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The strategy that won the race to the South Pole (for a successful school year)

Two strategies in a race to the South Pole

One team arrived at the South Pole only to find the wind-shipped flags of the other had been planted there 34 days earlier. Then it was a race for their lives, which was also lost. In educating your children or students, are you an Amundsen or a Scott? Story from (You could even share this story with your kids this week...)

"In October 1911, two teams of adventurers made their final preparations in their quest to be the first people in modern history to reach the South Pole. For one team, it would be a race to victory and a safe return home. For the second team, it would be a devastating defeat, reaching the Pole only to find the wind-whipped flags of their rivals planted 34 days earlier, followed by a race for their lives -- a race that they lost in the end, as the advancing winter swallowed them up. All five members of the second Pole team perished, staggering from exhaustion, suffering the dead-black pain of frostbite, and then freezing to death as some wrote their final journal entries and notes to loved ones back home. It's a near-perfect matched pair. Here we have two expedition leaders -- Roald Amundsen, the winner, and Robert Falcon Scott, the loser -- of similar ages (39 and 43) and with comparable experience. Amundsen and Scott started their respective journeys for the Pole within days of each other, both facing a roundtrip of more than 1,400 miles into an uncertain and unforgiving environment, where temperatures could easily reach 20˚ below zero even during the summer, made worse by gale-force winds. And keep in mind, this was 1911. They had no means of modern communication to call back to base camp -- no radio, no cellphones, no satellite links -- and a rescue would have been highly improbable at the South Pole if they screwed up. One leader led his team to victory and safety. The other led his team to defeat and death. What separated these two men? Why did one achieve spectacular success in such an extreme set of conditions, while the other failed even to survive?

Amundsen and Scott achieved dramatically different outcomes not because they faced dramatically different circumstances. In the first 34 days of their respective expeditions, according to Roland Huntford in his superb book The Last Place on Earth, Amundsen and Scott had exactly the same ratio, 56%, of good days to bad days of weather. If they faced the same environment in the same year with the same goal, the causes of their respective success and failure simply cannot be the environment. They had divergent outcomes principally because they displayed very different behaviors. On Dec. 12, 1911, Amundsen and his team reached a point 45 miles from the South Pole. He had no idea of Scott's whereabouts. Scott had taken a different route slightly to the west, so for all Amundsen knew, Scott was ahead of him. The weather had turned clear and calm, and sitting high on the smooth Polar Plateau, Amundsen had perfect ski and sled conditions for the remainder of the journey to the South Pole. Amundsen noted, "Going and surface as good as ever. Weather splendid -- calm with sunshine." His team had journeyed more than 650 miles, carving a path straight over a mountain range, climbing from sea level to over 10,000 feet. And now, with the anxiety of "Where's Scott?" gnawing away, his team could reach its goal within 24 hours in one hard push. And what did Amundsen do? He went 17 miles. Throughout the journey, Amundsen adhered to a regimen of consistent progress, never going too far in good weather, careful to stay far away from the red line of exhaustion that could leave his team exposed, yet pressing ahead in nasty weather to stay on pace. Amundsen throttled back his well-tuned team to travel between 15 and 20 miles per day, in a relentless march to 90˚south. When a member of Amundsen's team suggested they could go faster, up to 25 miles a day, Amundsen said no. They needed to rest and sleep so as to continually replenish their energy. In contrast, Scott would sometimes drive his team to exhaustion on good days and then sit in his tent and complain about the weather on bad days. In early December, Scott wrote in his journal about being stopped by a blizzard: "I doubt if any party could travel in such weather." But when Amundsen faced conditions comparable to Scott's, he wrote in his journal, "It has been an unpleasant day -- storm, drift, and frostbite, but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal." Amundsen clocked in at the South Pole right on pace, having averaged 15½ miles per day."

I believe the principle of the Tortoise applies to education, as well--but not to academic/intellectual progress or test scores. It applies to the time and effort you, as the mentor/educator to put in to reading and exploring works of genius together every day. Here's the hard part: Don't go too far beyond the time frame you have designated for this. Even if you both feel you can keep going. This will prevent burnout and keep you and your children curious and craving more. Like Amundsen and Scott, keep a log of what you've done each day. You can make a simple list in a notebook, create your own spreadsheet, or use mine (coming soon). I hope this has been inspiring and helpful to you, and wish you much love (of family and learning) in the 2017-18 school year!

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