The Truth and Shackleton
‘What should we tell them?’ How about the truth.
The Endurance expedition, Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica, is a fascinating story in so many different ways. In December of 1914, Shackleton set out with 28 other men to become the first people to cross the entirety of Antarctica, almost 2000 miles across sea and land. They were not successful, but their failure has become one of the most compelling stories of endurance in modern times.
Shackleton’s ship became stuck in ice less than 2 months after the start of the journey. The crew remained camped out with their ship for over 10 months, waiting for the ice to thaw, until the ship finally sank. They drifted on ice for another 5 months. Then, the ice drift broke and they were forced to sail in dangerous conditions for 5 days in 20-foot life boats to reach land at Elephant Island.
Shackleton and his crew would die if they stayed on the island, so 6 of the men set out on a 20-foot life boat to reach inhabited land 800 miles away in the South Georgia Islands. They sailed for 2 weeks, surviving the same storm that sank a 500-ton boat, but landed on the wrong side of the Islands. They hiked 36 hours to another shore through terrain which likely had never been walked before, until they finally reached other people who could help. Then, Shackleton arranged for the rest of his crew, still stranded at Elephant Island, to be rescued. They were finally rescued on August 30th, 1916 — almost a full two years after they set out.
None of the 28 men on the Endurance died. The physical survivability of these events itself is astounding, yet I think the mental survivability of them is the bigger story. How did they do it?
for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. honor and recognition in case of success
That was the advertisement that Shackleton allegedly* posted looking for men to take the voyage with him. Shackleton didn’t need to sugarcoat his message, he wrote only the truth — his truth. Because he knew that the truth was the only thing that could recruit the type of men he needed to fulfill his dream — and to find men inspired by something other than his truth would be reckless. It would put himself and his other men at risk.
It’s so easy and tempting to sugarcoat things. To try to make things seem better or different than they are to another person. Likewise, it’s easy to make assumptions instead of asking questions for clarity, or to not ask questions because you are afraid to. For me, deep down inside, I know that it’s the wrong strategy — I think the world’s worst problems, big and small, are rooted in misunderstanding. I’m sure many of us have been in situations where someone has said - ‘So, what should we tell them?’ — Next time, if you believe it, you may try responding with ‘How about the truth?’.
* There is discussion over whether this advertisement was ever actually published. The discussion itself is quite interesting. You can find information here and here. Even if this advertisement was never published, to me it’s still very relevant. Someone made up the story of this advertisement, which has been shared for almost 100 years. The fact that a fabricated ad would be shared so prolificly just reinforces the idea that deep down inside, so many people are seeking, and believe in seeking, the truth.