Over 100 years ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton was in a world of trouble. The veteran polar explorer had sailed off for Antarctica, on a daring mission to cross the continent on foot. But before he ever got there, in early 1915, his ship–the Endurance–became trapped in ice.
I’ve always been in awe of Shackleton’s expedition. But it wasn’t until growing my own business that I began to appreciate the parallels between being an entrepreneur and an explorer. Here are a few lessons entrepreneurs can draw from the disastrous (and miraculous) Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition:
The Shackleton “sniff test” What Shackleton originally proposed doing–traversing Antarctica on foot via the South Pole, 1,800 miles from coast to coast–wasn’t just bold at the time, it nearly defied imagination. It was the most daring undertaking he could conceive, and he went all in from the start. For entrepreneurs, it can be worth considering a sort of “Shackleton sniff test,” whatever the venture. Ask yourself, within the parameters of your business, “Is this the most audacious goal I could be working toward?” Reassessing and pivoting will all–inevitably–come later. At first, do yourself the credit of thinking big.
Absolutely nothing will go as planned Throughout Shackleton’s expedition, when it seemed nothing else could possibly go wrong, something always did. After 10 months inside the icebound Endurance, for instance, the crew discovered they were sinking. They abandoned ship and set up camp on nearby ice floes, drifting for months. Finally, Shackleton piled his men into three lifeboats and paddled off into the open ocean. Entrepreneurship is like treading water, and then repeatedly getting dunked. You’re forced to learn to live (and thrive) in continuous chaos–somehow planning for the future even while struggling just to make it through the day. Shackleton’s adaptability–in the face of bafflingly bad luck–is an example all entrepreneurs can take to heart.
Trust trickles down After five days at sea, Shackleton and his exhausted crew dragged themselves onto Elephant Island, their first time on dry ground in 497 days. But it was barren, with no hope of rescue. He made a fateful decision to set out with a small group on a suicide mission–another odyssey by open boat, this time to a distant whaling station some 720 nautical miles away. Team building is tricky under the best of conditions. So how did Shackleton keep his crew together and their faith alive–for years–while trapped in the Antarctic? He was a commanding presence, to be sure. But he also put himself in the line of fire, time and time again. Without getting too dramatic, there’s a lesson here for entrepreneurs. Your team, no matter its makeup, will be tested. But sacrifice and genuine care from the top speaks volumes.