Lessons in Grit from Ernest Shackleton’s Voyages

By: Tim Elmore

An incredible discovery was just made beneath the ocean’s surface. Underwater drones were used to discover Ernest Shackleton’s famous ship, Endurance, the one that set out to reach the South Pole and establish a base on Antarctica’s Weddell Sea coast 100 years ago.


Both the century-old voyage and the discovery are wonders of technology. 

Breaking Down the Story

Most of us have read the story of how Shackleton recruited his team for this voyage. People told him he wouldn’t get anyone to go with him given its extreme circumstances. But he did. Shackleton appealed to the noblest part of the human spirit as he posted his “want ad” in the London Times. The story reveals his blunt, straightforward appeal: 


“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” Ernest Shackleton, 4 Burlington Street


Ah, those were the days when ships were made of wood and men were made of steel. 


The story has become legend. In response, Shackleton allegedly got 5,000 responses from men who wanted to risk their life for a venture so challenging and noble. Let’s break down what made this counterintuitive ad so appealing and how most people differ today. 


  • Hazardous journey? “Uh, no thanks,” most would reply. “I’d prefer to have free Wi-Fi, good food, and lots of live shows on board. Or, maybe I’ll just stay home and enjoy the cozy comforts of remaining in my pajamas at my own house.” But Shackleton appealed to the daring spirit most of us possess to do something risky and challenging.
  • Small wages? “Are you kidding? I’m selling myself to the highest bidder, especially in this season of the ‘great resignation.’ Something in the six- or seven-figure range if you please. If I’m going to take a big risk, I expect a big remuneration.” But Shackleton knew the noblest part of our human spirit wants to work for more than the money. 
  •  Bitter cold? “Uh, yeah, I already get that each winter. It doesn’t scare me, but I’d rather do a beach vacation and work remotely in San Diego or Miami. I’m looking for a few creature comforts because life is hard already.” But Shackleton knew he had to be honest about what was coming—it would build trust in the team he put together. 
  • Complete darkness? “Sorry. I can’t skip my daily dose of Vitamin D. I need it to fight COVID-19, after all. Besides, I get depressed enough in winter when the days are short. I don’t want to increase my anxiety levels.” But Shackleton knew if he prepared his men for a difficult time, they could create internal sunshine between them—and they did.
  • Constant danger? “Really? You expect me to sign up for peril? I just endured a two-year pandemic and you’re asking for more? It was hard wearing masks, being tested multiple times, and getting vaccinated.” But Shackleton knew he needed to prepare his men’s amygdala for a frightening time, so they might survive and succeed in their endeavor. 
  • Safe return doubtful? “Whaaat? You mean we’d commit to all of this and may return maimed or may not make it back alive? Seriously? Why would anyone sign up? I think I’ll wait for artificial intelligence to ensure this trip is risk-free.” But Shackleton appealed to the noble part of those who long to do something very important and almost impossible. 


How About Us?

These are foreign concepts to modern humans. We seek out risk-free, comfortable, convenient, fast, soft and easy options today. But maybe, just maybe, that’s what prevents us from enjoying genuine fulfillment. While we love shortcuts, we were meant for something big, long and arduous. Are happiness levels lower today in the U.S. because we no longer embrace ventures like this?


Today, you and I are attempting to build grit and resilience in young people. I think we’ll have a better chance if we model that very grit ourselves. Further, I think retelling stories like this one might offer perspective and spark lively conversation for our students.


Although thousands signed up for this voyage, Shackleton only took 27 men and all 27 returned alive. Needless to say, it was a life-transforming venture that we still talk about today. And that 100-year-old ship was just found on the ocean’s surface. All the men did, indeed, return to honor and recognition back home, just as Shackleton promised. 


Fittingly, the ship was named Endurance, which according to Webster’s Dictionary means “the ability to withstand hardship or adversity” and specifically “the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity.”  


What if we showed the world what this looks like today?

Grit and resilience are part of the competencies in our new Habitudes® for Social and Emotional Learning digital curriculum. We’d love to have you check it out: GrowingLeaders.com/Habitudes

Lessons in Grit from Ernest Shackleton’s Voyages