Aiming for greatness
Just around the corner from Crystal Palace, Sydenham is a leafy South London suburb, where street layouts haven’t changed much since Victorian times, when the young Ernest Shackleton walked them on the way home from school.
As an adult, Shackleton would go for longer walks and journeys. His odysseys are legendary and include leading several missions in the race to reach the South Pole. However, that race was lost in 1911, when an expedition headed by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the geographic South Pole. Nevertheless, Shackleton’s passion for Antarctica led him on a new quest, the one that would immortalise him: the crossing of the ice continent, from sea to sea via the pole, which became known as the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
After reaching the Southern Ocean, the mission ran into trouble when their ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice and was eventually crushed by the slow-moving frozen mass. The adventurers were forced to camp out on the ice for over a year, surviving on a diet of seals. Then, Shackleton decided to lead the crew on an 800-mile journey across the ice and the seas, with only three small lifeboats and a team of dogs. A year later, they reached Elephant island with every single man alive. Once Elephant Island was reached and his crew was relatively safe, Shackleton set out to sea again, with only a handful of companions, looking for the help that would allow everyone to return home. Navigating by the stars he finally reached South Georgia Island, where, after climbing a mountain, that incidentally was only climbed again in the 1980’s, by mountaineers using modern equipment, he was able to connect with a group of whalers. In the end the entire crew were rescued and returned to Britain.
This epic trip lasted 3 years in total and must be one of the greatest all-time illustrations of the power of the human spirit. Confronting our fears and embracing challenges, even when success isn’t guaranteed, is how greatness is achieved. This is true for individuals as well as for businesses. Moments come along when we must choose between the humdrum of normality, the slow decay of merely surviving, or taking a leap of faith into the unknown, accept the risks and aim for greatness.
What would have happened had Shackleton stayed on Elephant island with his stranded crew, instead of once more setting out to sea? None would have seen the shores of England again and you wouldn’t be reading about them today. What if Netflix had remained a DVD mailing service, overlooking the opportunity to shift its business model to streaming? Or, if Apple had kept the expensive iPhone project in the drawer, would it still be the $2 trillion company it is today? Certainly not.
It’s never too late or too early to change, the right time is when an opportunity presents itself, which sometimes may be in the shape of a crisis. As Winston Churchill famously said, “never let a good crisis go to waste”.
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