Sam Sheridan is a favorite author of mine. He’s traveled the world extensively, trained with martial artists from Brazil to Thailand to Iowa, worked in the South Pole, fought forest fires, and recently learned and wrote about how to survive the Apocalypse. I caught up with him last week to discuss his latest project, The Disaster Diaries, and find out more about his life.
For our readers who aren’t necessarily familiar with you, can you describe yourself and your work in 2 or 3 sentences?
I’m Sam Sheridan, I’m the author of three books, The Fighter’s Heart, The Fighter’s Mind, and The Disaster Diaries. I basically go out and learn about the world so you don’t have to.
You have a new book out, The Disaster Diaries. You go on a quest in order to prepare yourself and your family for the end of the world. What was the process that drove this project and why did you want to write it?
I’m a big, fairly competent guy who’d done a lot of stuff and I felt pretty good about my chances if there was a disaster. And then when I had a son, I realized that’s not really good enough. Like, do you really have it or not? There’s a lot of things I couldn’t do. There’s a lot of disasters out there lurking, and it’s easy to get sucked into this anxious world.
What it metamorphosed into was a kind of Mythbusters for the end of the world. There’s a lot of fantasy and romantic ideals about how you’re going to be the last guy on earth with a backpack and a shotgun and heading off into the wilderness and everything is going to be great. It was interesting to get into some of the realities of what those disasters entail and what your role in them will be. The truth is, that’s not how it works.
What surprised you the most about this project?
There was a lot of surprises. I think a lot of the research and stuff I found out about stress was pretty interesting. Even though I’ve written a book about fighting and the mental game, there’s a lot of stuff about stress that comes from shooting that was new to me.
The Cooper’s Color Code was invented by this guy Jeff Cooper who was a famous firearms instructor in the 60’s. What he saw was there was a breakdown in performance in his students over a certain stress level he could measure in heart beats per minute.
This is dealing with a much higher level, life or death stress. What you find is that there’s real cognitive issues that start happening as your body’s under stress, like responding to a threat, or possible threat or real threat or under attack. Your body releases all these hormones, and it’s the fight or flight stuff we’re all familiar with.
Paramedics find when people call 911, if it’s a child or a loved one, often they can’t dial 911. They have to get a neighbor to do it. It’s not that common, but it does happen. They are so stressed out, these stress hormones are raging through their body, that it changes stuff like the shape of your eyeball. Also, it’s affecting your cognitive abilities and how you process things and your decision making process. People can’t dial 911. They can’t actually see the phone or the numbers. I had a friend who got mugged and he kept dialing 411. You think beforehand that your fine motor skills will be ok, you’ll rise to the occasion, no big deal. The truth is you don’t rise to the occasion. You sink to the level of your training.
The Cooper Color Code goes white you are at home, totally relaxed, yellow you are on the street, walking around, paying attention. Orange, you see a possible threat and now you are engaged. Red is you’re fighting and pretty stressed out. The Marines came up with condition black, which is what they call a catastrophic breakdown. That’s when you can’t dial 911.
A lot of the readers on our site are fresh out of college or about to graduate in a few months. My impression has been that it’s expected of grads to get the real job and start making money. You graduated from Harvard and did the exact opposite, taking the job on the private sailing yacht for a year and a half. What was your thought process behind that?
That actually paid pretty well, which was part of the thought process. I think people do panic and start hunting for a career too soon. I think you need to cut yourself some slack, particularly in this day and age. Things have changed a lot since your parents got jobs, and I think the world is a lot different. You can be 30 or 35 and start a career. Particularly if you have any interest in doing anything creative, it’s going to take a long time to get there. Anything is about apprenticeships and finding the right people. I think don’t put any pressure on yourself until you’re 30.
People just getting out of college, relax. The most important thing you can do is travel and work, but work to support your travel and see the world. Not panic and get hooked into a career path and get an apartment and a car you have to make payments on. It’s a slippery slope right? Then you get a girlfriend, then you get married and that’s what you’re doing.
I think you try and maximize your opportunity. What I used to do would be look around and see 10 or 15 cool things that would be fun to go do. I would start researching them. You sort of make that your job. You keep a notebook and make so many phone calls and write so many e-mails or forms and track down people. Only one of those things ever works out, but hey, then one of them works out. I have a million things that never worked out that I didn’t get to do.
What were some of those?
I tried to fight fires on oil rigs for instance. There’s all kinds of jobs like that, and I came very close to joining the Marine corps. Twice I joined, and then I quit before I had to go. You try to maximize your options and then you make your decision at the very last minute. I just think don’t panic. People put stress on themselves. There is no real world, there is no real job. And by the way, nobody knows what they are doing. Adults don’t know what they are doing either.
And on the other hand I would say, the other thing I run into, the people who want to be writers and want to be filmmakers, the thing to remember is that it’s a profession that’s rooted in uncertainty. You’re never going to know, even if you are successful, where your next paycheck is coming from. For a lot of people, that’s too scary and it’s not fun and they can’t do it. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s hard for me. I was just talking this morning to a writer friend of mine who’s successful. He was freaking out because he doesn’t know where his money is coming from.
Meryl Streep says her greatest fear is she will never work again. That’s Meryl Streep, she’s going to get work. But the fear never goes away. If you can’t assimilate that fear and make it work and make it fun and make it excitement instead of anxiety, you might want to think about something else.
If you were just coming out of college, would you do anything differently? Why or why not?
I have a million regrets because I regret everything I never got to do and every chance I never got. Sure, I’d do something differently because I’ve already done this one. I’m pretty happy with how things worked out and more or less content with who I am. I probably would have done the military at some point because I think it would have been pretty interesting. It also could have sucked.
I had this very brief intro into the merchant marines before college. It punctured my ideas about the military. But if I had graduated right when 9/11 happened, I probably would have gone. I almost went twice anyway.
In The Fighter’s Heart you basically state that we have a specific responsibility to experience as much life as we can. This relates to what we were talking about earlier. It seems that so often people have, especially when they are younger, all these dreams and ambitions and intentions to experience life, but they end up just being intentions and settle. Why do you think that is?
It’s very complicated and hard to generalize. Nothing is simple. I think fear and comfort and also being aware of what’s out there and knowing that something’s possible, that it’s possible not to jump into a good career and take the opportunity. It’s possible to say no and do something else.
For instance when Australians travel, they go for years because it’s so far. They leave for two, three, four years and they work. And they’ll go to England and they’ll work bartending or whatever. Americans never do that. Some of it is a little more European, but it’s doable and Americans never do it. It’s sort of a societal thing, they just don’t travel like that. That’s what set me apart early, that I had this more European style of travel when I would go for months and months. Basically I hate traveling and I like being somewhere. If it’s a long flight, I’m staying for two months because I’m not doing that flight again anytime soon.
I think part of it’s societal and cultural, and I think people like comfort. They’ll give lip service to the idea they want to have adventures but they really don’t want to have adventures. They want to be comfortable and have a flat screen and go home and have an awesome weekend. That’s fine, it is what it is.
Do you think it’s worthwhile to reverse this trend or is there anything to reverse this trend?
I don’t see it as a trend. It’s a diaspora, it’s the delta effect. There’s so many different people doing so many different things. I think it’s personal. You have to read and write and get out there and see what’s possible. Acquaint yourself with other ways of living and being. Getting that job on a boat right out of college helped me see that.
I don’t think it’s a trend we have to reverse. I think it’s personal, it’s up to you. You have to see what you are comfortable with. Can you handle being a loser who doesn’t have a job, being that guy, working crappy jobs, being a guy who’s mopping, but you’re mopping the floor in a bar in Crete for a summer. Hey you don’t have any skills, but you get to spend a summer in Crete chasing girls. Those are the kinds of things you have to be able to handle.
Luckily, my parents didn’t financially support me, but they were totally cool with the idea. It makes a big difference.
How have you been able to follow your passion of writing your whole life?
You get lucky and then you have to seize the day. I was trying to write fiction, and I had a murder mystery, and I had an agent but I couldn’t sell it. Then I was firefighting and I got introduced to an agent who likes to find guys with cool stories and help them tell their stories. I had done that thing in Thailand where I had lived there and fought and it was a cool story. He said it would be great for one of these men’s magazines. So we wrote it and he shopped it and nobody bought it. Finally, everybody had forgotten about it, and I was on a fire. On some of these big fires, they get names and people actually make up t-shirts for the fire. I actually bought some t-shirts and sent them to this agent so he didn’t forget about me. Long story short, Men’s Journal picked up that story. A lot of books come out of magazine articles.