Desperate for warmth and sleep on a frigid island night, I curled up next to the fire with my fellow competitors. The heat from the flames and our bodies wasn’t enough. Someone had the brilliant idea to pull hot rocks from the fire and hold them to our chests. The stones would surely warm our hearts and pump heated blood throughout our bodies. Sleep eventually came, so it worked. Or maybe it was some sort of placebo effect. Or exhaustion.

That grueling night was just one of 38 I spent on an island in Fiji during Survivor: The Edge of Extinction. As the fourth-place finisher on season 38 of the CBS show, millions watched as I struggled and triumphed. I came up just short of winning the million-dollar prize, but walked away with plenty of tips for island survival — and life.

Keep your sense of humor. On the third night of the game, the sky opened up. It was pouring. We huddled together in the rain, cold and wet, but cracking jokes and laughing to get through the pain. You can’t just sit on an island and wallow in despair. We were living our dream, after all.

Believe in yourself. Don’t spend all your time comparing yourself to others. Know who you are, and keep working to improve yourself. On the island, I was surrounded by athletic young people. They all looked like they did CrossFit; I was rocking a dad bod. I wasn’t distracted by the competition. I stayed true to myself and focused on my strengths. I ended up winning more individual challenges than any other castaway that season.

Adapt early and often. Each day, for 38 days, I was eating a small portion of rice and sleeping on the ground next to the fire. I lost 31 pounds. The strangest part of the experience was using the bathroom in the water next to four-foot blacktip sharks. It’s amazing what we can adapt to. If you can power through the tough times early, survival becomes second nature.

Carry that lunch pail. One morning, I woke up all alone by the fire. The other eight people left on the island were all talking without me. That meant they were talking about me. I had lost my strongest ally the previous night. Later that day, I won a crucial challenge to stay on the island and continue in the game. It was my first Immunity win. I would go on to win three more and play a record four Hidden Immunity Idols. It turns out Survivor is like anything else. You need that Virginia Tech lunch-pail mentality. No matter how tough it gets, you’ve got to grind, and you’ve got to work. You’ve got to keep digging.

Rick Devens (Communication ’06) is a morning news anchor in Macon, Georgia. This feature is part of the Hokie How-To roundup in Illumination 2019–2020