07. Hardest hurdle - Issue 140 - Magazine | Monocle

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We’ve all done it: drive to a shop, see an open parking space and think, “I can get closer”. We pass the vacant spot, only to find that there aren’t any others. When we loop back to the original, it has been taken by someone more practical. This simple oversight is a metaphor for much of modern-day decision-making. We seek perfection – whether it’s the ideal parking space, the archetypal partner or the job of our dreams. With Google at our fingertips and a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire “phone-a-friend” mentality, we often seek reams of information and confirmation just because we can.


But what happens when a parking-space decision has bigger consequences? In Antarctica, a vast unexplored, virtually uninhabited continent – as it was in the early 1900s – parking was also an issue: specifically the docking of a three-masted wooden ship along the frozen coastline. It was here that a decision to pass up a perfectly serviceable berth had a dire, life-threatening impact for explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew in the early 20th century. Although far removed from most of our lives, there’s a lesson here for those of us looking to ditch the dither.

During a decade of polar exploration, starting in 1901, Captain Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen were vying to become the first to reach the South Pole. The only way to get there  – approximately 1,368km from the coast – was pulling sledges piled high with food, tents, sleeping bags and other equipment across the undulating tundra. The only reliable communication was as far as you could shout. Frostbite, snow blindness, scurvy, starvation and falling into a crevasse were among the many hazards.

Amundsen was the first to the pole, claiming it for Norway in 1911, causing Shackleton to rethink his goals. He subsequently set up the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, seeking to become the first to walk across the continent. The plan was simple enough: assemble a crew and sail a ship (the Endurance) down to the Weddell Sea side of Antarctica. This meant dropping off Shackleton and the team of men to await spring. Every kilometre closer meant less distance pulling cumbersome sledges across the unforgiving terrain. Is this starting to sound anything like your shopping trip yet?

The distance between these sorts of life-and-death decisions and our daily lives might seem as vast as the Antarctic but the same rules apply. Being decisive – regardless of the outcome – is often the hardest hurdle to clear. In Shackleton’s case, after spotting a suitable landing site, he insisted that the ship’s captain continue and seek a better one, eager to shave off as much distance as possible for his team’s arduous transantarctic trek. 

Within a day or two of Shackleton deciding to push on, temperatures plummeted and the floating sea ice solidified. Endurance became trapped and then crushed, stranding 28 men. Thanks to some deft bravery and leadership (and decision-making) a small boat was sent and all 28 men miraculously survived.

Although Shackleton and his crew lived to tell the tale, they would probably concede that they had made the wrong decision to sail past that first landing spot. The first choice was on balance the best, even if it was not perfect: the key is accepting that perfection isn’t always possible.

Our lives would be made easier if we all accepted that no amount of data mining can accurately predict what lies ahead

In these modern times, our decisions might not be as fraught as Shackleton’s but our lives would be made easier if we all accepted that no amount of data mining can accurately predict what lies ahead; the pandemic is evidence that, even when things are predictable, we don’t often prepare that well. It’s like when you are buying a house, you can ask all the questions you wish but you might only find the answers once you own it and have slept a few nights within its walls.

After an unpredictable past year, we should all be a little more gentle on ourselves – and remember that even poor decisions can be corrected as long as we consider the risk and curb our expectations of achieving perfection. So how to press play in 2021? Simply land and start your journey – just like Shackleton should have done.

Monocle comment: Life is too short to dither. Making decisions in 2021 without overthinking the outcome will reap rewards.

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