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This article is excerpted from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.


This article is part of a series called Antivirus For Your Mind.

Dougal Robertson was sailing across the Pacific Ocean with his family when three killer whales simultaneously struck their boat. (Killer whales often attack larger whales like that, striking it to stun it. Then they eat it.) The sailboat started sinking — fast! Within minutes, their boat was gone and they found themselves sitting in silence in an empty ocean, completely dazed.

The thoughts going through Dougal’s mind were filled with despair. Why, he thought, had he been so reckless as to endanger his family’s life like this? How could he have risked their lives with his selfish desire to educate them in such an unorthodox way?

He himself started sinking — into feelings of despair and hopelessness and guilt as he thought about the loss of his boat, the danger his family was in, and the foolish mistakes he had made.

They were in the middle of the Pacific on a raft and a little fiberglass dingy, without a radio, without a homing beacon, and a long way from shipping lanes. The wind and currents were moving in the opposite direction of the nearest land. They had very little food or water.

The situation was grim to say the least, and as Dougal thought about it and felt anguish for putting his family in this situation, he suddenly realized his face was showing his hopelessness.

He knew his depression would ruin any chance they had of surviving. He was the leader. They were all looking to him. His own despair would demoralize them all, and he also knew a defeated person doesn’t do what he needs to survive.

Dougal had to rise out of his depression. Driven by the necessity of so great a responsibility, he spontaneously invented the way out.

He had never read a book about cognitive therapy. He didn’t know there was such a thing. But he started exactly what cognitive therapists teach their clients to do: He debated with his own demoralizing thoughts.

His first thought was, I shouldn’t have brought them out in the ocean. “But,” he argued with himself, “Douglas had grown to manhood in our 18 months at sea. The formerly shy and introspective twins had become interested in the world, had expanded their understanding of other people and had awakened their desire to learn more.”

But I took them out on such an old boat. “It was of much heavier construction than newer boats, and sank slower than a modern boat would have, allowing us time to get off the boat and safely into the life raft.”

But I have now risked their lives. “What happened was as unforeseeable as an earthquake or an airplane crash.”

Dougal’s crash-course in anti-defeatism worked. He revived. His demoralization vanished and was replaced by a firm determination to get his family home safely. He explained their situation and what needed to be done, and they immediately started taking actions that helped them survive.

They spent 38 days on in their lifeboat and dingy, overcoming one obstacle after another without losing heart, and they all made it home alive.

Stories of survival show very clearly the power of arguing with defeatist explanations. You can see the usefulness of the principle in naked relief when shown in such harsh live-or-die circumstances. You can see that the only hope the Robertsons had of making it home alive was to keep trying. Giving up meant death. Had they succumbed to despair, the slim chance of survival they had would have vanished as quickly as their sailboat beneath the waves.

Dougal Robertson wrote a book about his family's experience. It is one of my favorite books of all time. Check it out: Survive the Savage Sea.

Read the next chapter: The Flying Kitty-Hawk Brothers

This article is excerpted from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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