About 100 years ago, a young explorer had a dream to lead the first expedition across the continent of Antarctica. Ernest Shackelton, the Irish-born English explorer, planned the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, where he and a team would sail from the small island of South Georgia to Vahsel Bay. Then, with dog sled teams, cross the 1,800-mile-wide continent on land.
Shackelton knew a voyage of this magnitude would be expensive, so he made detailed fliers and programs of his plan to arouse public interest. The programs promised a historic event in the name of exploration. Part of his PR campaign to raise money and find his crew includes a now-famous want ad, supposedly placed in the newspaper. It read:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in the event of success.”
The response was overwhelming. Over 5,000 men applied to take part in the voyage, with only 27 being accepted. And on December 5th, 1914, Shackleton and his new crew left for Vahsel Bay on the ship The Endurance. Not one of them, including Shackleton, knew that it would be the last time they’d touch land for almost 500 days.
The famous start-up incubator, Y-Combinator has a phrase to describe a particular phase of a young company’s life: The Trough of Sorrow. It’s the phase that comes after the prototype creates a buzz and investor money is secured. It’s after tech-insiders hail the product as the “next big thing.” The Trough of Sorrow is the post-celebratory slog where a company now must live up to hype and overcome all the unexpected obstacles and costs. It’s the long, uncertain, and well, sorrowful part of all epic journeys.
As we’ve seen in earlier chapters, positive thinking and perfect planning only go so far. You can collaborate with catastrophe, embrace patience, and tell yourself new stories, but that doesn’t mean the path will remain pleasant. Chances are, the sugar high you got when you first started will wear off long before the finish line comes into sight.
The Trough of Sorrow is a moat, swallowing up weekend warriors and part-time enthusiasts. However, its sorrow often comes in disguise. Its most common and insidious attacks come in the form of seduction. When we begin to approach the Trough of Sorrow, new ideas and opportunities begin popping up faster than an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole. The idea-generating machine in your head that got you started becomes a shiny distraction factory. And when the going gets tough on the current path, these new opportunities start looking pretty good.
Even the most dedicated and focused humans lose themself in the Trough of Sorrow. How does one persevere? How does one defend against a shape-shifting enemy that attacks motivation and stifles momentum?
There’s one answer that’s as unsatisfying as it is effective: Expect it.
The Trough of Sorrow takes souls through the element of surprise. Most humans don’t believe that they’ll lose motivation — let alone plan on it happening. We love to believe that the fire in our heart will endure month over month, and fuel us past the finish line. Sadly, it’s this belief that leads to our own defeat.
There is strength in our ability to anticipate. If you can anticipate the wandering motivation that comes with human nature, you’ve won half the battle. Whether you’re writing a novel, building a house, or trying to lose 50lbs by summer, plan for the sugar-rush of motivation to waver. Prepare for the chunk of time where your heart and mind will beg the question, “Is this really worth it?”
Anticipating hardship helps us maintain flow by preparing ourselves in advance against inevitable struggle. But anticipating the positive also works to enhance good experiences. The joy of planning a vacation, counting down the days to departure, the release of tension when you finally arrive — it adds to the overall experience. Anticipation is an experience within itself.
There’s a sad and unfortunate sentiment out there that goes, “The key to happiness is low expectations.” Nonsense. Set your expectations and set them high. Just don’t fool yourself. Expect hardship when it’s likely and gain armor. Expect satisfaction and expand present-moment joy. Who says you can’t keep both of these feelings intact at the same time?
This isn’t about “manifesting a poor outcome” or tricking yourself into believing the impossible. It’s about preparing yourself for the process itself, for the journey toward the outcome. Like a brutal workout that strengthens the body, it helps to anticipate the struggle coming and expect the amazing feeling that will follow when it’s over.
Ernest Shackleton and The Endurance were only one month into their voyage when they sailed into uncharacteristically cold water and became trapped in ice. Frozen water strangled the bow, cracked the hull, and forced the entire crew off-board. All the men evacuated onto a nearby floating iceberg and watched as their magnificent ship groaned and sank before their eyes. They were finished. The iceberg would slowly take them farther and farther away from their destination and any hope of survival.
Two years went by. Shackleton and his 27 men lived off seal blubber and slept on ice as they drifted through the long days of summer and into the infinite nights of winter and back again. When they finally drifted to the edge of the ice pack and found open water, they rowed three 22-foot lifeboats to an uninhabited rock formation known as Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and five others set out on another impossible, 17-day, 800-mile journey through the planet’s most treacherous seas, back to South Georgia Island.
Somehow, by way of luck and miracle, Shackleton and the five others made it. But now there was a new problem: They landed on the wrong side of the island. The side that was uninhabited by other humans. The whaling station they were hoping to find was across the island, separated by 26 miles of glaciers and mountains.
Starved, frozen, and deranged, Shackelton and his skeleton crew crossed the island, reached the whaling station, and found salvation. In August, 1915–21 months after their initial departure — Shackelton himself returned to Elephant Island with a rescue team and saved the rest of his men. And while they faced some of the most savage and unforgiving conditions, overcame unbearable odds, and lived for two years where most humans wouldn’t survive one night, not one member of the team was lost.
History is divided on whether or not Shackleton’s infamous want ad is real. Chances are, it’s more folklore than fact. Cryptic job postings aside — there’s no way any of men could have imagined what was in store for them, but they each understood the journey would hold some degree of unforeseen suffering. None of them fooled themselves into thinking The Endurance would be a holiday cruise. They got on board expecting the unexpected. And while we can’t know for sure, I like to think that it was that mindset — mixed with incredible strength and luck — that helped them live up to their ship’s name and endure an unthinkable Trough of Sorrow.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, “Know yourself and know your enemy and you need not fear a hundred battles.” To stay in flow, prepare yourself against surprise attacks. Embrace the human power of anticipation and accept that distractions, wavering motivation, and unforeseen obstacles are coming. Remember that these are the hardships that so often come before greatness. And when you do make it through, you’ll be met with the rewards of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose.
To get the most out of our human nature, we cannot shy away from the traits that make us flawed at efficiency. We all get overwhelmed, distracted, and fearful of failing. The key is to embrace these feelings. View them as features not bugs. They are there to teach us, guide us, and remind us that a path of meaning and purpose is not without hardship.
Use your connection, creativity, and flow to look into the future. Anticipate the rewards, prepare against the struggle, and embrace the journey as a whole. And when the Trough of Sorrow knocks, answer the door and say, “Come in. I’ve been expecting you.”