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The Great Unknown-Staying Buoyant in Times of Struggle

Updated: May 8, 2020

Life doesn't always turn out exactly the way we planned it. Like a sinking ship, sometimes our ideas don't pan out and we have to either let them go or try again. When this happens, we need to remember that only giving up is the true failure.

Ernest Shackleton’s ability to shift gears and meet the demands of each new challenge was one of the strengths of his leadership. He took what many would consider a colossal and life threatening failure--losing his ship in the middle of the Antarctic ocean--and turned it into one of the greatest and most successful stories of survival in history.

Shackleton wrote of the sunken Endurance, “she was doomed: no ship built by human hands could have withstood the strain. I ordered all hands out on the floe.” The sounds of the ship under pressure ranged from the eerie cries of what sounded like a live creature dying, to loud booms like a cannon exploding as the thick timbers broke one by one. After being locked in the ice for ten months, the SS Endurance was crushed by the ice’s pressure and met a watery grave.

In this painting, I have juxtaposed Frank Wild, Second-in-Command, assessing the wreckage with what I imagine the ship’s resting place might look like 100 years later.

With the crew and some food stores safely off the ship, Shackleton and his men camped on the ice floes for nearly five months and then endured a difficult journey to Elephant Island on three life boats: the Dudley Docker, the Stancomb Wills, and the James Caird. It was an arduous journey where some of the men suffered both frostbite and dysentery; the salt spray was terribly abrasive on their eyes and even bloodied their lips. Many of them had gone over 80 hours without sleep. But miraculously, they landed safely.

Shackleton’s ability to stay buoyant in hope is no doubt what kept him strong and solution-focused. His new mission was to keep his crew alive and seek their rescue. Shackleton saw himself as the father of the men of his crew and he committed himself to bearing the responsibility for their lives.

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln was no stranger to setbacks. He was defeated in six government elections, lost a renomination, he was rejected, had a sweetheart who died, failed in business, and had a nervous breakdown. But in spite of all of this, he never gave up! He made it to the state legislator, and then to congress, and then to the presidency! Because he never gave up, he became a man who affected the course of history.

Lincoln has said that "Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm."

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