes I've heard you say in another interview was that nature doesn't come down to your level nature. You have to be equipped to basically be able to go head to head with nature and come out alive. And it's just never going to give you a break. It's never going to give you the benefit of the doubt, which is a fact I love.
Daniel Scrivner (19:52):
One of the things just building off of that Mount Washington story that I wanted to talk about a little bit is traditionally, most of your writing is about terrible things that have happened. So it's some sort of a tragedy, and obviously the people in these stories, don't think it's going to turn out to be a tragedy they go off and do these things.
Daniel Scrivner (20:09):
And by way of making some poor decisions and a bunch of other factors playing out things often in poorly. But you've told a story in the past about a cross country skier who ends up breaking their leg out. And it seemed to me like a masterclass in, how does this go well? So when somebody does go out into nature, something terrible ends up happening to them, but they end up surviving and making it through. Can you share that story? And kind of all the things that that person ended up doing right in order to make it home?
Laurence Gonzales (20:40):
Yeah. So this guy's name was Vito Seskunas and I think he was Lithuanian and I got to interview him and I didn't get a chance to put it into Deep Survival. I think it was a matter of scheduling, but Vito was an outdoorsman and he was a good outdoors man. And he was going to do a solo cross-country, ski trip in Grand Teton National Park, which he had done before. And so he parked in the parking lot and took off on his skis and he had packed properly. He had a big pack with all he needed to stay well out there. And he got out about five miles and he took a misstep and turned his ankle and broke his ankle very badly. He had a torsion type fracture of it and he knew immediately, he did not engage in denial, which is a big sin.
Laurence Gonzales (21:30):
So he avoided that pitfall. He knew that he wasn't going to be able to walk out of there or ski out of there that he was pretty much in big trouble. And as soon as he realized that he sat down in the snow well, he was already seated because he'd just broken his ankle and he took off his pack and he took out everything that he had and he set up his tent and he took out his stove and he made himself a hot drink and a meal.
Laurence Gonzales (21:57):
This is a very important thing for all kinds of different reasons. One is he's protecting himself, he's got his tent. He's going to stay warm. The second thing is, he's warming himself up with a hot drink. He's calming himself down because he has something that he has to do that is step by step. You have to think to do these things like set up the stove and start the fire. He made a meal, which replenishes his energy and calms you down when you eat.
Laurence Gonzales (22:25):
So he was doing all of these things to sustain his ability, to think and plan, and then ultimately act. So he spread out all of his belongings. Now he's nourished, he's rested. He's ready to think, "What am I going to do to save my life?" And he looks at all the stuff he brought and he decides on what he absolutely needs to take and what he doesn't need to take leaves, everything else behind. And he, after thinking about it realizes he can't get up on a crutch. He can't use a ski pole. His leg is broken too badly. He's going to have to scoot on his butt and he's going to have to scoot five miles in the snow on his butt.
Laurence Gonzales (23:05):
And so he thinks about this and he comes up with a strategy and the strategy is he is going to do it a hundred moves at a time. He's going to scoot a hundred scoots and each hundred, he's going to dedicate to someone or something in his life that he loves that he intends to get back to. So he dedicates a hundred moves to his wife. He dedicates a hundred moves to his guitar.
Laurence Gonzales (23:30):
He dedicates a hundred moves to... And he just goes through his whole life, dedicating these moves to all of the things that he's determined to get back to. And he gets out, it's a big effort. It's very difficult and painful, but he gets out, he gets to his car and he lives through it. And so he exemplifies the thinking, action, planning, combinations combined with preparation because he had this pack full of stuff he needed that separates a survivor from a dead person.
Daniel Scrivner (24:02):
And just to draw out some of those lessons. So there's clearly the first one is not denying that he's in a really bad position, but then also not emotionally reacting and calming himself down and stopping and go. You talked about this before, but the importance of when you're in an emotionally charged place, especially I'm sure life or death of doing something that's methodical and ordered so that it brings order to your mind. Can you talk about that a little bit and how that works? Yeah.
Laurence Gonzales (24:27):
So emotion and reason, if you want to simplify how the brain works, emotion and reason work like a seesaw. So if emotion is really high, you can't think. You can't remember your phone number if you're in a panic. Whereas if you can bring reason up, you bring your step-by-step thinking up a level, you can dampen that emotion and start figuring things out. And so for Vito to give himself tasks to do was very important in calming himself.
Laurence Gonzales (24:57):
You have to react when you break your leg, it's painful and it's got to be emotionally jarring too. To know that you're out there, five miles in the wilderness. And so he did just the right thing to begin calming himself. And these two reactions have a biological basis. We cannot successfully pursue step-by-step tasks when we're in a panic, when we're too excited, it just doesn't work.
Laurence Gonzales (25:25):
And this is true throughout the mammal kingdom that you have to have parts of yourself capable of being quiet and doing things methodically. So that's always a good place to go, even in normal life. To deal with the normal upsets and slings and arrows of life in a calm way is very good practice. If you ever have to deal with a life and death situation and we should all practice that because it will help us.
Daniel Scrivner (25:52):
So one of the things I want to explore a little bit is the intersection between your work and the Santa Fe Institute. We talked about this a little in the past, in the last interview, but I'm a huge fan of the work that the Santa Fe Institute has been doing. And you've had the chance to go and work with the group there. And I'm curious, could you just talk a little bit about what that looked like and what you were engaging with there and who you are working alongside or learning from?
Laurence Gonzales (26:17):
So the guy who was most frequently my office mate there is a man named Michael Lockman and he led the team at the Max Planck Institute that discovered that humans carry Neanderthal DNA. So very interesting work, very interesting, being in an office with him. And the people at the Santa Fe Institute, although he has a specialty like other people at the Santa Fe Institute, he tends to know everything. So every day at the Santa Fe Institute at three o'clock a bell rings and an announcement is made for tea. They have tea time at three o'clock at the Santa Fe Institute. And tea is a very elaborate affair. It's a big spread of food and coffee and drinks and cheeses and [inaudible 00:27:05] and everything you could possibly want. It's delicious. And somebody makes a dessert and everybody comes because it's good.
Laurence Gonzales (27:12):
And so all of a sudden you've got these scientists and all the scholars in this kitchen, eating and talking, and this generates amazing conversations because everybody there knows at least at a conversational level, just about any subject you could bring up. So I can recall, for example, an afternoon in the kitchen at tea when for the first time gravitational waves had been detected.
Laurence Gonzales (27:40):
There were these giant detectors that had been built to span the earth to try to capture a gravitational wave, which is a very difficult thing to do because they're so weak and they happen so infrequently in large enough sizes to measure that the chances were really pretty slim that anybody would do it. And yet they did it. So the buzz in the kitchen that day was that somebody is going to get a Nobel prize for this.
Laurence Gonzales (28:09):
And sure enough, a couple of months later, we were standing around in the kitchen and somebody had gotten that Nobel prize, three guys actually, people that we knew. And so it's a very heady kind of atmosphere in which you can get the most intellectual excitement and stimulation you've ever gotten in your life.
Daniel Scrivner (28:30):
I love that example of the tea time as well, too because it goes to the heart just to remind people... For anyone that didn't listen to the last episode. And so maybe didn't get as much of a primer about what the Santa Fe Institute is. It's an Institute that your stories go to the heart of it, where people are working collaboratively across different disciplines, and it's all around this idea of complexity science. Part of it is you just need to work across disciplines to try to piece together this mosaic of how the world actually works.
Laurence Gonzales (28:58):
Yes. And so I'll give you an example. So one of my friends there is named Jeffrey West and Jeffrey was a physicist at Los Alamos. He was one of these physicists I was referring to who was like, "What's next?" Well, he was part of the team that was going to work with this superconducting super collider. And this was going to take him to the next stage in his career as a physicist, except that was canceled.
Laurence Gonzales (29:23):
That giant machine for smashing Adams was canceled. And so Jeffrey found himself at the age of 50 in the middle of his career with the primary tool of the next phase of his career gone, and didn't really know what to do next. And he had been reading biology. He felt that he needed to know, people were talking about biology is going to be the science of the 21st century.
Laurence Gonzales (29:49):
And so he felt he didn't know anything about it and was reading it. And he was 50-years-old and he had had relatives, male relatives who dropped out of heart attacks at about that age. And he was thinking about death and career and dead ends and all this stuff. And he said, he went in search of a explanation in biology for death.
Laurence Gonzales (30:10):
One of the primary attributes of living things is that they die. And so why death and moreover, why a hundred years, why do human beings live the length of time that they do? And a mouse lives about three years at most and a human can live to a hundred. And why is that? We're made of the same stuff essentially. And so he started looking and found that there were no answers. The biologists didn't think that way, they thought much more in a descriptive fashion.
Laurence Gonzales (30:39):
Like you go out and you describe a plant and that's the science. Whereas a physicist does all kinds of counting and mathematics and they want rules. And so their way of thinking is completely different from a biologist. And Jeffrey started taking his thinking as a physicist and applying it to biology. So he started counting stuff like how many heartbeats does an animal have in a lifetime?
Laurence Gonzales (31:03):
Well, it turns out most animals, that mammals, have a similar number of heartbeats in a lifetime. So a mouse's heart beats way faster than an elephant's heart. Why is that? What's controlling that. And as he counted stuff, he realized there was a great deal of order inside these living things. And well, he wrote a big book on what's called biological scaling. And this is an example of how at the Santa Fe Institute, you can take something like physics and apply it to biology and come up with brand new science that hasn't existed before.
Daniel Scrivner (31:36):
I love that story because it, one thing that I am just fascinated by, and that I think is, I don't know to me, whenever I see an example of it, it's like pulling off a magic trick, but it's someone like that who's able to be somewhat of a polymath. They don't see the world in as myopic and constrained away as most people do because I think conventional wisdom would say that "Don't try to change fields. You're not going to be able to add anything new to another field. You just should stay where you are." And if you stay there and work longer in this focused way, you're going to have more insights. That's an example, that story you just gave of a polymath. And another one that has come up recently is Benoit Mandelbrot, I've been really enjoying his book recently, The Misbehavior of Markets.
Daniel Scrivner (32:16):
And again, somebody who, when he was in his 80s was contributing new revolutions to different fields. I want to ask two closing questions. And one of those is going to be a little bit of a shot in the dark. And you just spoke to it maybe a little bit, but one thing I'm fascinated by is this concept of personal definitions I have for myself, these running documents that I keep of my best definition. Sometimes it's metaphorical, sometimes it's more of a narrative around what this word means because I often find that we think about words in the dictionary.
Daniel Scrivner (32:46):
It's perfectly fine. We can go and get a basic starting definition of what something is by just googling a word. And Google will show you what that definition is. But I find it fascinating that I feel like over time for the things that we love, we develop our own really rich three-dimensional definition of what something is. And so what I wanted to ask was if you were asked to try to describe or give a definition of what risk is, what would that be?
Laurence Gonzales (33:10):
It would be incurring a cost. So one of the things that we did at the Santa Fe Institute back in 2015 is we had a big conference about currencies and it was about money and what is money? And what's the history of money and what's the future of money? And one of the big talks at this conference was about Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.
Laurence Gonzales (33:32):
And I didn't know anything about it at the time, but the speaker at the end of his talk said, "All of you should invest 1% of your net worth in Bitcoin today, pull out your phone, get on Coinbase and buy whatever that number is. 1% of your net worth. If you lose it, it won't kill you. But my prediction is that you will be very glad you did." And I'm just a regular guy. I don't have money. I don't know anything about these things.
Laurence Gonzales (33:59):
Anyway, I pulled out my phone, Bitcoin was $320 a coin that day. And I thought, "Oh God, I'd really like to do this." And in the room with me in this conference room where we were having this meeting, was actually a hotel on my left was Bill Miller, the famous investor Bill Miller, who has a 254 foot yacht. And on my right was a guy named Michael Larson who handles all of Bill Gates, his personal money.
Laurence Gonzales (34:26):
And the speaker said, "All of you who think that Bitcoin is going to go to zero, raise your hand." And Michael Larson raised his hand. And the speaker said, "All of you who think Bitcoin is going to be worth a lot of money. Raise your hand." And Bill Miller raised his hand. So here I'm sitting between these two guys, basically these two gods of investment and I'm getting opposite signals from them.
Laurence Gonzales (34:47):
And I was frozen in-between. So I was facing this risk, not being a rich guy. Should I invest in this? And I didn't know enough to understand, even at the most basic level, what the speaker was saying, 1% of your net worth. Even if you lose it, it's not going to kill you anyway, the long and the short of it is risk is a cost that you incur or may incur for something you want. And so I eventually did buy Bitcoin and it did very well, but at that moment, I was just paralyzed by risk. And so I think we all have a good sense of internalizing risk for particular things.
Daniel Scrivner (35:28):
Yeah. It's just whether we listen to it or not, whether we update that in real time. I love that story in part because I'm a big fan of Bill Miller. I also know who Michael Larson is and we'll occasionally try to look at their portfolio. You can do stuff like looking at 13 fs for Cascade. I believe it's called Cascade Management, which is Bill Gates, family office. So it geek out and look at that stuff. But what's fascinating about that story to me is Bill Miller has since invested significantly in Bitcoin and that's obviously done really well for him. And I love that that's potentially the origin story.
Laurence Gonzales (35:59):
That is the origin story. And on that day, Bill had bought a little bit of Bitcoin before that day, but I talked to bill within the last year and said, "Tell me that story again." And he did. And he said during that period in which the meeting happened a little bit before and a little bit after he put 1% of his net worth into Bitcoin at prices ranging from $300 to $500 per coin. Now, that value went to what was it? $20,000 in the course of time. And Bill built a new campus for the Santa Fe Institute off of that among other things.
Daniel Scrivner (36:37):
So just to close things out, we're at an interesting point in time where obviously, we've been through a pretty traumatic year in 2020, getting ready to head into a year. That's hopefully looking a little bit more optimistic. So just the closing question I wanted to ask this time was, I don't know any words of wisdom or anything to share around your perspective as we're transitioning from this year where I think one in a lot of ways, it's been very eye-opening display of risk on a global scale with the coronavirus and with everything that's happened. I think risk has played a big role. Any observations about how this year has gone and thoughts about 2021?
Laurence Gonzales (37:11):
Well, the infection rate and death rate in the United States is approximately equal to that in Kazakhstan. And this is not a very proud moment in that regard. And I believe there are a lot of reasons for it, but there's essentially an underlying attitude in this country that you can do anything you want. And that's not the same thing as being free. The two climbers on Mount Washington thought they could do anything they want to and they're dead.
Laurence Gonzales (37:39):
And there are a lot of people dead in this country from thinking they can do anything they want. The virus is invisible. You can't see it. You can't smell it. It's very hard to get your mind around, but simply wearing a mask, staying apart from people and just biding your time. I'm 72-years-old. I have a risk. If I get this, it'll probably kill me. My wife has an underlying condition too.
Laurence Gonzales (38:05):
So we are simply staying home. Nowadays, it's so easy. You go on the computer, they'll send you anything you want, including your food. And so we're very lucky that we can stay at home, but I think this thing is going to end. The vaccine came out, starting yesterday, it's going to end and we just have to be patient to get to the end so that we can have next Thanksgiving
Daniel Scrivner (38:29):
And be in a better place. Well, thank you so much. This has been a fascinating conversation and I highly encourage anyone listening to go and buy your latest book. The Chemistry of Fire, especially that first chapter still remains one of my all time favorite stories that you've told. So, thank you so much, Laurence.
Laurence Gonzales (38:45):
You're welcome. Good to talk to you.
On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. Explore all episodes of Outliers, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.
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