Saturday, March 3, 2018


If you are in the mood for some edge-of-your-seat, outstanding writing, go directly to this recent article from The New Yorker called The White Darkness: A solitary journey across Antartica by David Grann. Make sure you have time though - it is the essence of long-form journalism, something for which the New Yorker is the gold standard. I read it recently on a flight from Phoenix to Santa Barbara, and prayed I would finish it before we landed because I was so gripped by it and did not want to be delayed in finding out how the story ended. Again, be warned: it is essentially a short book, but oh so worth the time. Online, they have supplemented it with some incredible extras.

I need to reflect a bit on this article because it was so. damn. good. It struck some sort of chord deep inside of me, and I am not sure I can say why. I do know that what initially drew me in was that the subject of the story, Henry Worsley, was obsessed with Sir Ernest Shackleton, the legendary Antarctic explorer. There was a time when I too could not get enough of Shackleton, reading South, his own account of the ill-fated Endurance expedition, and Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, even tracking down a museum exhibition somewhere that commemorated the journey with an incredible display of Shackleton memorabilia...

A large part of what drew me to Shackleton was his story of leading his crew through utterly unimaginable conditions, having to survive winter in Antarctica when their ship became stuck in the ice. At the time of my reading I was looking for ways to push through difficult circumstances (the untimely death of a beloved mentor due to ALS) and Shackleton's extraordinary perseverance fascinated (and motivated) me. (PS Grann's article for the New Yorker does a lovely job describing Shackleton's quest, and includes some stunning photos.)

Henry Worsley, the subject of the New Yorker story, seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Shackleton. As the article states, his motto was “Always a little further”—a line from James Elroy Flecker’s 1913 poem “The Golden Journey to Samarkand.” As a soldier he has served in remote and dangerous places, and even survived intense training for the Special Air Service:
After completing this part of the course, he was flown to Brunei, where he was helicoptered into a jungle filled with orangutans and cloud leopards and poisonous snakes. He had to survive for a week while eluding a band of soldiers tasked with hunting him down. The administrators of the course had eyes on the ground to observe him—to see what kind of clay he was made of. Later, he was subjected to an interrogation intended to break him. “You are beaten up,” one applicant told a reporter, noting that any vulnerability was exploited: “If you’ve got a phobia about spiders, they’ll use it against you.” Each year, only about fifteen per cent of applicants pass the selection course. Worsley was among them. 
I mean, really.

A good part of the New Yorker article describes Worsley's first trek in Antarctica, to mark the anniversary of Shackleton's trip. (Have no fear, no spoilers here.) It is spell-binding reading. Anyone else would have considered it their life's work to have accomplished what he did in that first journey, yet he started hearing "the lure of little voices" and decided to launch a second, solo expedition just three years later. This quote is given as a way of describing the reason why:
“Why? On account of the great geographical discoveries, the important scientific results? Oh no; that will come later, for the few specialists. This is something all can understand. A victory of human mind and human strength over the dominion and powers of Nature; a deed that lifts us above the great monotony of daily life; a view over shining plains, with lofty mountains against the cold blue sky, and lands covered by ice-sheets of inconceivable extent . . . the triumph of the living over the stiffened realm of death.
Though Worsley's journey was outwardly far more impressive, the older I get the more I have decided that just living life is, on a smaller scale, a sort of "victory of human mind and human strength over the dominion and powers of Nature." Over the course of our lives we face trauma and tragedy, profound joys and paralyzing sorrows, both personal and global.

The question is not only how we will get through such things, but what we will become through the process. THIS is why I am fascinated by Shackleton and Worsley, and why I am always on the lookout for memoirs and biographies that give a glimpse into how some people are able to grow, even enlarge, through struggle. This isn't an abstract or philosophical quest for me; I genuinely want to know because as I have faced the death of those dearest to me and the betrayal of those I trusted, I have been sorely tested. When I have sat with people facing all manner of agony, be it suicide or divorce or cancer or disaster, I have been left speechless and almost dizzy with empathy. As I walk with people through these things, I find that I want to have more trail markers to follow. This life thing is really hard.

Today I came across some words from a book I read a couple of years ago called The Road to Character by David Brooks that helped me process the questions from Worsley's quest into sharper focus. He has a compilation in the back of the book that he titles the Humility Code - a list of qualities he gleaned from the various persons he profiled in the book. These qualities address some big questions that I feel are also addressed, at least obliquely, by Grann's examination of Henry Worsley: Toward what should I orient my life? How do I mold my nature to make it gradually better day by day? Brooks has a robust list of fifteen qualities, yet it is the last one that grabs me still the most:
Maturity is not based on talent or any of the mental or physical gifts that help you ace an IQ test or run fast or move gracefully. It is not comparative. It is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be. It is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. Maturity does not glitter. It is not built on the traits that make people celebrities. A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose. The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, the confusion about the meaning and purpose of life is calmed. The mature person can make decisions without relying on the negative and positive reactions from admirers or detractors because the mature person has steady criteria to determine what is right. That person has said a multitude of noes for the sake of a few overwhelming yeses.
People have asked me what I call the work I do, and to keep it brief, I've decided to call it "leadership development." That's the short answer. But if I have more time, or the person keeps probing, I try to venture into the territory described here -- I like to walk with people as they seek to mature. We cannot force people to do this. But if they decide to step out into the "white darkness" of life itself, it's nice to have a buddy. I'm so grateful for the privilege of getting to do that with many people over the years, and yet some days, it feels like I'm just getting started. As Worsley quoted, “Always a little further.”

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