After a bumpy flight 15 Men dropped from the Montana sky. They weren’t skydivers, they were smokejumpers elite wildland firefighters parachuting in to extinguish a forest fire started by lightning, the day before. In a matter of minutes, they would be racing for their lives.
The smokejumpers landed near the top of man Gulch laid on a scorching August afternoon in 1949 with the fire visible across the Gulch, they made their way down the slope toward the Missouri River.
Their plan was to dig a line in the soil around the fire to contain it, and directed it toward an area where there wasn’t much to burn. After hiking about a quarter mile, the foreman Wagner dodge saw that the fire had leapt across the Gulch, and was heading straight at them.
The flames stretched as high as 30 feet in the air. Students the fire would be blazing fast enough to cross the length of two football fields. In less than a minute
by 5:45pm it was clear that even containing the fire was off the table, realizing it was time to shift gears from fight to flight dodge immediately turned the crew around to run back up the slope.
The smokejumpers had to bolt up an extremely steep incline through knee high grass on rocky terrain, over the next eight minutes they traveled nearly 500 yards, leaving the top of the ridge, less than 200 yards away with safety and sight but the fire swiftly advancing dodge did something that baffled his crew. Instead of trying to outrun the fire, he stopped and bent over. He took out a matchbook started lighting matches, and threw them into the grass.
One smokejumper later recalled:
“We thought he must have gone nuts with the fire almost on our back. What the hell is the boss doing lighting another fire in front of us. That bastard dodge is trying to burn me to death. “
It’s no surprise that the crew didn’t follow dodge, when he waved his arms toward his fire and yelled, up, up this way.
What his smokejumpers didn’t realize was that Dodge had devised a survival strategy. He was building an escape fire by burning the grass ahead of him. He cleared the area of fuel for the wildfire to feed on. He then poured water from his canteen onto his handkerchief covered his mouth with it and lay facedown in the chart area for the next 15 minutes. As the wildfire raged directly above him, he survived and the oxygen was close to the ground.
Tragically 12 of the smokejumpers perish, a pocket watch belonging to one of the victims was later found with the hands melted at 5:56pm. Why did only three of the smokejumpers survive physical fitness might have been a factor.
The other two survivors managed to outrun the fire and reach the crest of the rich, but dodge prevailed because of his mental fitness.
When people reflect on what it takes to be mentally fit, the first idea that comes to mind is usually intelligence, the smarter you are, the more complex the problems you can solve. and the faster you can solve them.
Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more- the ability to rethink and unlearn.
Thought for the road
- We live in a rapidly changing world and we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.
- Rethinking is a skill set
- The smarter they are, the harder they fall sometimes
- Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity. No matter how much brainpower you have, if you lack the motivation to change your thinking you will miss many opportunities
- Confirmation bias- seeing what we expect to see.
- Desirability bias- seeing what we want to see
- What set great presidents apart was not their wit and charm or intellect. It was their intellectual curiosity and openness. They were interested in hearing new views and revising their old ones. They saw their many policies as experiments to run not points to score