Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits

Emma Barrett and Paul Martin
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-966858-8
A Review by Susan Froetschel

Some enjoy venturing into extreme environments, where survival depends on meticulous planning and managing risks. In Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits, Emma Barrett and Paul Martin describe the skills and mindset required of those who relish diving into the ocean depths, descending into caves to crawl among narrow spaces, working for months in contained modules in outer space, climbing mountains, or hiking the world’s remote deserts, jungles and polar regions.

Such capabilities can be developed and practiced, argue Barrett and Martin. “Being brave, making good decisions, planning and preparing, dealing with social conflict, working in small groups, learning to focus attention, coping with boredom, sleeping well, and building psychological resilience are valuable skills in everyday life, just as they are in extreme environments.”

Barrett and Martin do not explicitly mention climate change or global warming, but communities increasingly must cope with disasters of human making and those exacerbated by poor planning – the tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the earthquake in Haiti, and the massive floods and storms that strike coastal and river cities with increasing regularity.

Each disaster offers new lessons, and governments ponder the skills and personalities that relish extreme environments. Medical and military researchers have long studied human responses to extreme temperatures, dehydration and hunger, alarms and other noise, air pressure, vibrations, darkness, heights, tight spaces and sleep deprivation – in an attempt to identify candidates for rescue, emergency, military or exploration missions and to develop appropriate training programs.

Endless training, practice and anticipation boost one’s ability to adapt and control anxiety and other emotions.

Human resilience often surprises the experts. During World War II, the government wanted to know how Londoners might respond to sustained bombings. Psychiatrists predicted panic and trauma. Instead, people adapted quickly and displayed little fear. Both bravery and fear are contagious. Acting the part of role model can reduce fear in one’s self.

Extreme’s best chapters are on monotony, other people, focus and especially teamwork. A common purpose can bind a diverse team. Teamwork requires constant coordination, cooperation and communication, and Barrett and Martin point out that teams work best when they share a mental model, inferring cause or anticipating consequences, moving in a synchronized way, with implicit coordination even on fast-moving or complex tasks that allow little time for questions or discussion.  Team members are resilient with “an approach to life that is characterized by realistic optimism, self-confidence, a sense of humour, the ability to stay focused under pressure, not being easily defeated by failure, and finding meaning even in negative experiences.”  Team members monitor one another’s performance, ever ready to step in as backup. Equipment is checked, rechecked, and rechecked again. The team agrees on the purpose and priorities, but constantly tests assumptions. Competition or thrill seeking can threaten survival.  Barrett and Martin write, “To survive and thrive in demanding situations, as in everyday life, we must learn to be tolerant and tolerable.”

Endeavors in extreme conditions require an intense concentration known as flow, full engagement with goals and a readiness to take on new challenges, an almost automatic state of mind associated with many higher-level jobs. Notably, experts construct narratives that relay an “understanding of the antecedents, key features, prognoses, and implications of the situation” while novices tend to offer ambiguous stories that that focus more on action and less on assessment. Experts engage in continuous reflection.

Traditional leadership styles often do not work in extreme conditions. Leaders encourage strong team members, most leaders themselves. Followers are already motivated, and leaders must be alert to psychological changes and needs, while denied tools like expulsion or withholding privileges. Hierarchy matters less than trust and credibility. Military psychologist Thomas Kolditz points out that leadership in extreme environments is “less about power over subordinations and more about an obligation toward their well-being and survival.” Leaders are responsible to establish a team climate – “a property of the group as a whole rather than of individuals” on safety, risks and goals.

The writers were wise to organize the book around challenges and skills rather than diving, caving and other categories of exploration. However, chapter introductions and conclusion are laboriously repetitive taking up space that could have been used for more anecdotes or analysis. Another distraction: The writers recall or promise to return to themes in other chapters at least 20 times throughout the book. Such is the purpose of a good index, missing in this review copy and so many other books today.

As businesses, government and schools develop programs on preparing individuals for extreme environments, the book could serve as required reading for an introductory course with some caveats. The book is largely western-centric, as many would argue about the history of exploration in general. Yet no author should forget that international students represent up to 40 percent enrollment at some UK and US universities. Sentences like “Other cultures and subcultures have different criteria for ‘heroic’ action” without are problematic. The book rightly points out that most space, polar and other high-cost scientific explorations include international teams, but the authors could go into more depth on cultural encounters, offer more detail on requirements beyond common purpose for promoting trust and compatibility. “Where teams are multinational, they can further benefit from pre-mission training designed to enhance their cross-cultural awareness and build familiarity between the soon-to-be crewmates,” the authors write. The book would benefit from more anecdotes on foreign adventurers and researchers like China’s remote-sensing expert Liu Shaochuang or Japan’s polar explorer Yasunaga Ogita.

The book could also have touched on the global trend of urban exploration. Artists, bloggers, and adventurers venture into abandoned factories and hospitals, climb bridges and skyscrapers, crawl through old mines or storm drains – in their own communities or as tourists – claiming public ownership while documenting decay, wasted public funds, security flaws and more.

Fortunately, the resilience required for such endeavors is in no short supply, Barrett and Martin contend, and instead is a “remarkably common human” quality. Resilience, courage, focus and self-control can be practiced and mastered. Parents should know, too, that family history, childhood experiences, time outdoors and humanitarian work – allowing children to create their own opportunities and develop curiosity – contribute to strong personalities. 

The world has a need for people willing to step into harm’s way, and how they manage risks should be understood and appreciated.

Susan Froetschel works for YaleGlobal Online. She is the author of five mystery books, including Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit set in Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale