A Case For The Ability To Unlearn And Rethink

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.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

The crew leader believed the fire to be a regular 10 o’clock fire, meaning as per the fire department’s policy, all fires must be put out by 10 am the next day regardless of their size or danger. The fire is believed to have begun on August 4, when lightning set a dead tree on fire as the daily temperature reached over 36 degrees celsius with a fire rating of 74 out of 100.

When the fire was spotted from a mountain almost 50 kilometres away, the fire department sent a team of 16 firefighters to put out the fire. With turbulent windy conditions, the crew had to drop their cargo and jump from 2000 feet instead of the usual 1200 feet. The parachute connected to their radio failed to open, and the radio pulverized as it hit the ground. Everything else landed according to plan. The smokejumpers landed near the top of Mann Gulch, laid on a scorching August afternoon in 1949.

The crew quickly gathered all their belongings as they landed all over the place and grabbed a quick bite to eat.

While the crew ate, Foreman Wagner Dodge met up with the ranger Jim Harrison who was already present at the scene from the next canyon, trying to put out the fire all by himself. They looked around the area of the fire and came back concerned that the thick forest near which they had landed could turn into a ‘death trap.’

In a matter of minutes, they would be racing for their lives. With the fire visible across the Gulch, they made their way down the slope toward the Missouri River. Their plan was to take a line in the soil around the fire to contain it and direct it toward an area where there wasn’t much to burn. 

After hiking about 1/4 mile, the foreman Wagner Dodge saw that the fire had left across the Gulch. It was heading straight at them. The flame stretched as high as 30 feet in the air. Soon the fire would be blazing fast enough to cross the length of two football fields in less than a minute. 

By 5:45 PM, it was clear that even containing the fire was off the table. Dodge immediately turned the crew around to run back up the slope, realising it was time to shift gears from fight to flight. Smokejumpers had to bolt up an extremely steep incline through knee-high grass on rocky terrain.

Over the next 8 minutes, they travelled nearly 500 yards, leaving the top of the Ridge less than 200 yards away. With safety insight, but with 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. 

When 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 B*****rd 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 fighter and yelled up this way. None of the smokejumpers had the ability to rethink the situation, the reason behind the escape fire or trusted their leader.

With the smoke, jumpers didn’t realise 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 face down in the chart area for the next 15 minutes. As the wildfire raged directly above him, he survived in the oxygen close to the ground. 

Tragically, 12 of the smokejumpers parish a pocket watch belonging to one of the victims was later found with the hands melted at 5:56 PM. 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 Ridge, 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, there’s another set of cognitive skills in a turbulent world that might matter more. The ability to rethink and unlearn. Imagine that you’ve just finished taking a multiple-choice test and start to second guess one of your answers. You have some extra time. Should you stick with your first instinct or change it. About 3/4 of students are convinced that revising their answers will hurt their scores.

 Kaplan, the big test prep company, once warned students to exercise great caution if they decide to change an answer. When a trio of psychologists conducted a comprehensive review of 33 studies, they found that revisions were from wrong to right in everyone and the majority of answers. This phenomenon is known as the First instinct fallacy. 

We don’t just hesitate to rethink our answers. We hesitated at the very idea of rethinking. We often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones. Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel like we’re losing a part of ourselves. Rethinking isn’t a struggle in every part of our lives when it comes to our possessions; we update with passion, refresh wardrobes when they go out of style, and renovate our kitchens when they’re no longer in vogue. When it comes to our knowledge and opinions, we tend to stick to our guns. Psychologists call this seizing and freezing. 

We favour the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and we let our belief skip Riddle long before our bones. We laughed at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions formed in 1995. We listen to views that make us feel good instead of ideas that make us think hard. Once we hear the story and accept it as true, we rarely bother questioning. 

As the Man Gulch wildfire raced toward them, the smokejumpers had a decision to make. They would have had enough time to pause, analyse the situation, and evaluate their options in an ideal world. The fire raging left 100 yards behind. It was no chance to stop and think. 

A scholar and former firefighter, Norman MacLean, wrote in Young Men and Fire in his award-winning chronicle of the Disaster. On a big fire, there is no time and no tree under whose shade the boss and the crew can sit and have a platonic dialogue about a blow-up. If Socrates had been forming on the Mann Gulch fire heat, his crew would have been cremated while they were sitting there considering it. 

Dodge didn’t survive as a result of thinking slower. Thanks to his ability to rethink the situation faster, he made it out alive. 12 smokejumpers paid the ultimate price because Dodge’s behaviour didn’t make sense to them. They couldn’t rethink their assumptions in time. Under acute stress, people typically revert to their automatic, well-learned responses. That’s evolutionarily adaptive as long as you find yourself in the same kind of environment in which those reactions were necessary. If you’re a smokejumper, your well-learned response is to put out a fire, not start another one. If you’re fleeing for your life, your well-learned response would be to run away from the fire, not toward it. In normal circumstances, those instincts might save your life. 

Dodge survived the Mann Gulch because he swiftly overrode both of those responses. No one had taught Dodge to build an escape fire. He hadn’t even heard of the concept. It was pure improvisation. Later, the other two survivors testified that Under-oath and nothing resembling an escape fire were covered in their training. Many experts spent their entire careers studying wildfires without realising it was possible to stay alive by burning a hole through the blaze. When people learn about Dodge’s escape, they usually marvel. It is resourcefulness under pressure. That was genius. Most acts of rethinking don’t require any special skill or ingenuity. 

Moments earlier, at Mann Gulch, the smokejumpers missed another opportunity to think again, and that one was right at their fingertips. Just before Dodge started tossing matches into the grass, he ordered his crew to drop their heavy equipment. They had spent the past eight minutes racing uphill while still carrying axes, saws, shovels and 20-pound packs. If you’re running for your life, it might seem obvious that your first move would be to drop anything that might slow you down. 

For firefighters, though, tools are essential to doing their jobs, carrying and taking care of equipment is deeply ingrained in their training and experience. It wasn’t till Dodge gave his order that most smoke jumpers stepped down their tools. And even then, one firefighter hung on to his shovel until a colleague took it out of his hands. Would it have been enough to save them if the crew abandoned their tools sooner? We’ll never know for certain, but Mann Gulch wasn’t an isolated incident. 

Between 1990 and 1995 alone, 23 wildland firefighters perished trying to outrace fires uphill, even though dropping their heavy equipment could have made the difference between life and death. 

In 1994, on Storm King Mountain in Colorado, high winds caused a fire to explode across the Gulch, running uphill on rocky ground with safety in view just 200 feet away, 14 smokejumpers and wildland firefighters, four women, and ten men lost their lives. Later, investigators calculated that the crew could have moved 15 to 20% faster without their tools and backpacks. As one expert wrote, most would have lived had they simply dropped their gear and ran for safety. As the US Forest Service concluded, if they had dropped their Packs and tools, the firefighters would have reached the top of the Ridge before the fire. 

It’s reasonable to assume that, at first, the crew might have been running on autopilot, not even aware that they were still carrying their packs and tools. One of the Colorado survivors testified about 300 yards up the hill. I then realised I still had my saw over my shoulder. Even after deciding to ditch the 25-pound chainsaw, he wasted valuable time. ‘I rationally started looking for a place to put it down where it wouldn’t get burned. I remember thinking, I can’t believe I’m putting down my saw.’ 

One of the victims was found wearing his backpack, still clutching the handle of his chainsaw. Why would so many firefighters cling to a set of tools even though letting go might save their lives?

 If you’re a firefighter, dropping your tools doesn’t just require you to unlearn habits and disregard instincts. Discarding your equipment means admitting failure and shedding part of your identity. You have to rethink your goal in your job and your role in life.

 As organisational psychologist Carl Wake explains, fires are not fought with bodies in bare hands. They’re fought with tools that are often distinctive trademarks of firefighters. They are the firefighter’s reason for being deployed in the first place. Dropping one’s tools create an existential crisis. Without my tools, who am I?

 Wildland fires are relatively rare. Most of our lives don’t depend on split-second decisions that force us to re-imagine our tools—this source of danger and a fire as a path to safety.

 If the challenge of rethinking assumptions is surprisingly common. Maybe even common to all humans. We all make the same kind of mistakes as smokejumpers and firefighters, but the consequences are less dire and, therefore, often go unnoticed.

Our ways of thinking become habits that weigh us down, and we don’t bother to question them until it’s too late—expecting your squeaky brakes to keep working until they finally fail on the freeway. Believe the stock market will keep going up after analysts warned of an impending real estate bubble. Assuming your marriage is fine, despite your partner’s increasing emotional distance. Feeling secure in your job, even though some of your colleagues have been laid off.

Credit: Think Again By Adam Grant 

The Jolly Investor

Categories: All Stories


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