Situational awareness of Jason Bourne

Should You Develop the Situational Awareness of Jason Bourne?


A question that comes up a lot is how to develop the situational awareness of Jason Bourne.

Now, before I give you a step-by-step breakdown of how you can train your awareness, I want to first ask the question – Should you develop the situational awareness of Jason Bourne?

In other words, is situational awareness a one size fits all skill?

Let’s explore the topic.

So, here’s the famous scene that convinced some of the world that Jason Bourne is Hollywood’s answer to situational awareness.

Before we accept this as the hardcore assassin’s truth, let’s take a little test. Please answer the below questions, no secret truth serum required:

  • Have you recently discovered that you are part of a clandestine government project to turn you into a brainwashed assassin?
  • Have you inexplicably woken up not knowing where you are and discovered that there is a group of super-government spy-types trying to kill you?
  • Have you woken up after a terrible dream featuring you as one of the lead roles in the movie Oceans Twelve?

If you can honestly answer ‘’yes’’ to two or more of these questions, then we would love to talk to you. If however, your answer is a humble ‘’no’’, then you have to ask yourself, how much of this is truly relatable to my life? 

What about the everyday person?

Forget the black ops tactical police operators and bodyguards of this world, let’s consider a much more competent protector – the average mother of two toddlers. She parks her nondescript mother-mobile that vaguely smells of old apple at the local mall parking lot.  A little tired, superspy civilian mom tactically debusses her two offspring from the vehicle. It’s like freeing two people who were borne with a genetically impaired sense of direction who have just woken up from their afternoon snooze. One is hyper-energized, and the other gets upset when you look at him.

She has a little time to spare so, she guiltily allows herself to take them to the fast-food outlet that is known for deliberately lacing its hamburger buns with enough sugar and preservatives to reboot even Jason Bourne’s memory. After an hour of chemical burgers and the neon plastic adventure gym, she needs to get her little operators back to the car. Try getting the sugar-high hooligans into a car with only one working passenger door and then strapping them into a car seat so complicated that it would defeat even the likes of Elon Musk and a team of engineers.   

Now on top of that, she’s supposed to have enough attention to perceive which vehicle in the parking lot has a hidden gun and to memorize the registration plate of the car with the two guys that have been sitting in the car since she arrived at the mall.  

Situational Awareness is not a one size fits all skill

Although the plot is complicated, Jason Bourne’s life is relatively simple. He has amnesia, so the mind is free from the inconvenient emotional clutter imposed by memories and day-to-day problems. Owing to the short life expectancy of those around him, Jason’s relationship life is also mostly empty and requires little thought. He has nothing else to do but devote his attention to the singular purpose of staying alive and solving the mystery that the author Robert Ludlum created so many years ago. 

In spy mom’s world, her attention must compete with a host of sensorial experiences and decisions. Her situational awareness skills must deal with a complicated continuum of experience. These range from irrelevant to life-threatening. Phone calls from her mother-in-law, dodgy cars in the parking lot, and who’s choking on a toy from the chemical burger gift bag can all occupy her life in a very short space of time.  

The point is, if your danger sense is going to send you messages to keep you alive, the messages need to be appropriate and relevant to your life. Assassins, forklift drivers, law enforcement officers, college students, and supermoms all have different needs.

Situational awareness is not a one size fits all skill.

So rather than placing Jason Bourne as the poster boy for situational awareness, how do we create a set of situational awareness skills that are appropriate to your life? Consider that situational awareness is a messaging system and can be separated into two categories:

  • Generic danger messages relevant to all humans 
  • Situation-specific messages relevant to your life

Generic skills – Pay Attention 007

Enter the OODA Loop

Somewhere, in a shady CIA training camp, Bourne would have been introduced to the OODA Loop. No, it’s not another Robert Ludlum spy novel. The first time I heard the term I wondered if our tactical instructor was having some type of a mental breakdown. Pilots, tactical operators, and even businesspeople throughout the world have been trained to use the OODA Loop for high-pressure decision-making and even strategic planning.

The OODA Loop was created by US Airforce pilot and strategist Col John Boyd. Boyd used his observations to create a system that would inevitably increase the reaction times of his pilots. It’s a system used to break down your environment and turn your split-second observations into decisions and action. Broadly speaking the steps of the OODA Loop look like this: 

  • Observe: Use your senses to make observations about the environment
  • Orientate: Analyze what you have observed and compare your observations to your mental model of the world
  • Decide: Based on your analysis, decide what is the best course of action
  • Act: Take direct actions on your decisions

Then just add water…

A deep dive into the OODA Loop is a discussion for another time. Bottom line is, she doesn’t know it, but Spy Mom OODA Loops all the time. 

Picture the scenario. Our tired mom is busy fixing supper when her ears observe the raised tones of a squabble concerning someone who stood on someone else’s drawing. In milliseconds she anticipates the sound of a WHACK, followed by a shrill of tears. Next, she orientates herself as her heartbeat raises. Mom identifies which room the sound came from, and finds a potential weapon within her reach, in this case an A4 glossy roofing advert she found in her letterbox. 

Mom makes a decision. Enough is enough, time to press the reset button in the next room. Armed with her glossy advert she acts. Wildly flailing her junk mail, she emits a set of high decibel words that reduce said combatants into an instant state of shock. Once action takes place, she repeats the cycle observing the results. Through the process of orientation, she decides that the situation is remedied and returns to the kitchen. This process continues until the two little rotters are observed comatose in their beds. Not so different from Bourne identifying and rendering various opponents unconscious. 

Scan the environment 

Bourne would have used the OODA loop as he entered the diner space. In his observation phase, he refers to ‘’sight-lines’’, his description of identifying and interpreting features in the environment. It’s clear that he scanned the parking lot and then the interior of the establishment. Through the process of orientation, he reviewed and assessed the various actors in the space – some he determined as potential threats, others not. He may have been looking for different things from our mom, but the action of scanning the environment is important.

A brief pause before we venture into the environment allows us to identify threats in the present or project threats that may occur in the near future. Take Mom whose peripheral vision has detected a car crossing the parking lot at an above-average speed. Having accurately predicted that it is not safe to cross the road she jerks each toddler by the arm using force that would send the average pro-soccer player to the floor writhing in pain. 

It’s not difficult to do the scan:

  1. Pause and involve your senses in the environment (this means ignoring your cell phone and the argument about who looked at who)
  1. Respond immediately if you detect a pattern interrupt – an anomaly or something unusual in the environment.

You can read much more about this process here

Intuition and situational awareness

’ Now, why would I know that?’’ Jason Bourne’s words, as he struggles to comprehend his abilities and the things, he has identified. We know things without a clear rational explanation for them. Logical or mysterious, intuitional knowledge is real and can save your life. The trick is to tune into this ability and respond to it.

Imagine that your sense of intuition is like the first old-fashioned FM radio your grandfather bought for himself. After unpacking it from the box and plugging it into the power all he could hear was static. Like cracking a safe, he slowly turned the dial and the signal started to become clearer, eventually, his favorite disk jockey was bashing out tunes in his workshop. 

Similar to the radio, intuition is a skill that can be fine-tuned. The more we listen to it, the better the reception gets. Here are some tips to get more out of your intuition:

  • Get in touch with how your intuition works for you. People receive intuitive messages in different ways. It could be a physical sensation – tightness in the gut or chest or the sensation of suddenly becoming cold or sweaty. The best way to understand this is to think of a time when you had a successful intuitive notion. Note how it felt and where in your body you felt it. Then take note of them next time you have the same feeling. 
  • Don’t rationalize away your intuitive feelings. The best way to destroy your intuition is to justify it away with the classic line ‘’I’m just being paranoid’’. Intuitive feelings need to be accepted unconditionally. 

When your intuition sends you a message, acknowledge it and act.

Mental maps and situational awareness

Bourne’s story starts in the ocean, slowly he makes sense of his life by applying experiences to locations. Each location is a trigger for events.  As Bourne entered the diner, he noticed the exits (hardly superhero stuff, it’s usually marked in red above the door). However, it is worthwhile constructing a mental map of the environment. This is an attribute both adults and children should develop. Try these exercises out:

  • When you enter an environment try to notice at least one exit. You can extend this awareness by teaching your children how to identify an escape exit and a place of safety in that same environment – “if you get lost in this mall, this is the place you should go to for help’’.
  • Situational awareness is not only about knowing what’s in your environment, but also about knowing where you are. Modern GPS apps on our cell phones are slowly robbing us of this ability. It is time to claim your internal GPS system back from technology. Practice finding north, south, east, and west. Start this at home and extend this to other places that are familiar to you. Once your mental map is running at home, take a drive to the countryside or to a part of your city that is new to you. Alternatively, you might want to run for half a mile until your hands start shaking, and then try to work out where you are. 
  • Teach your children how to give directions to your home. Start by getting them to memorize your address. Then play the directions game. ‘’Ok guys, tell me which way to turn to get us home’’.

Specific skills – It’s all about me, me, me!

Some situational awareness skills are specific to situation, occupation, and lifestyle. For Bourne its important to know that the guy sitting in the bar ‘’can handle himself’’. Forklift drivers need to know that a crate loaded on a shelf is firmly in position. All around the world mothers instantly tune into the environment the moment the house becomes eerily quiet.

The same can be said for your home which will have its own natural markers. When you observe sights, sounds, smells or sensations that are out of the norm, it’s time to investigate. You know what to do – orientate, decide, and then act. 

Specific skills are built over time simply by doing the job or living in the environment. This process can be fast-tracked simply by a process of questioning and exploration. The trick is to become conscious that the task or the place has its own situational awareness markers. Ask yourself these questions:

  • When am I most vulnerable to physical harm in my day?
  • What sights, sounds, and smells occur all the time in my home and my place of work?
  • What sights, sounds, smells, or physical sensations should put me on high alert in my home or work environment?
  • What day-to-day distractions remove my awareness from the environment? 
  • What type of behavior immediately makes me feel uncomfortable?

Enter The Situational Awareness Conversation

Jason Bourne’s usage of situational awareness has minimal relevance to us average Janes and Johns. Characters like Bourne, function as unrealistic representations of real life. However, they also engage us emotionally in a way that a 2000-word factual discussion in situational awareness might not. The extreme and unbelievable nature of his situation has provided a place for us to analyze and reflect on our own lives. If this gets us scanning our environment and acting when anomalies present themselves, then Bourne has

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