August 12, 2014
There was nothing about his early life that gave any hint of strength or character.
Every business idea he tried failed. Every single one.
When he died at the age of 47, far from his home and family, he owed his creditors almost $2.5 million, an enormous sum of money for that time.
Yet he is remembered now precisely because of his failures, for it was only through these failures that his indomitable will shone through.
You know his name.
You know bits of his story, a story so unlikely, so remarkable, it still inspires awe in all who hear it: Shackleton. Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton could have been the first explorer to reach the South Pole, but he would have died, and killed the men who accompanied him in the achievement.
So he turned back with the Pole in sight. He and his men survived, barely, though at the time, some questioned his courage, his heart.
Although he had gone further south than any human, his accomplishment was overshadowed by his fellow countryman, Robert Falcon Scott, who was deemed heroic because he, while also failing to reach the Pole, died in the attempt; and by the Norweigan, Roald Amundsen, the first man to succeed in the quest.
So Shackleton set his sights on a new goal, crossing the continent of Antarctica on foot.
His life would be defined by this expedition although he never even reached Antarctica. His ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice in the Weddell Sea.
The pressure of the ice eventually crushed the wooden ship, and Shackleton and his men had to abandon it, and live on a floating ice floe. After almost two months, Shackleton realized their only hope for survival was to cross the open sea.
After five days, crowded into three tiny lifeboats, the men finally reached Elephant Island, the first solid ground under their feet in 497 days.
But his story didn't end there.
Elephant Island was outside normal shipping lanes, and no one in the civilized world knew of the plight of the Endurance. Shackleton realized he had to cross open sea again if his men were to survive.
So with five members of the crew, leaving the rest behind with a promise to return, he set out in a lifeboat for the South Georgia whaling station. They were together in that tiny boat on raging seas for 15 days before reaching the southern shore of the small island, surviving a hurricane that downed a 500-ton steamer, navigating only by the stars, hitting a tiny spot in a huge, angry sea.
Unfortunately, Shackleton would still have to traverse mountains on foot to reach the inhabited side of the island. Leaving two of his men, who were too depleted to continue, again with the promise of return, he and the other three crew members crawled, walked, pulled each other and climbed for 36 hours to reach the whaling station. This part of the journey, alone, would have been remarkable.
Before he rested, he arranged for a boat to rescue his men on the other side of the island.
Then, he organized the rescue of his crew stranded on Elephant Island. It took four separate attempts to overcome the sea ice but he kept his word. After almost five months, all 22 men were rescued.
Not one life was lost.
Though every part of the original mission failed, Shackleton refused to. In defeat, he redefined himself.
Life will test us.
Perhaps you're being tested right now. If not now, trust me, it will come soon enough.
Alone, your situation will seem hopeless, overwhelming. Defeat inevitable.
But you are not alone, even when it seems so.
Your life has led you to this public stage, this big spotlight. You are here for a purpose.
Don't let the difficulties of being stretched so thin, the daily defeats and crushing setbacks of life cloud that purpose.
You are someone's Shackleton. Your endurance is theirs. Share it. Spread it.
Shine a light on the other side of defeat.
"One of the hardest tasks of leadership is understanding that you are not what you are, but what you're perceived to be by others." ~ Edward L. Flom