Shows offering lessons in resilience

I’m one of those people who thinks most of what passes as “content” today on TV and movie screens is pure crap.

The hours lost watching this slop diminish us. We waste precious time and neural energy that could be put to productive use improving our lives.

The amount of time we collectively throw away like this is truly depressing. As Business Insider puts it “the average American watches so much TV it’s almost a full-time job“:

Learning From The TV

(Source: Neilsen Total Audience Report, Q1 2016)

Learning From The TV

Reflect on that: the average US adult watches 5 hours of television PER DAY. There are roughly 242 million people 18 and over living in the US. So that means we collectively consume 1.2 billion hours of TV per day. That’s over 440 billion hours per year.

Imagine how much more we could get accomplished as a nation if we devoted even just half of that time into self-betterment projects or public service. That’s a staggering amount of human productivity we’re pissing away.

And note that I’m only looking at the TV usage stats — there’s an additional 4.5 hours of internet/smartphone/radio time (per day!) we’d benefit from cutting back on, too. With so much of our day spent being a screen zombie, how the hell do we get anything done?

But despite my ranting, I’m not a complete ascetic about television. Yes, I do watch it — in moderation — as does the rest of my family. But in my household, the TV is usually off. And when on, it’s usually to watch a specific show or film — not to “see what’s on” and mindlessly channel surf.

And amidst the vast sea of cable-network detritus, every so often there’s a show or two that I find worthwhile — either for entertainment or for learning something.

Recently, there are two shows I’m currently enjoying that deliver on both counts. And very surprisingly, they’re “reality TV” — a genre I usually associate as the worst of the worst when it comes to low-quality programming. But I’m finding I’m learning some useful lessons from these two series, and I thought I’d take a moment to share my observations for those who might want to tune in and see for themselves.

Both of these shows are on the History Channel. That’s pure coincidence, or perhaps a sign that the History Channel doesn’t produce pure dreck. But just in case you’re wondering, no, Peak Prosperity has no relationship with them, nor is getting anything in return for mentioning them here. I simply like these two shows.

“Alone” (History Channel, Thursday nights)

Alone is an experiment in the “lone wolf” approach to survival.

Each season (they’re on Season 3 now), they drop 10 contestants — each of whom is well experienced with outdoor survival — off in a remote part of the world and see who can last the longest without any support from or interaction with other people.

Contestants are allowed to bring 10 items from a pre-approved list of 50 — and that’s it. They’re dropped off far enough apart so that they won’t come into contact with each other. They must learn to acquire shelter, food, warmth, etc all on their own. Whoever can last the longest without requesting/requiring emergency evacuation wins — and receives a check for $500,000.

Here’s a quick trailer for the show, to give you a sense of what the conditions are like:

For anyone with a prepper mindset, Alone is fun to watch. As mentioned, all of these people are experienced outdoorsmen/women. They know what they’re doing. Each brings their own set of skills, and they’re often delightfully creative in how they apply that expertise to feed and shelter themselves. Human ingenuity, especially when under pressure, is an amazing force to behold.

But ingenuity only goes so far. When completely removed from the supply chain of modern living, survival is hard.

Even though the contestants are intentionally located in areas where fish and wild game live, obtaining enough calories to live consumes all of their time and focus. Most days, they’re not able to replace the calories they expend. Substantial weight loss occurs.

Creating a shelter that can withstand the onset of winter and its harsh storms is another requirement contestants must attend to. One that gets harder as their energy saps due to their deficient diet.

Watching this show, you learn quickly that those armchair preppers who buy a pile of camping gear and then consider themselves all set to go “live off the grid” during a crisis are delusional. Alone shows us how much work needs to be put in day after day to provide the calories needed to sustain just a single person. These contestants are experts in hunting and foraging and yet most days they fail to provide for themselves. And remember, they’re in an unpopulated area. For those of us who live near a well-stocked river or forest, how long will it take for the deer and fish there to dwindle away if our entire neighborhood is competing with us for food? A week?

Plus, there’s a huge “shit happens” factor, too. Initial shelter designs fail. Firewood becomes scarce. Scavengers steal your food. One contestant this season got bitten by a Chilean Recluse spider, whose venom is more potent than a rattlesnake’s and can cause organ failure (she pulled a very cool MacGyver maneuver and created a poultice from native plantains and lentils to draw out the poison successfully). There are just so many points of failure out there waiting to happen. And keep in mind, these conditions don’t involve other people lurking around who want to steal your stuff.

But the biggest challenge, by far, is mental. How contestants deal with the complete and total social isolation determines their odds for success.

As we talk about in our book Prosper! as well as often on this site, humans are social animals. We’re wired to co-exist with others. Remove that interaction, and we’re out of our natural element. Remove that interaction for long enough, and our ability to function can become seriously compromised.

We write often of Social Capital and Emotional Capital, both of which are critical success factors on Alone. The structure of the competition deliberately removes the Social Capital factor: there’s no morale-boosting camaraderie, nor is there anyone to turn to when your own abilities aren’t up to the task. But it’s the Emotional Capital element that matters most: through the setbacks, though the hunger, through the cold, through the boredom, through the fear — How are you going to persevere?

The contestants here are seriously hard people. They can deal with a prodigious amount of physical adversity — for most of these folks, substantially more than the show will throw at them. But when you start hearing them question their resolve (Why am I doing this?), or whether it’s worth spending so much time away from their family, you know their will is breaking. It’s a classic signal they’re about to tap out. Once the will is broken, the physical tribulation just serves as the excuse to leave.

It’s surprising to see how relatively little time it takes for these folks to break mentally.

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