The Adversity Advantage – Excerpt #3

Here in the United States, we are celebrating Thanksgiving. This is our annual day to take stock and acknowledge all of our blessings. Even when there is adversity in your life, no matter how great, there is always something for which we can give thanks.

This excerpt from my book, The Adversity Advantage, drives that point home. It definitely makes us thankful for all the ways we can influence our lives and futures.

In my opinion, there is no better example of thriving through adversity than the survival story of my hero, Sir Ernest Shackleton. While the story has been told many times, as a popular way to teach leadership and teamwork, I have always looked at the story differently.

To me, the hardships and suffering Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance faced when they became stranded near Antarctica, defy comprehension. For nearly two years, and through the most brutal conditions known to man, Shackleton doggedly hung on to a belief that he could influence his situation, and by doing so, kept his men motivated, confident, and, most importantly, alive.

Shackleton's original goal was to become the first to make a full traverse of Antarctica. He left the island of South Georgia in early December of 1914, passed the South Sandwich Islands and plowed through a thousand miles of ice-encrusted waters. A month into the voyage, however, the Endurance experienced an unexpected deep-freeze, and became lodged in a polar ice pack. They were just one day from their destination at Vahsel Bay on the Antarctic continent. Still, Shackleton and his crew were stranded more than twelve hundred miles from the closest settlement, and they had only each other to rely on for survival.

In the months that followed, they could do little to improve their situation; they could only wait until the spring thaw. Several times, they thought they'd be set free, only to have their hopes dashed. For ten months, the moving ice dragged their ship until it was ultimately crushed. They salvaged only enough items necessary for survival, plus a banjo and personal journals for the twenty-seven members of the crew. Although they spent five more months camped on the moving ice in flimsy tents and had to ration their meager food, they remained optimistic and energetic. Often, they played soccer, performed music and danced on the empty ice flows.

Finally, as the ice began to break, the crew set sail in three small lifeboats with the hope of coming into contact with the whaling ships along the northern tip of the continent. Instead, the currents took them to Elephant Island, a barren and isolated land, raked by intense storms. With no hope of rescue and knowing his men couldn’t survive for long, Shackleton took five men and sailed 800 miles in a 22-foot wooden lifeboat, over the open ocean and through the roughest weather on Earth. Seventeen days later, they miraculously reached the island of South Georgia where they had begun.

Coming ashore, they were struck with a final terrible blow. They had landed on the opposite, uninhabited side of the island. To reach the one settlement, they would have to trek a week over rugged, glaciated mountains with no climbing equipment, a journey considered impossible even with the best gear of the day. For most people, this final obstacle alone would have been enough to bring defeat, but to Shackleton, it was simply another adversity he had to attack. Starving, frost bitten, and wearing rags, Shackleton and two of his men reached the tiny whaling station, and 22 months afterstarting their voyage, Shackleton returned in person for his men left behind on Elephant Island. The crew was emaciated but, amazingly, all were alive. Shackleton hadn't lost a single man.

What seems the most remarkable to me is that throughout the two-year ordeal, although the adversity must have felt massive and the endurance never-ending, Shackleton and his men never gave up control over their destiny. They continued to demonstrate intense loyalty to each other and responsibility for keeping the team alive. A crewmember, Frank Hurley, later wrote, “I always found Shackleton rising to his best and inspiring confidence when things were at their blackest.”

In my opinion, although Shackleton failed at his original objective, he succeeded at something even more unimaginable. In the face of unbelievably low odds, he infused in his men the belief that they had the capacity to prevail. As Shackleton put it, “By endurance, we conquer.”

If Shackleton’s crew had so much power to affect the course of their lives under such dire conditions, it begs the question, How much control do we have over our affairs in our everyday lives, and how much of that power do we choose to assert or relinquish? Too many people go through life like a pinball, constantly being directed by circumstances and events, but never forging a deliberate path through the perils.

Every time I face a challenge on the mountain and in life, I’ve learned that by focusing on what I can influence, taking action to make the best of tough situations, working to minimize the potential downside as well as maximize the upside, and working relentlessly to get through the suffering, I have the ability to shatter my own perceptions of what’s possible.