In the unlikely event of a water landing, DO NOT INFLATE YOUR LIFE JACKET WHILE YOU ARE STILL INSIDE THE PLANE.
Forget that stupid "put on your own oxygen mask" cliché. Please allow me to turn over your seat-back safety card and point out the TRULY useful metaphor for life in the 2020s
Quick housekeeping before this week’s newsletter: I’m running a spring break sale on annual subscriptions to “Glow.”
It’s been more than a year since I’ve done one of these, and it’s almost the newsletter’s 3rd birthday. Seems like a good time.
Annual subscriptions are 20% off through March 15. Get on in here already!
No special code or link required—all new annual subscribers will get the discount, although NB that the discounted price only applies to year one. (Hopefully in 12 months you will love me to the tune of a $49.99 renewal.)
Now onto our main subject: PLANE CRASHES. And what they have to teach one about successful, sustainable writing careers.
You might want to skip this week’s letter if you’re a nervous flyer.
Aside from my clients Bob Jensen and Darryl Campbell—LOVE YOU BOTH—there are not many people in my life to whom I can monologue about plane crashes these days.
Call me crazy, but people at the small children’s birthday parties which constitute the majority of my late-30s social life just don’t seem interested in my Mount Erebus Disaster Facts Treasury.
Then I remembered that I have you people to talk to! You poor, poor people.
You may not have been aware when you subscribed to this book publishing newsletter that
1. I come from a long line of aviation devotees;
2. I briefly flew sailplanes myself in college, albeit never solo; and
3. whatever deep, deranged, nerve-scouring comfort others find in horror fiction and true crime podcasts, I find in CVR transcripts and reruns of the Canadian docuseries Mayday.
Now that you are aware, however, please allow me to explain why my background brings a certain depth of derangement to my hatred for this metaphor: “you’ve got to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.”
It’s not that this advice is wrong. Literally and figuratively, of course it’s a good idea to prioritize your needs as an aerobic organism. If a plane decompresses at altitude, you will otherwise have 15-30 seconds of what they call “useful consciousness” before the void comes a-knockin’.
The same applies figuratively. If you always care for other people ahead of yourself on the ground, you will end up burnt out, sick, possibly even dead.
So what’s my problem with that line?
It’s not the line per se as the fact that we we all know it by now, Gladys.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I have seen that line in on average one self-help nonfiction submission a week for the past ten years.
It has not been original since many, many years before that.
This bothers me as a literary agent. To write groundbreaking self-help, one needs to create, not repeat, metaphors of this sort. Fully-developed, irresistible “lifestyle” books generally inspire their readers to scream OF COURSE! and I’M SO INSPIRED! and HOW HAS NO ONE EVER THOUGHT TO PUT IT THAT WAY BEFORE?—not “oh yes, I too saw that line on Instagram once, and it remains true.”
The ubiquity of it all also bothers me as an aviation disaster obsessive. The last thing you want to do is encourage airline passengers to hyperfixate on one of the seat-back safety rules at the expense of the others. Plus: in terms of what actually kills people in rapid-decompression events, “too much time helping others” generally ain’t it.
The real decompression-response problem isn’t so much the order in which passengers frantically put on each other’s masks as their general incredulity in the matter of needing them at all.
This was the tragedy at the heart of the one big rapid-decompression incident in the past two decades: Helios Airways Flight 522, a 2005 crash that began when the flight crew forgot to set pressurization to “automatic” in their preflight systems check.
There was no explosive mid-air decompression on Helios; oxygen merely disappeared out of the cabin, which meant that by the time the oxygen masks dropped, nearly all the people on board were feeling loopy, confused, perhaps a little euphoric—unbothered.
Of the 121 people who ultimately died in that crash, 119 might never have put on their oxygen masks at all. The pilots certainly didn’t.
The only two people who did—at least that we know for sure—are flight attendants Andreas Prodromou and Haris Charalambous, who also happened to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Fighter jets who scrambled to the drifting plane saw the couple stumble into the cockpit to try and fly the plane at more or less the exact moment it ran out of fuel. Poor Prodromou waved a forlorn goodbye at the fighter pilots as the plane began to drop.
The one thing Prodromou and Charalambous were able to figure out was how to turn the plane away from the city of Athens and crash it in the countryside, killing no one on the ground. Pour one out for the two of them in your heart today.
Why am I telling you all this?
I swear we’re going to swerve back into book publishing momentarily.
The Helios crash offers a host of much, much better oxygen mask-related wisdom for living well in the 2020s.
Here’s why the people on that plane really died:
Hypoxia is insidious; it makes people irrational. So does panic. The first thing to go in these situations is the kind of situational awareness necessary to take appropriate precautions.
Oxygen masks are insidious, too. You’ve probably heard a flight attendant say something about how oxygen is going to be flowing even though the bag doesn’t inflate. The more accurate truth is that there isn’t any oxygen in there at all—not until the moment you yank the mask toward you. What there is is bunch of chemicals that release oxygen when combined. Masks are kind of like glow sticks that way! Glow sticks for breathing.
The chemicals in these masks unfortunately also smell like burnt rubber when combined.
TL DR: using an oxygen mask on a plane feels like nothing and smells like you’re gonna die.Which means passengers are sometimes like, “these masks are useless, and my family and I will therefore exercise our right not to wear them.” Then they pass out and die.
For reasons I hope I don’t have to spell out, this strikes me as quite the allegory for decisionmaking in the 2020s.
Don’t be the person who chooses death over the panic of a burnt-rubber smell.
Don’t be the person who decides their anxiety or arrogance is more authoritative than experts’ expertise.
And if you’re looking for real guidance on how not to crash and burn amidst stress, don’t even focus on oxygen masks at all.
Turn to the part of the safety card about water landings and focus on that bit instead. This part especially:
DO NOT INFLATE YOUR LIFE JACKET UNTIL YOU ARE OUTSIDE THE PLANE.
OUTSIDE! THE! PLANE!
Do you remember this part of the flight attendants’ standard preflight monologue: “To inflate the vest, pull firmly on the red cord, only when leaving the aircraft?”
Do you know why the last five words of that are so important?
If you are on a sinking plane that has just crashed on water — particularly a small one — you are not going to be able to evacuate wearing an inflated life jacket. Water will be rushing in, pushing you backward. The life jacket will buoy you upward.
Inflated life jackets are rock-hard. They push your neck backward into a position you can pass out in on the surface of the ocean without drowning. Think Looking Up at the Sky.
If you inflate your life jacket before you get out of a sinking plane, you will drown. You will drown like the majority of the passengers on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961, the first-ever survivable water-landing crash of a wide-body jet (it just so happened to be a Boeing 767).
Hijacked by asylum seekers, the plane went down in shallow water just a few hundred feet offshore from the Comoros Islands in 1996. Despite the cartwheeling dramatics of the “landing”—someone on the beach nearby filmed the whole thing; you can see stills via the link above—just about every passenger could have survived if they followed protocol. Instead, most ended up drowning in the wreckage. They were just too panicked—and the flight crew too occupied with the hijackers—for common sense to prevail.
Now at last we get to why this is relevant to you.
I hope you never have to deal with a water landing in an airplane — and for what it’s worth, you almost certainly won’t. It’s far more likely that you’ll win millions in the lottery. FAR more.
Man, though—in the realm of psychological metaphor, is it ever common for smart people to inflate their life jackets prematurely and suffer needlessly as a result.
I find this is an especially common issue amongst those of us drawn to book publishing careers. Thanks to a combination of intelligence, sensitivity, and past trauma, many of us are hypervigilant adults. We often have trouble distinguishing between self-protection, self-advocacy, and self-sabotage.
I am thinking of the aspiring author so frustrated by how long their editorial process is taking and/or triggered by challenging editorial feedback that they quit the project or relationship instead of facing down their demons and becoming the kind of writer they need to be in order to have a prayer on submission.
I am thinking of the one who procrastinates for years and years and years, haunted by regret when their book’s limited window of opportunity expires or someone else claims its narrow market space. This is less common than many authors fear, but it does happen.
I am thinking of the one who blames others for their shortcomings and/or projects them—the person who is mysteriously never, ever at fault. Who is “terminally good-natured” but mysteriously beset by haters.
I am thinking of the opposite: the one who never quite believes other people’s failures might have played a role in “their own.” Who’s convinced that they’re always, always letting people down.
I am thinking of how cumbersome shame is. And anxiety. And self-loathing.
I am thinking of the way we contort our bodies when we’re walking on eggshells and bracing for rejection.
I am thinking of anyone who’s ever said or believed the line, you can never be too safe. Because you actually can.
I am thinking of the incurious. The never-trusting. Of everyone who uses the words always and never in their deliberations and arguments, since those words generally describe fantasies—not reality.
I am thinking of all of us who appear to be engaging with other living people here on Earth but are really in another dimension, fighting invisible ghosts in our minds.
When life or writing stresses you out: sure, by all means, put on your own oxygen mask first (and then keep it on, even if the smell is disturbing).
Take that hot bath. Get that full night’s sleep. Say “no” to that favor request.
But for God’s sake: even in literal high-altitude compression situations, that little nugget of wisdom will only be useful for about 10-20 minutes. It’s not going to be useful when your plane actually hits the ground. At that point, you’re going to want to take the mask off and get out.
The moment of self-salvation: that’s when you’re going to need to not execute—at least not prematurely.
True crashes reward the calm, observant, and responsive—not the teacher’s pet or the type-A neurotic. Not the overprepared, panicked, or intellectualized.
They reward the people who are paying attention.
“…the poor morticians and dentists in charge of identifying the bodies had to camp out in tents on an Antarctic human grease floe for a week! AND THE MANIACS WHO PLANNED THE MEALS FOR THIS EXCURSION WENT WITH MEAT STEW ON NIGHT ONE!” (Thanks for ruining my life on this front, Colin Dickey.)
You’re probably not going to die, though. Most oxygen mask deployments end without death. My dad, for example, had the thrill of experiencing one on AeroMexico in 1980! And he is still kickin’ in his 70s today.
Great read! But I hope I don't need the prep for surviving a water landing.