Drop Your Tools
On August 5, 1949, a group of smokejumpers dropped from a plane to fight a forest fire in the Helena National Forest in Montana. Not long into the fight, the crew was forced to try and make an escape when the fire unexpectedly leaped Mann Gulch, for which the fire has its infamous namesake. As the men raced uphill to try and escape the flames, they were instructed to drop their tools so they could move faster. Only a couple of them followed the order.
According to reports on the incident, the decision by the remaining men to hold onto their tools was a fatal one. 13 men perished in the flames. Two men who did drop their tools escaped to safety over a nearby ridge. Reports indicate that the men who did drop their tools could have moved 15-20% faster up the hill. That speed advantage probably meant the difference between life and death.
45 years later, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the South Canyon fire took the lives of 14 firefighters under eerily similar circumstances. According to reports on the incident, one of the victim's bodies was found with the handle of his saw still in his grip. Quentin Rhoades, a firefighter who survived the incident, later shared in his statement:
"at some point, about 300 yds. up the hill... I then realized I still had my saw over my shoulder! I irrationally started looking for a place to put it down where it wouldn't get burned... I remember thinking I can't believe I'm putting down my saw."
What could explain these seemingly illogical decisions by trained men in the face of such perilous danger?
Those of us who have never faced such a situation can only speculate. But statements taken from the survivors of these tragic incidents reveal important clues. Chief amongst these is the idea that for these firefighters, their tools were more than simple implements; they were symbols. To possess their tools was to maintain some degree of control. To stay in the fight. Dropping their tools was a sign of surrender, and running up the white flag was orthogonal to their identities. All of their training had taught them to hold on. None of it had focused on when and how to let go.
Time to let go?
Thankfully, most of us will never face a decision with potentially grave consequences. But that doesn't mean there isn't a valuable lesson here. In reality, we face less consequential versions of this dilemma every day. We drop from our planes into the wildfire of complex projects, demanding bosses, unhappy customers, and interpersonal struggles with colleagues. We carry tools we've held onto since our early childhood. How we deal with conflict. How we communicate. How we problem-solve. Our tools form the backbone of how we navigate the world. And they're often so deeply rooted in our identities that we don't even realize we're carrying them.
Anyone who has been through the experience of waking up knows what it's like to drop their tools. Like Quentin Rhoades, you suddenly recognize that you're efforts to climb are being encumbered by extraneous baggage. This doesn't make it easy to let go. But with this awareness, you can at least make a conscious decision.
What will you do when:
When your aversion to conflict causes you to clam up instead of saying what needs to be said?
When your propensity to work independently leaves you spinning your wheels instead of asking for help?
When your visionary nature causes you to ignore evidence that your current approach doesn't square with reality?
In some situations, you may decide to hold fast to your old tools. In others, you realize these tools no longer serve you. Letting go feels like losing part of your identity. It feels like capitulation. Like a surrender. A loss of control. But sometimes it's the only way to get to a more tenable position.
So the next time you find yourself navigating a difficult situation, stop and ask yourself: is it time to drop your tools?