Against all odds: Courage and resilience in the face of uncertainty

21 June 2022

In an unpredictable and ever-inconsistent financial landscape, making the right decisions can be both crucial and fraught with risk. At one of our Connect Events, Dr Richard “Harry” Harris – who is no stranger to making difficult and high-stakes decisions in high-pressure situations – shared with Bankwest brokers his best advice for developing resilience and bravery when faced with challenges.

About the event

For a few weeks in 2018, 12 children and their soccer coach captivated the world. Eyes and hearts were directed to the Tham Luang caves in Thailand, where the Thai Wild Boars junior soccer team became trapped after unseasonably early rainfall flooded them in.

As the complexity of the cave structures and the extent of the danger were revealed, it seemed impossible that the entire group would make it out alive – impossible even to the rescue team who repeatedly risked their own lives to save them.

Harry, an Australian cave diver and anaesthetist who was called on to help with the operation, was “100% convinced the children would die under the anaesthetic in the water for three hours”.

So how did the team tackle such a seemingly doomed task and end up saving every one of the 13 lives? Harry shares the unbelievable details of the rescue, and the lessons in courage and resilience he learned along the way.

Headshot of Dr Richard "Harry" Harris

The power of a shared vision

The events at the Tham Luang caves forced a group of strangers to work together under intensely stressful circumstances.

What allowed volunteer divers to collaborate with doctors, Thai Navy Seals and authorities to achieve such an unexpectedly successful outcome was the overwhelming shared desire to see these lives saved.

“We ended up working in this very small team of cave divers from around the world with this common, shared mental model— and what could be more important than the lives of these 13 people?” Harry said.

“Isn’t it incredible how 12 different countries could come together and contribute manpower, equipment, finance and so forth when they all shared this common goal?"

The power of the individual

Teamwork was crucial to the operation. But Harry also recognises that the rescue would not have been possible without the bravery, passion and initiative of key individuals.

People were called on to make difficult calls— like Chiang Rai province governor Narongsak Osatanakorn, who stuck his neck out to bring the British divers to Thailand— or risk their own safety – like local public safety diver Ton, who almost found the team on the first night, and cave diving “rockstars” Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, who discovered the boys at great personal risk.

About 1,100 rice farmers lost their crops while the water was being redirected from the caves and declined compensation, considering it their contribution to the global volunteer effort.

The 12 boys and their coach kept each other alive through extreme hunger and cold. “In my view the children are the genuine heroes in this story, and how they managed to survive, let alone keep their spirits up, I have no idea,” Harry said.

These individual sacrifices, he learned, are what made the impossible possible.

The power of embracing tough decisions

When the idea of anaesthetising the boys was first broached, Harry was adamant this was not an option.

Yet even as he remained sure that it wouldn’t work, he agreed to go ahead with the anaesthetic, a call that ultimately saved 13 young lives.

“Either we could leave the children in the cave and hope that somehow they could survive until the end of the monsoon, or I could embrace this plan, even though I was convinced the children would die,” he said.

Asked how he found the strength to go ahead with this mission when he fully believed it to be impossible, he said that the alternative was simply unimaginable.

“I think it’s easier to do something than to do nothing. For me to get back on a plane and leave Thailand knowing that I’ve just turned my back on those boys and that they will die a horrible death was just impossible for me to consider,” he said.

The power of taking on challenges

It almost seems that Harry’s entire life—his “improbable constellation of skills”— was preparing him for the Thai cave rescue.

But it wasn’t just chance that Harry had not only the skills he did, but the resilience to use them in such harrowing circumstances. Rather, he sees it as a deliberate result of his attempts to, in chasing his passion, face challenges head on.

“People have asked me how I found the courage or resilience or mental toughness to go through with this, and I think it really comes back to a lifetime of adventuring and trying to not shy away from challenges,” he said.

“Life is tough and we all have big challenges ahead of us. Building resilience by constantly undertaking difficult things is, I am convinced, the way forward."

“You don’t know when your particular challenge is coming and the time to prepare is absolutely right now."

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The information contained in this article is of a general nature and is not intended to be nor should it be considered as professional advice. You should not act on the basis of anything contained in this article without first obtaining specific professional advice. Also to the extent permitted by law, Bankwest, a division of Commonwealth Bank of Australia ABN 48 123 123 124 AFSL / Australian credit licence 234945, its related bodies corporate, employees and contractors accept no liability or responsibility to any persons for any loss which may be incurred or suffered as a result of acting on or refraining from acting as a result of anything contained in this article.