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the Amundsen factor #4

So far, in the interests of simplicity, I have characterised the Amundsen factor as ‘not overloading the mission’. In other words, keeping the goal defined and simple and without sub-missions along the way. This, has of course, been said before in various ways: keep it simple, focus, do one thing at a time and so on. Nevertheless, it is such a natural human tendency that it needs to be repeated again and again: don’t overload the mission.

However it is interesting to look at other aspects of Amundsen’s achievement.

Connected to, and, indeed, nurturing the single minded mission is the ability to learn from mistakes. The feedback time from making a mistake, to realising that something different must be tried, can vary enormously. In some people it can take years before they realise they have in fact made a mistake. The truly wilful blame everything and everyone but themselves. Scott, whilst attending a dying pony, ordered eight more ponies to be sent back to the Discovery hut across dangerous sea ice. This resulted in the loss of seven animals. Bowers, who carried out the orders for this folly, wrote:

“It just had to be…let those who believe in coincidence carry on believing. Nobody will ever convince me it was not something more.”

In fact, Bowers had not followed Wilson, who changed course when he saw what a rotten state the ice was in. If Bowers had, the ponies would have been saved. Scott may have initiated the error in given the orders, but Bowers had made a mistake in the way he executed them and yet he could not admit it.

The contrast with Amundsen is instructive. After finishing the laying of depots at 80 and 82 degrees latitude all the men crowded into a tent to have their say about what had gone right and wrong. The tents were uniformly condemned- these were two man tents that Amundsen had thought would be warmer. They were not; and cooking in a cramped tent, and then carrying half the meal across to the next tent had been a disaster. Boots were also found to be far too stiff and small. The solutions were found immediately. The tents were joined together to make a four or five man model. Pieces of leather were added to the toecaps of the boots to enlarge them, whilst sections of the sole were removed to make the boot less stiff.

The whole tenor of Amundsen’s trip is one of humility in the face of a great challenge. Plans and preparations are made far in advance but if things go wrong a solution is sought. Learning is not inhibited by command structures or ego.

Though it sounds a trifle obvious to recommend that people learn from their mistakes it is actually far commoner to observe the opposite: people making the same mistake again and again and calling it by another name: ‘bad luck’, ‘someone else’s fault’,  ‘that’s just my way of doing things’, ‘it’s not important anyway’. The latter is probably the most insidious. A mistake is recognised- but not as something of importance. It is overlooked because the mind is elsewhere. To have a simple unloaded mission also helps focus on what mistakes really are important and which are not.

It is interesting to note that Amundsen’s works show a sense of humour, Scott’s do not. Humour, apart from being very welcome, is an essential requirement in judgement. Humour rests on the ability to pick out the incongruous, the thing that doesn’t fit. Scott lacked Amundsen’s judgement- that is very obvious. He would spend a entire night tending a dying pony whilst neglecting the transport of his living animals. It might be unfair on Scott to criticise his inability to learn. Perhaps he couldn’t. He just didn’t have the judgement to know what was important and what was not.

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