How To Survive Hard Times: 8 Unique Traits of Survivors

The warning signs are flashing that tough times may be ahead. Economic downturns and wars seem emminent. focuses on durability products, but what good is it to have reliable, tough products that will survive tough times if you don’t?

Its good to know how to reduce your risks(see that post), but you can’t escape everything. Sooner or later tough times will come knocking.

Be a survivor not a victim! Lets talk about being a survivor.

  • Why do certain people seem to roll over and quit compared to others who face far worse trials and thrive?
  • What are the key traits of true survivors?

There is actually a combination of traits that make certain people tougher and far more resilient than the vast majority of folks. Today we’ll look at 10 unique characteristics of survivors as demonstrated by the examples of three men who survived very different but extremely difficult circumstances.

He Survived Nazi Concentration Camps

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychologist and survivor of atrocities in multiple Nazi concentration camps. In the years after WW2 he began asking a similar question to what I just posed: What separated the survivors from those who didn’t? And why are some resilient and others not? He penned his remarkable insights in a brilliant book called “Man’s Search For Meaning”(Amazon link.) It’s full of rivetting examples from his own experiences and those of others he subsequently interviewed.

Victor survived ghastly things-things that would shatter most people. Yet, he didn’t just survive, he went on the thrive. He became world-renown in the field of psychology and a major contributor to society.

Victor Frankl is an example of someone who didn’t “just survive”. He came out the other side “swinging for the fences.”

Frankl found that most survivors had a number of key characteristics in common.

1. Survivors “See” the Other Side While Being Realistic About Their Current Situation

Frankl described the balance between maintaining the hope that they would live to be released from the concentration camps without falling into unrealistic over-optimism. Prisoners who kept getting their hopes up about specific release dates would only have their hopes dashed to pieces over and over until they finally gave up. These prisoners would often sink into very visible depression and die within just a few days.

2. They Actively Made Intricate Plans for Their Future

Frankl shares how one of the main survival mechanisms for maintaining long-term hope was that survivors were constantly rehearsing and refining their plans for when they gained their freedom. Some would rehearse intricate business plans, others would describe how they would sit around the table with family and eat chocolate pudding topped with whip cream and cherries. No matter how great or small, they fixated on future plans.

3. They Had Someone to Love

By far, the most powerful motivation to survive tough times is for the sake of someone you dearly love. Whether it was a family member, child, spouse, or lover, survivors had a deep conviction to push through for the sake of someone else who was either beside them or waiting for them on the other side. For example, they imagined that their child was relying on them to survive. In reality, they were simply unaware that many of their loved ones had already been killed.

I would also put a relationship with God in this category. It is something no one can take away from you.

Not everyone has family or friends, but in my experience, God is closer than all of those. If you find yourself alone in the storm, just remember, Jesus happens to specialize in calming storms. Disclaimer: It’s better to have a good relationship with God before the storm. Most folks ignore God till the “plane is going down” then they come frantically pounding on heavens door screaming, “You, Remember me, right?!!” Listen, relationships are relationships man! You can’t pull a fast one on God. You can’t fool him. Don’t be a disingenuous God-moocher. He knows whether you actually want him or just something from him.

The main thing is, to be sincere, repentant, and full of faith.

4. They Were Scrappy

Victor admitted that under the brutality of the Nazis, prisoners treated each other barbarically. As he said, “The best of us did not return.”

I don’t morally condone brutality to my fellow man, but there is something to be said about being a proverbial “honey badger.” You need to be scrappy enough that bad people will move one and look for easier pickings.

“On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.” Victor Frankl -(Man’s Search For Meaning)

He Was Shipwrecked off Antarctica for 2 Years

Ernest Shackelton, the captain of the doomed expedition to Antarctica survived with his crew for two years eating penguins after their ship, The Endurance, was caught in the ice and crushed to pieces. His account of survival, organizing his men, outfitting a lifeboat, and sailing it 800 miles to find a rescue for his crew is truly an epic worth reading. All of his crew survived and were rescued. Not a single soul was lost. It’s an amazing story immortalized in the book “South”.

I draw the next two lessons from Shackleton

5. They Exercise Self Discipline

Despite being cast away on a god-forsaken island, Shackleton never relaxed self-discipline for himself or his men. He inforced a similar schedule and daily tasks for everyone. Psychologically speaking, accomplishing your self-discipline goals gives framework for your day and keeps you in a constructive mindset.

Implementing baseline self-discipline practices during hard times is an absolute game-changer. Self-discipline brings a sense of structure, stability, and predictability even during uncertain times. Even making your bed each morning will give you a sense of consistency, accomplishment, and an orderly start to your day.

6. They Don’t Passively Wait for Rescue

Shackleton rescued himself. He outfitted a lifeboat with a sail, covered it to provide shelter, equipped it with food and supplies then sailed it 800 miles navigating by the stars to an island. He then traversed a mountain range to a tiny whaling station where he knew he could secure a ship to rescue his men.

It’s important to make a clear-eyed evaluation of your situation and begin working on a concrete plan that offers the best chances of extricating yourself from the crisis. Don’t wait for the government, relatives or friends to bail you out. Get up and get to work!

Even if you do “get rescued,” at least you will have had something positive and hopeful to focus your time and effort on. Too many “victims” spend all their time anxiously waiting… hoping….and even resenting their rescuers for not showing up quicker.

He Stocked Shelves At A Dollar Store and Ate Frozen Fish Sticks


Jim Harmer is a multi-millionaire author and founder of He wasn’t always wealthy though. He was once a broke newly-married law student trying to take care of his wife and infant child. The only work he could find was night shift stocking stores at a dollar store. They were reduced to eating frozen-fish sticks in a cheap hotel room because it was the cheapest food they could find for 5$.

Jim Harmer didn’t actually become a millionaire as a lawyer. I want to draw my next points from Jim’s story because it is so relatable to most of us. You can read or listen to his book, Work Energy, on Amazon.

6. They Start With What They Already Had

Hard times often cloud our judgment so we often give up on the very key elements to our freedom that is already in our hand.

It could be a skill, tool, connection or resource.

If his wife hadn’t stopped him Jim would have pawned the SLR camera that would eventually lead him to become a millionaire. You see, every night he used to slip out and practice some night photography. He eventually got quite good at it and landed a part-time job teaching beginner photography classes. Every few weeks a new class arrived and ask the same basic questions. He decided to make a simple website as a resource to answer their questions.

Soon that website( was discovered by more than just his local students. Thousands of visitors from all over the world began visiting his site and he began making money by the fistful by selling helpful online photography courses.

Don’t despise the small things. Start with what you have and level-up from there.

  • Understand computers? Start a blog, youtube channel, online business, or build an app
  • Got a lawn mower? Mow for extra cash
  • Pressure washer? Clean houses or cars
  • Shovel? Offer to dig trenches or clear snow (seriously!)

7. They Harness what Motivates Them

Hard times usually mean hard work, but working hard isn’t hard if you are motivated.

Start planting seeds toward a plan that will move you away from the hard work you hate to the type of work you love. This will drastically increase your productivity, well-being, and mental health.

Jim had no choice but to keep grinding away at the work he didn’t enjoy at all. That didn’t keep him from working hard at his new website though. He spent every spare moment writing articles for that site. Why? Because he was motivated. He was energized most by the prospect of financial freedom, accomplishing measurable goals, and being affirmed by others.

What really motivates you to work hard?

What would you work hard for if no one paid you?

While necessity is a massive motivator, you need more than that for your life in the long run. Otherwise, one day you may look back filled with regret at the years you wasted doing work you absolutely hated.

Perhaps you enjoy competition, recognition, measurable progress, creative output, helping others or many other things. Whatever it is, tap into it and start steering your life toward that.

5 years ago I started this blog (inspired by Jim Harmer.) Not only do I enjoy writing, but this blog has financially freed me to do the non-profit work I love. (Check out it’s a great course for new bloggers)

8. They Focus on the Task That Delivers 90% of the Results

True survivors focus on the tasks that generate 90% of their goal. Optimizations can wait a long time if needed. Sadly, most people spend more time on optimizations than on the tasks that actually ensure their survival.

Several years after launching his website, Jim hired some extra help, rented an office and began trying to optimize his business. To his dismay revenue started dropping and he eventually had to lay off his workers. What happened? Jim had shifted focusing onto the 10% tasks rather than the tasks that generated 90% of his revenue..namely publishing new blog posts.

Why do outdoor survivalists start looking for water and eating bugs and frogs right away even before they get thirsty or hungry? Because they understand that 90% of their survival depends on water and food(at least in warmer climates). It’s only after they have secured the essential resources that they move to other optimizations.


I realize I probably haven’t pinned down every single characteristic of a survivor but this will serve as a very good start. I’d strongly suggest going back through this list and picking a couple of points to work on.

For further reading, Let me suggest reading these posts: 8 Powerful ways to reduce risk in your life and , Surviving Hard Times: 8 Wise Lessons from the World’s Poorest.

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Don Longworth

Don was born and raised in sub-saharan Africa. Now based in Canada, his extensive experience in non-profit work has served him well over multiple deployments in Africa. Don's experiences have made him a practical "to-the-point" type person. He is a no-frills, low-key guy who appreciates quality and simplicity.

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