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The entrepreneurial mindset of Roald Amundsen

Posted by Ian Brookes on 28/12/16 08:05

A little tent moves in the wind, under a harsh looking dark sky, snow in the air. Google’s Doodle just over a week ago celebrated the 105th anniversary of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reaching the South Pole, where he pitched his tent becoming the first person to reach it.

The Doodle depicts the crew at the finish line, taking a moment to bask in the glory while the Antarctic wind whips outside their tent. At 3pm December 14, 1911 the Amundsen party arrived at the South Pole. That Doodle tent depicts perhaps one of the most important and dangerous places anyone has ever slept. 

The tent and the camp surrounding it were given the name Polheim, which translates as Home at the Pole, by Amundsen. It was the temporary home of the pioneering crew who pitched the first ever tent at the South Pole, after which it served as short respite for the crew of Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole – a journey that they would die attempting to return from.

Amundsen won the race to the Pole ahead of Scott, yet poignantly it was Scott’s crew that took the last ever picture of the camp, and who saw it for the last ever time - since they left, 105 years ago, the tent has never been seen and probably won’t be seen ever again, lost in the snow.

Amundsen became the first man to lead a successful expedition to the South Pole, famously arriving about a month before Scott and his party that set out at around the same time. Amundsen used dog sleds, his party was well organised and well prepared with the primary intention of reaching the pole, rather than other exploration or scientific discovery which was Scott’s focus.

Amundsen began a career studying medicine at the University of Oslo, but dropped out in order to go to sea. His first Antarctic trip was in 1899 when he was one of the first party to over winter in Antarctica. Here he established his credentials as a leader and as a resourceful expeditioner. He led his first polar expedition in the Arctic from 1903-1906, successfully traversing the 'North West Passage' an extraordinary achievement in a tiny ship that came after a century of attempts and the loss of literally hundreds of lives.

In 1911, before the expedition set off to drift over the North Pole, news reached Amundsen of American Robert Peary's claim of having reached the North Pole. Plans were hastily changed and Amundsen set out to lead the party that would the first to reach the South Pole instead.

Amundsen left Christiana, Norway in August 1910 with provisions for two years and nearly a hundred Greenland sled dogs that were to be the key in his team's subsequent success in reaching the South Pole ahead of Scott and his man haul party. The Fram and Amundsen's party reached Antarctica and landfall at the Bay of Whales on January 14, 1911 where a winter base was established. Depots were established between then and April when the sun set for the long Antarctic winter night, depots of stores that would be used in the push to reach the South Pole the following spring.

The winter was passed in orderly industriousness while the party prepared for the polar journey as well as settling into winter routines to maintain morale and make sure the men were kept occupied. Amundsen understood the importance of preparation for the winter and of maintaining spirits particularly during the dark days.

The weather, however, was a constant source of frustration. When eventually Amundsen and his team set off, a team of five men set off each with a sledge pulled by dogs. They made good progress feeding the dogs on seal meat and blubber that had been brought with them. The men's rations were meagre in quality, but sufficient in quantity. Plans were made for the final push to the pole based on setting out with dogs that would be systematically shot and fed to the remainder. They struggled on against poor weather, blizzards and bad snow conditions which took their toll on both dogs and men.

At 3pm on Friday, December 14, 1911 the party arrived at the South Pole. They had been concerned that Scott may have beaten them to the prize. They erected a small tent and placed inside it a letter, and then set off back to their winter base. They arrived 39 days later with all five men and eleven dogs 'hale and hearty'. The party that had reached the South Pole first was: Roald Amundsen, Olav Olavson Bjaaland, Hilmer Hanssen, Sverre H. Hassel, Oscar Wisting.

Amundsen continued his explorations in the Arctic becoming more and more interested in flying and airship travel. Alas he disappeared with no trace in 1928 while searching for the survivors of an airship crash in the Arctic.

Aside from the mentality of wanting to endure such extreme physical hardship in the pursuit of a dream, the thinking, behaviour and spirit of adventure of explorers such as Amundsen manifests itself in the focus, determination and flair of modern day entrepreneurs. Successful explorers and entrepreneurs have one thing in common: they aren't afraid of failure. The fear of failure can easily overpower your ability to take action and secure opportunities, yet faced with uncertainty, odds stacked against them and often an initial plan in tatters, intrepid explorers and entrepreneurs seek to pursue their goals with zeal and endeavour.

So what are the lessons to be learned from Amundsen, and the brave yet seemingly reckless cohort of fellow explorers, for C21st entrepreneurs in pursuit of their own personal goals? Here are their key traits of intrepid explorers that resonate.

They don't take a parachute When launching, most new business ventures face a significant risk on not knowing what they don’t know with little to no safety net. Explorers like Amundsen anticipate a degree of traumatic failure along the way, but don’t have a prepared safety net. Instead they are entrepreneurial in their recovery and have an ability to harness resources to build their own landing strip to catch themselves when they fall. 

Don't hold out for better opportunities The first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic didn't stumble upon the opportunity by chance. Amelia Earhart had to fight for her dream. In 1927, Earhart received a phone call asking her to fly across the Atlantic – but as a passenger along for the perilous ride with two other male pilots.

Though the opportunity posed great risk and was mildly insulting, Amelia agreed. The success of that flight paved the way for Amelia's career in aviation. In 1932, she carved her name in the history books by successfully completing a 14-hour transatlantic solo flight from Newfoundland to Ireland.

Entrepreneurs take advantage of new opportunities even when the conditions aren't optimal, but it gets them a step forward. Savvy entrepreneurs understand that it takes a little elbow grease and sharp elbows to achieve success.

Work effectively under pressure There's nothing riskier than riding on top of a Saturn V rocket with enough chemical energy to be the equivalent of a small atomic bomb, not to mention the threat of being sucked into the vacuum of space. In 1969, that’s what Neil Armstrong faced as part of his journey to become the first person to walk on the moon. Entrepreneurs focus on the job at hand and look at the bigger picture, they push through the pressure and ignore the side stories to get closer to accomplishing your goals.

Don't let stuff cloud your vision In 2001, Erik Weilhenmayer became the first blind person to climb the summit of Everest. But he didn’t stop there. He scaled each continent’s tallest peak (known as the ‘Seven Summits’), and kayaked 277 miles on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The way you perceive challenges affects your ability to conquer them. The most successful entrepreneurs find work-arounds when faced with apparently immovable barriers.

Take the road less traveled Ed Stafford holds the world record for walking the entire length of the Amazon River. His journey spanned over 4,000 miles, including an 18,000-foot mountain, taking over two years to complete. He documented every step of his expedition. For entrepreneurs, the road less traveled often holds the hidden opportunity. Be driven by curiosity and chart your own path to success without following the steps of others.  

Accept failure with open arms It only takes one customer to say ‘yes’ to make launch of your startup a success, but don't be surprised if your journey takes you somewhere different than where you set out for.

The names and achievements of Polar explorers are well known – Amundsen, Shackleton, Mawson, Nansen, Scott, Ross, Byrd – but all had to conquer whatever unexpected obstacles they encountered along the way. As an entrepreneur or small-business owner, you must be willing to take risks in order for your business to succeed. The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that's changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.

Desperation drives creativity After leaving most of the crew behind on Elephant Island on his Trans-Polar expedition of 1914-1916, Shackleton and a few men crossed the Atlantic on an 800 mile journey to seek help in a glorified rowboat. Forced to improvise, they had raised the sides, built a makeshift deck of canvas, and sealed the seams with seal blood. It held up–even through hurricane-force winds–and they reached their target.

For entrepreneurs, constraints of money, time and expertise go with the territory, but they’re also a beautiful thing because they force creativity and precision. Markets may shift, problems may arise that no amount of planning can anticipate, but in the end, success is more than a customer invoice. The ‘how’ of the ingenuity and grit shown along the way can be just as important.

Known as ‘the last of the Vikings’, Amundsen was a lifelong adventurer with a gift for organisation and planning. An Amundsen camp does live on at the South Pole, and is among the most visible things there. The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is a US-run research station right near the South Pole.

The first of ten was built in 1956, and it became the first permanent human structure at the South Pole, setting down some of the first human presence on the entire continent. The original station has been upgraded a number of times in the last sixty years, but it has retained its name as a tribute to the men who raced to reach the place it now stands.

I think you can appreciate the parallels between being an entrepreneur and an explorer, both have to learn to live off the land as they go. No Map. No Guide. No Limits. As Amundsen said 'As an explorer, sometimes you get to make art, and sometimes, you have to make soup'. You have to be prepared for whatever opportunity or challenge stands before you.

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