8 Tips to Survive Hard Times

I’m a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, New York. Once or twice a year, I lead the service. Last Sunday, I did a service called “Creative Endurance.” The sermon was based on the extraordinary voyage of Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 in the schooner Endurance.

The crew set out in August 1914 to sail to Antarctica and then cross the continent. However, their ship was trapped in pack ice and eventually sank. They then had to make their way overland on foot, sail 800 miles in lifeboats, and finally some of the crew hiked over glacial peaks to reach a remote island whaling station. They arrived home in England more than two years after they embarked—and every person survived. (A great book about the journey is The Endurance by Caroline Alexander, which also includes photos by the ship photographer, Frank Hurley.)

On Sunday I told the story about the voyage and then offered 8 Tips for Surviving the Hard Times that I made up from the story:

1. Persist—but not foolishly. The mistake many polar explorers made was pressing on even after they began to suspect it wasn’t safe to do so. Shackleton was determined to protect his crew. That was his first priority. He didn’t achieve his goal, but he lived to try again.

2. An open sea lane is not necessarily a path to freedom. The crew of the Endurance learned that a sea lane would open tantalizingly in the morning sun, only to slam shut again at night when the water froze. When we’re in desperate circumstances, we’re tempted to grab any possible avenue toward freedom. That’s not always a good idea.

3. “Look to the day ahead.” That was Shackleton’s motto. If today isn’t working out so well, start planning how you’ll respond tomorrow.

4. Stay busy—but with meaning. On the Endurance, Shackleton made sure each member of the crew was assigned to do the kinds of jobs best suited to him. Sometimes when we’re having trouble, our anxiety persuades us we’re capable of doing absolutely nothing—or that we have to stay busy every moment of the day. It’s important to do the things that have to be done, but also to do things that are important to do for our sanity—like weed the flower garden, meditate, go to an art exhibit, call a friend.

5. Look for what’s wonderful in others. Shackleton chose his crew not just for their seafaring skills and sense of adventure, but for some uncommon reasons as well. One man remembered how bewildered he was when he came for his interview and Shackleton asked him if he could sing. The captain wanted people on the journey who would bring the best of themselves out, in bad times as well as good ones, and he actively looked for those qualities.

6. Take smart risks. Shackleton made tough decisions that saved lives. He risked staying with the ship. He risked abandoning it. He risked marching ahead. He risked halting the march and setting up a camp. Each risk required a different kind of strategy.

7. Acknowledge when something isn’t working, abandon it, and immediately set a new goal. The day after they had to abandon the sinking Endurance, Shackleton said to the crew: “Ship and stores have gone—so now we’ll go home.” The original plan wasn’t going to be feasible, so they set their sights on a new one.

8. Know when it’s time for a treat. On February 29, 1916, in honor of Leap Year Day, the Endurance crew was treated to three full meals and a hot drink. When we’re suffering, we think we don’t deserve treats, but that’s when we need them most of all. They can be simple, spontaneous, inexpensive—but they can provide a few minutes of joy in a tough time.

Photo of ice: Steven Kazlowski / Barcroft