Ernest Shackleton: A Lesson in Optimism

Aaron Schnoor
Historical Footnotes
3 min readMar 27, 2024


Photo by Cassie Matias on Unsplash

Ernest Shackleton knew what courage looked like.

The British-Irish explorer, who led three British expeditions to Antarctica in the early 1900s, certainly encountered a fair share of danger during his lifetime.

One attempt to cross Antarctica nearly proved fatal for Shackleton and his crew of 27 men.

After their ship, Endurance, was crushed in ice floes in 1915, Shackleton spent two years leading his team of 27 men to safety.

Yes, you read that right. Two full years — not to complete the expedition, but merely to bring his men to safety.

There are many great Shackleton quotes on courage and bravery, but one in particular stood out to me:

“The quality I look for most is optimism: especially optimism in the face of reverses and apparent defeat. Optimism is true moral courage.”

We often value optimism and courage as two separate characteristics, but Shackleton understood the correlation between the two. Having optimism in spite of daunting failure is, in itself, true courage.

There were plenty of opportunities for Shackleton and his crew to feel defeated. They had left South Georgia for Antarctica in 1914. Their ship became stuck in the ice fairly quickly and finally sunk beneath the ice in 1915…