Steve Callahan

This is a repost from Medium. Putting it up here for linking convenience. 

In 1982, Steven Callahan was lost at sea for 76 days after his boat, the Napoleon Solo sunk. Here are three things I learned from Callahan’s book,Adrift.

1/ Stoicism can save your life.  I believe in stoicism, and have seen the benefits for parents. With any philosophy though, it feels good when others validate it. Callahan does.

“The sea has no wrath to vent,” he wrote, “time will pass.”

His situation wasn’t personal. The sea has not selected him — though he regularly toys with this idea — for this challenge. It is merely a circumstance.

Seneca wrote about this:

“What can happen to one can happen too all. If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard the ills of other people as having a clear path to you too, you will be armed long before you are attacked.”

Being lost at sea could happen to anyone, and Callahan comes to grips with it.

Seneca again:

“No one could endure lasting adversity if it continued to have the same force as when it first hit us.”

Callahan knows that this too shall pass. 

2/ Lots of little things have to go right. As time passed, Callahan’s gear started to fail. His solar stills stopped distilling. His raft sprung a leak. About it, Callahan wrote, “if any one thing goes wrong I will not survive.”

Later in the book he questions the calculations derived from his homemade sextant and guesses of speed that if his estimations are off (even 5 miles a day), he could remain lost for another three weeks.

Success if often a lot of little things going right.

David McRaney spoke about this, saying, “success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.”

Daymond John said, “all entrepreneurs that are successful take affordable next steps, they don’t mortgage the entire farm on the first bet they have.”

Nick Murray said the easiest way for investors to blow up is to chase big gains.

The Wright brothers had to have good weather, their materials shipped in one piece, their calculations precise.

My book on failed start-ups is full of stories where one little thing goes wrong; a hire, a credit crunch, a bad launch and the whole thing crumbles.

Survival in any area is about a lot of little successes lining up.

3/ Simple does not mean easy.  About survival Callahan writes, “the script sounds simple enough.” Eat. Drink. Keep afloat. Each of these is constantly challenged. Whenever he was able to get slightly ahead in one area, he fell behind in another. He needed fish to eat, but fishing wore him out. He wanted to reach land sooner, but those pushing winds and storms nearly capsized him.

Simple, but not easy exists all around us.

  • Cal Newport wrote that Deep Work is simple, but not easy. (“Craftsman like (Ric) Furrer tackle professional challenges that are simple to define but difficult to execute — a useful imbalance when seeking purpose.”)
  • Carl Richards wrote that personal finance is simple, but not easy. (“Repeating that process over and over may not be sexy, but it gets the job done.”)
  • Cliff Asness wrote that investing is simple, but not easy. (“We basically know how to invest. A good analogy is to dieting and diet books. We all know how to lose weight and get in better shape: Eat less and exercise more.”)
  • Marc Andreessen said that starting another Silicon Valley is simple but not easy.
  • Tony Robbins said that living a joyous life is simple but not easy.
  • Anson Dorrance said succeeding in sports is simple but not easy.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

One final quote I liked about survival bias:

“I think of the pilot chart figures, which are averages taken from ships’ data. There might be some truth to the idea that charted estimates of gale strength tend to be low. After all, if a captain hears of bad weather, he doesn’t usually head his rust bucket for the center of it in order to get some fresh air.”

4 thoughts on “Steve Callahan”

  1. […] Surviving at sea is simple, but not easy.  Starting a soccer team is simple, but not easy.  Creating another Silicon Valley is simple, but not easy.  War is simple, but not easy.   Eating right is simple, but not easy.  Leadership is simple, but not easy.  Deep work is simple, but not easy. […]


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