Home Learning From The TV (Imagine That!)

Learning From The TV (Imagine That!)

user profile picture Adam Taggart Jan 26, 2017
placeholder image

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":

(Source: Neilsen Total Audience Report, Q1 2016)

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 survive 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 "Murphy's Law" 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. Season 1 lasted 56 days. That's less than 2 months. Season 2 lasted 66 days. Now, while that's certainly a lot longer than I would have lasted, I would have expected experienced wilderness enthusiasts to go on for much longer — like the trappers of past centuries were able to. Also, remember that there's a half-million dollar payout awaiting the victor. Part of the swift attrition is likely due to the harshness of the regions the show takes place in, but watching on a weekly basis, it's clear that it's the isolation that gets folks in the end.

What Alone does a good job of, in my opinion, is validating our conclusion that The lone wolf is a myth. Very, very few of us can truly "go it alone" — in times of crisis, or anytime otherwise for that matter. We need to live in community; to leverage the strengths of others, as well as to have purpose in life and to be psychically nourished. We literally starve both our mental and physical well-being when we isolate ourselves from social contact.

More importantly, the lessons of the show underscore how emotional resilience is *the* critical success factor for overcoming adversity. Those rich in it find the strength and the ingenuity to carry on. Those poor in it give up — no matter how well-resourced they are in other forms of capital.

It's important to keep in mind that Emotional Capital is something all of us can build, and usually at no financial cost (feel free to read our recommended steps here) . As we often say about dealing with crisis: It's not the insult that will determine your fate, it's your reaction to it.

Alone: Season 3 airs Thursday nights on the History Channel. Past episodes can be streamed online or purchased from iTunes. 

"The Selection" (History Channel)

I only recently stated watching The Selection: Special Operations Experiment, but I'm fully sucked in at this point. 

This is a first-run series that takes 30 qualifying civilians and puts them through a hyper-intense boot camp run by US special forces instructors. The goal is to meet similar performance standards that elite combat soldiers like Navy Seals, Green Berets and Army Rangers are held to. There is no monetary prize for any contestants who pass.

First off, let me make it clear that I don't have any military experience, so I have no first-hand knowledge underlying my opinions of this show. Nor do I mean to equate what these contestants go through with the rigors and dangers of those who serve in the active military. I had a lot of respect for our active servicemen and women beforehand. I simply have even more for them now.

Exceptionally grueling is the best way to describe the program the contestants for The Selection are put through. As the professional instructors explain, their job at the start is to weed out the weak. One they've done that, they then focus on weeding out the strong. Those remaining after that (if any) have the mettle the special forces are looking for.

It's not like this is a group of creampuffs. To be chosen for the show, contestants had to meet an array of rigorous fitness qualifications. One guy mentioned how much weight he can deadlift. That's something I myself work at, and while I'm not the strongest guy at the gym, my deadlift is a respectable 340lbs. His is over 500lbs. So most of these men and women are legit bad-asses. 

The first two days of the program are a non-stop pain-fest of physical challenges. The goal is to force anyone and everyone whose body can't meet the standard, or whose commitment to the program isn't firm, to quit. The workouts are punishing, and they just keep coming. The instructors are brutal — cruel even. They're looking for weakness. And if they find any, they press on it — hard. Sleep and rest is minimal and interrupted, sometimes by being blindfolded and sent to interrogation.

Here's a brief preview that shows (just a slice of!) what's thrown at these guys:

Five candidates quit in the first few hours. By the end of Day 2, half had dropped out.

And then, the psychological stress component dialed up. By this point, the instructors knew that those remaining had a lot of physical fortitude. But how strong was their mental resolve?

Candidates were "captured by the enemy", bound, blindfolded and placed into boxes for hours, with recorded baby cries and klaxons blaring over loudspeakers. They quickly lost track of time and place. After that came drowning tests. And more sleep-deprivation. And harsh criticism of their commitment to the program. 

After Day 5, it was down to just 8. Now the series is at Day 9, with just 5 candidates left.

While it may sound like this is a TV show for sadists (and it probably does appeal to that audience segment), I've found a lot of inspiration and insight following it. As inhumanely cruel as it appears in its application, there's a method behind the instructors' madness. Here's what I've learned:

The mind trumps the body. "Your mind will fail before you body does" repeat the instructors throughout this series. What they mean is that, if you're conscious and functioning, you have more in you to keep going. As in Alone, what defeats these contestants is almost always a breakdown of their willpower.  Yes, severe physical abuse is being doled out, but based on their real-life experiences and those of their fellow soldiers, the veteran instructors know first-hand that limits are set by the mind. Find a way to expand those mental limits, and the body will follow. 

It's shocking to watch the attrition process during the show, because it's largely so hard to predict. Some of the earliest drop-outs were big guys, guys who looked like contenders to last until the bitter end. But there was some mental shortcoming each had; a lack of confidence, a fear, a hubris — some "seed of doubt" as the instructors called it that, once identified, they "watered to grow into a beautiful quit tree". 

And on the other hand, there were candidates who lasted longer than anyone expected; again, due to the mental factor. One standout was a smaller guy from the Philippines who couldn't have weighed more than 130lbs (if that). By sheer force of will, he outlasted men who outweighed him by 100 pounds of muscle. He was only dropped from the program when the instructors realized he couldn't swim(!) during an ocean exercise.

Based on my own life experience, I wholeheartedly believe the same is true for overcoming ANY obstacle, physical or otherwise. It's what we believe we can do, or endure, that determines our destiny. If we work on strengthening our emotional resilience (as discussed in the previous section) — on expanding what we believe to be possible — we can achieve dramatically more in our lives. 

Finding your "Why?" is the key to perseverance. Building on the importance of mental fortitude is the criticality of having a guiding purpose. What's the reason that keeps you moving forward when times get tough?

The instructors call this "finding your Why?". Those with a strong Why? can power through abuse. On the show, these are the folks who were able to withstand tear gas, torture, drowning risk, extreme heat/cold, physical exhaustion, lack of sleep, and the instructors' head games. Those without a bedrock Why? folded early.

Through little mini-interviews during the show, you get a glimpse inside the heads of the candidates. Those with something to prove — to themselves, to a family member, or to society — are the ones faring best. They have a cause, a goal, or a driving principle that is sustaining them. Fear of the pain of betraying that outweighs the physical and mental pain they're being subjected to.

Having a rock-solid Why? is the #1 determinant to completing their brutal selection process say the instructors. I believe it. And that insight has inspired me to look inwards at my own internal motivations. What, specifically, is my Why? How solid is it? What might I be able to do to strengthen it?

How solid is yours?

Humans belong in a tribe. What's really fascinating to watch in this series is that, as the pool of contestants winnows down, those remaining no longer are competitors. They begin to develop a team mentality. It ceases being, Can I make it through the next challenge? and instead morphs into, What can I do to make sure WE get through it?

This, of course, is what the instructors are looking for. From experience they know that an effective soldier is part of a team, who puts that team's objectives and welfare above his/her own.

While I assume this has been a time-proven lesson over the thousands of years of human warfare, it's really inspirational to see how the remaining candidates feed off of each other's support. As the adversity intensifies, the strength they draw from going through it together visibly grows.

This directly reminds me of the discussion we had on this site with with Sebastian Junger about his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger, who spent over a year embedded with an army platoon in an Afghanistan hot zone, observed the tight-knit brotherhood that soldiers in combat develop. Many of them have trouble re-integrating into the relative quiet of civilian life, not due so much to issues of PTSD, but to loss of that sense of belonging and purpose. 

Junger notes that humans evolved as a tribal species, living in close groups of no more than 60 people, under constant threat from other tribes and natural stressors.

So, in a very real way, the remaining candidates on this show are living — really truly alive as humans were meant to be.

When they're removed from the group for interrogation, it's not uncommon for these incredibly tough people to cry when the instructors challenge their commitment to remain. You can see that at this point they're experiencing a fulfillment and a self-discovery that is very rare for them  — and so, they view this unbelievably punishing experience as a priceless gift. I find myself envying these guys.

The challenge for the rest of us is to ask ourselves, How can I add more tribalism to my life? We live in a society that actually values independence from — not interdependence on — others. We are starving our social receptors in much the same way as the contestants on Alone are. Why? The benefits of brotherhood/sisterhood are so clear when we can see them. Why not have more of that in our lives? Why not be more alive?

The Selection: Special Operation Experiment airs its final episode tomorrow night (Thursday, 1/26/17) on the History Channel.