Let's Redefine What SURVIVAL Means...

Picture By Mandy Beerly


Podcast Script Below

By Dave Nelson, Founder of Milestone Mind

May 17, 2017

It struck me this week that a word we use in modern day vernacular meant something very different for thousands of years, and I want to advocate that we return it to its original meaning.

This word holds incredible power and can give us significant meaning if we can embrace its core elements.

The word? Survival.

I was listening to Art De Vany, one of the most influential figures of "evolutionary fitness" earlier this week. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics and taught at UCLA for many years.

Evolutionary Fitness is a body of knowledge that notions like the paleo diet had emerged. During the many things De Vany discussed, one topic starkly stood out to me and it surrounded the Toba Catastrophe. 

Although this particular subject was not the focus of De Vany's talk, it was something that I had never heard of before and left me awestruck and dumbfounded.

Like jaw dropping awe stuck.

Have you ever heard about the Toba Catastrophe before?  

In short, the Toba Catastrophe was a supereruption that occurred roughly 75,000 years ago in Sumatra, Indonesia. It was one of the most cataclysmic events recorded in the last 100,000 years.

It had caused a winter that lasted globally for 10-years, and a significant cooling period after that for over 1,000 years (Rampino, 1993). The Toba Supereruption was 100-times stronger than the second most powerful eruption on record, which had occurred more recently, in 1815 (also in Indonesia). This second eruption itself had caused a 1-year long winter in Northern Asia.

(And we thought winters in Boston were rough - imagine a full year or even 10-years...damn, not fun to think about.)

Alright, before I bore you to sleep about supereruptions, here's the kicker about this entire event, and that was so astonishing and alarming to me: the eruption had been so devastating to the ecosystem of earth, that not only did much of the vegetation die-off globally, but the human population is believed to have been reduced to just 3,000-10,000 individuals globally. 

What? Like, whoa.

Between 50,000-75,000 years ago, only a few thousand humans were living. That means that you, me, our friends, neighbors, and strangers - of all types, make-ups, religions, and ethnicities - came from these surviving 3,000 badasses. As an example, and to put into even sharper context, all native descendants in the Americas are believed to have come from just 70 individuals that crossed the land bridge that is now known as the Bering Strait (LiveScience, 2005)...

...I had a wide-range of thoughts come to me as I began reading further on this whole event. Specifically, I want to focus on mindset and not on the destruction and demise of the event.

For instance:

  • How would I approach life if I was one of the three-thousand survivors?
  • What were their mindsets like at a time so extreme to survive this period where our species experienced a significant a population bottleneck?
  • Could they have had happiness? How? How might this relate to our lives today?
  • How did they survive, and then thrive?

There is no question these people's lives were lived on the edge. They had to be if there was any chance of living. If we can agree on that, then we must agree there was no room for complacency, status quo, dogmatic ideologies, fear, pessimism, arrogance, inaction, or even things like hatred.

The opposite of all of these debilitating characteristics HAD to be deployed. Risk had to be taken; teamwork had to be developed; community support and giving of oneself had to be core to everyday life. You could not just sit on a stone and hope and pray. You had to act deliberately everyday, so as to learn, adapt, grow, and innovate, or death was just a day away.

There was no running away and hiding back then. It was only running towards and conquering. That was the only way 'survival' was going to be achieved. Humans haven't evolved with skills like speed, strength, intelligence and adaptability to AVOID death, or AVOID predators; we have been given these things to ACHIEVE living and to ACHIEVE hunting, foraging and ultimately surviving and thriving. If that wasn't the case, simply put, we wouldn't be here. 

But, what has survival become in the modern context, as compared to its original meaning, that ultimately thrust us into becoming one of the most prolific living species on the planet? It's become just maintaining and even avoiding. Hasn't it? That mindset would've been our demise 75,000 years ago. Modern day survival and fear prompt shutting ourselves out from the world, doing as little as possible, going within, and becoming ever more isolated. It's extreme minimalistic action.

But what has this done for so many? It has stolen precious time away from actually living.

The Golden 3,000 as I have come to call them weren't worried about lions chasing them, as sometimes people refer to this scene as an example of our primal fear instinct. They were running towards these predators. Their focus was survival every day. This type of survival instinct prompted deliberate and hardcore daily action. They didn't have to be, but they wanted to be ALIVE. They could've easily packed it in and sat around having one last party.

But, instead, they chose to get up the next day and ventured to find new lands, forage, innovate, and achieve living every day. 

So, what is it that kept them going? So desperate to live?

It had to be a feeling, a state of mind of being totally ALIVE, that was too great a sense to give into sudden death, that they could've ultimately accepted if they had chosen. 

This survival mindset wasn't despite their challenges; it was because of them. Here they were faced with significant obstacles, that paradoxical to conventional wisdom, brought the best out in our ancestors. It had to.

I want to bring this now to the present moment. Although the challenges we face today are very different, and much of the need to survive in a biological sense, has been (robbed) made incredibly easy with things like huge grocery stores, Amazon, and libraries of knowledge that we can take and learn from without performing our own trial and error experiments, but SURVIVE we must.

Survival is a state of mind; it's also a core need. It is what Homo Sapiens have been designed to be - survival minded hominids. Survival is not a bastardized adjective to describe one's life of just getting by. It is a place where you are always seeking truth in your life, embracing challenges, moving away from the camp fire and towards new unchartered lands, or in our cases, areas of our lives. It is trying new things, learning exciting new ways, finding solutions to problems and overcoming our fears. It is through moving towards true survival where we become most alive. We become most ourselves.

In many ways, the Toba Catastrophe had to have brought out the best in people - otherwise, we wouldn't be here. It brought out what we were truly made of, and could achieve. These people weren't running scared; they couldn't have; they would've been picked off quickly. They were running confident and fearlessly toward living life ALIVE. 

Not only did the Golden 3,000 fight their way to thriving so that today we still walk the earth, but that they taught us what it means to be fully human, and fully alive. That the many challenges we face today both in our lives and the world around us, that we don't run away scared, but rather we run towards challenges confidently, overcoming setbacks and obstacles, and in the direction of a thriving life and world. 

Today, although the problems are different, many are similarly dire and in common with the Toba. But, these challenges need the best of all of us so that 75,000 years from now, people will be talking about how the human legacy is one that never gave in or gave up, but rather when things became hard and seemingly with no good answer, they didn't quit and pack it in, but instead they ran towards these issues as opportunities, deploying their most powerful tool: the survival mindset to conquer any challenge they faced. 

Be Golden today, and I hope you find yourself surviving the way it was meant to be, living FULLY ALIVE. You're not just some accidental happenstance - you're a survivor; a descendant of the Golden 3,000. 

Own the day.


  • "Climate–Volcanism Feedback and the Toba Eruption of ~74,000 Years ago". Rampino, Michael R.; Self, Stephen (1993).
  • "North America Settled by Just 70 People, Study Concludes". LiveScience. 2005-05-25