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More on Polymathics

Lucky Ludwig

Explorers need two skills in spades: the ability to lead and the ability to navigate. If you don’t know where you are, where you are going and can’t get others to follow you, things can get mighty unwholesome.

Most explorers have or take the trouble to acquire these skills. But not all of them. Ludwig Leichhardt, the first European to cross northern Australia, linking the East coast to the North, a spectacularly ambitious and successful expedition, was neither any good at knowing where he was nor much use at leading.

Some of his calculations put his estimated position in the Coral Sea they were so inaccurate. When he left the Burdekin river he went completely off course. He had two front teeth knocked out by an aboriginal guide- a friendly guide not an antagonistic one. He failed to ration his supplies and allowed half of them to be gobbled up in the first 700km of a 4800 km journey. From then on they lived precariously off the land.

Leichhardt, a Prussian of slender means, a former tutor of the children of the rich, was not very likeable, by all accounts. But he arrived in Australia aged 30 in 1843 determined to explore the interior. He got lucky when the British asked that someone try to link up what would become Brisbane with Port Essington in the north west.

Was luck, then, the lesson we can draw from Leichhardt? (His luck ran out in 1848 when he disappeared in the interior of Australia). Or is it simply being in the right time and the right place (even if later you can’t exactly say where that place is)? Leichhardt was short sighted, temperamental, not physically impressive, incompetent and yet he made a truly great journey. Personally I think he stands as a necessary antidote to the ambitious hordes tugging their sledges to both poles and their rucksacks up Mt Everest. Exploration isn’t primarily about physical toughness, it’s about mental toughness allied with supreme optimism. Leichhardt really believed. No one else did which was why the journey hadn’t been made before. Nowadays such self belief is bolstered by sat phones, GPS, EPIRBs, air rescue. Journeys made in the old way look tame now, just as walking a six inch plank is easy when it’s on the ground. Try doing it when it is raised a few hundred feet…

Sheer unadulterated optimism, hope, belief that it can be done, that a way will be found: that’s the lesson of Ludwig Leichhardt.




what's your currency?

Time or money? Or maybe something else?



From time to time do a task you consider is beneath you.


the keys to the kingdom

If self -help books really worked wouldn’t every half concerned parent be forcing their kid to read them?

If self-help books really worked wouldn’t the authors be doing other stuff HIGHLY SUCCESSFULLY rather than writing endless new self-help books?

Apart from Benjamin Franklin, and the extraordinary Clement Stone, who made a $100 million selling insurance before he wrote a self help book, I can’t think of one self-help writer whose ‘success’ isn’t the rather incestuous kind of writing highly successful self-help books.

ie. selling hope sells really well.

The problem, if I may be so bold, with books like Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people is that they don’t work.

Yep. Big claim I know but here's why I make it:

I’ve been reading self-help books all my life. I love ‘em. But they don’t do what they say on the tin. They aren’t a manual for achieving what you want to achieve.

They are good for many other lesser things though. Not negligible things either.

Self- help books can give you a real boost, a pick me up that can last several days.

They can give you a framework for making sense of an enterprise.

They can introduce you to the helpful idea of not blaming others for your current situation.

They can provide very useful tips when you are stuck.

In other words self help books bear much the same relationship to ‘life success’ as how-to-write books do to successful writing.

Writing I know about. To succeed at it you need to have a book or books in mind that you really like and want to copy or emulate. You need two, or preferably three, hours of completely uninterrupted writing time five days a week. You need something you care about to write about. And that’s it bro’.

Not much of a how-to book is it?

The nub of the matter is actually doing the activity not thinking about it, talking about it or reading about it.

Here’s what I did.

I loved the idea of long distance walking as a kid. Yet every long distance walk I did I gave up on, except one of fifty miles I did with the scouts aged 14 where I had the support of my fellow hikers. Fifty miles – not far eh? But it was enough, a slim shard to hang my next attempt on.

Scroll forward ten years. I had tried to write books and not finished one. I had made two short films and then failed to finish a third. Another year threatened to slip by and I didn’t want to be sitting up on new year’s eve thinking, “yep another dud year with nothing achieved.”

So I thought, “Forget what I WANT to do and focus on what I CAN do and what would make me proud and happy too.”

Walking. I can walk. So I set out and walked a combination of the High Route, the GR 10 and the GR11 from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic along the ridge of the Pyrennees. It took me 42 days to do about 700km and I loved it. It wasn’t all easy. At a couple of points I almost gave up, but that thought of yet another thing given up spurred me on. In the last 24 hours of the walk I covered 60 miles over hilly terrain and slept for two hours - I was that pumped up about finishing.

Then I wrote, in cafes mainly, a book about this walk. It wasn’t a good book. It was rambling and dull but it was 60,000 words long. On the last day I wrote 8000 words in about ten hours to finish it. It was kind of like the last dash at the end of the walk. And writing each day was like doing my three or fours walk before lunch and then three or fours hours afterwards.

I’d cracked writing by applying the ‘success method’ I used in walking.

Then I did a year long martial arts course which involved four to five hours training five days a week for a year.

I knew I could keep going because I had kept going during the walk. So the notions of persistence I had ‘grown’ doing the walk I was able to transfer to the course.

Then I wrote a book about spending a year doing martial arts. The method of writing- mainly in the mornings, four to five hours a day was a direct copy of the timetable of the course.

This and subsequent books all succeeded.

But still I didn’t know what was going on. I had a hazy idea. But though I had ‘cracked’ walking, learning a physical art and writing I thought other areas, such as business or even everyday life were a bit beyond me. As such I stumbled along admiring those who seemed far more efficient and organised than I.

I have a friend, a TV producer who is probably one of the most efficient people I know. She once said to me, “Nothing makes me happier than that feeling I get when I tick things off on my ‘to do’ list.”

Weird or what? I thought. For a long time.

Then I applied a little translation, the kind of translation I had done when I converted my success at walking to success at writing. I realised there was NO DIFFERENCE between what she had said, and what I sometimes think when I have done 3000 words in a good session, printed it off, and written the tally on my daily word count sheet. No difference.

And then I thought about all those people I have met who complain about how hard writing is. When I question them I realise they are MAKING it hard by putting loads of obstacles in their way. For example: not setting out sacred amounts of time – instead they write ‘when they have free moment’- get out of here!; or they don’t have a quiet place to write- instead writing in room where there kids can come in and annoy them- impossible.

I realised I was doing the same thing in everyday life. I wasn’t giving it enough respect, time or obstacle free-ness if I can use such a term.

When I applied the same rules as I did to writing: uninterrupted time, deadlines and goals, celebrate and record progress- it was all plain sailing.

So the keys to the kingdom are simple.

Find something you can finish. Maybe it’s restoring an old car. Maybe it’s getting a grade in a language exam- but outside school if you are still a student- so you have to be a bit self motivated. Maybe it’s like me- doing a long walk. Or climbing a mountain. It can be anything as long as you finish it.

Then you transfer the ‘oomph’ that you have acquired, the skills of setting aside time and energy for a real attempt, the focus and determination, to whatever you want to do next.

It’s that simple.



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.


the Amundsen factor #3

As the great mountain explorer Bill Tilman often remarked, the quantity and quality of food on an expedition is supremely important. Indeed it can make or break morale.

Amundsen knew this, which was why he was the expedition cook. Amundsen also simplified rations down to only four ingredients – pemmican, biscuit, milk powder and chocolate. No coffee or tea which he regarded as ‘dangerous stimulants’ on an expedition. To coffee addicted Norweigians this is harsh indeed, yet my own experience of too much coffee on a trip that involves long sustained work, is that you over exert at the beginning and crash later on- and on any trip involving the possibility of frostbite when you drop your vigilance, you cannot risk that. An interesting example of Amundsen’s attention to detail.

Having four ingredients in a ration pack simplifies things amazingly. Chocolate plus milk makes a drink. Biscuit plus chocolate makes desert. Biscuit plus pemmican makes dinner. Pemmican plus milk plus biscuit makes a slightly different dinner. Monotonous- maybe- but with added fresh(ish) seal meat it was perfectly adequate. Scott did not capitalise on the fresh seal meat possibilities- as a result all his team were suffering the onset of scurvy by the end.

If you know what is in each pack you don’t have to open it to find out. Very important in sub-zero temperatures when you have mitts on. There is also less chance of waste with opened and discarded packs being pilfered from.

After quantity and quality of food is regularity. On a good expedition you eat at the same time every day. There is nothing more hateful than sitting around for an hour at the end of a hard day waiting for the bloody cook.

When Amundsen packed the food he insisted it be done with great care. Milk was poured into little bags which were inserted between the other ingredients to fill in the gaps. The ration pack containers themselves were made wood painted black. These could then be used to make marker poles which stood out against the snow. A line of such poles either side of a supply cairn enabled its easy discovery during poor conditions.

The cook has the chance to build morale or depress it with his cooking. With his instinct for making every element of the expedition work optimally, Amundsen certainly understood the key role of the cook. One can generalise from this and see what role, in any project or operation, touches everyone on each day in a significant manner. It could be quite lowly- a secretary or receptionist – yet their effect could quite outweigh their apparent ‘insignificance’.


the Amundsen factor #2

Though Amundsen had won his race to the South Pole almost before Scott had begun (he was 200 nautical miles ahead of Scott when the latter started) he made mistakes, some of them just as ‘foolish’ as Scott’s.

I use inverted commas because anyone engaged in pioneering a new route will make mistakes. When an historian who has never made a long journey in unknown terrain criticises the efforts of these early explorers, you can either be amused or annoyed- either way it seems hindsight is always 20:20. Roland Huntford- whose biographies of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen are always brilliantly informative and excellently written- suffers from the desire to point out and jeer every time Scott puts a foot wrong. He appears to find everything British laughable and everything Norwegian admirable. He puts Amundsen and his co-explorer Bjaaland on a pedestal and he despises Scott. 

There is a photograph in Huntford’s ‘Race for the South Pole’ of Scott and Amundsen. One in furs and the other in a cloth coat. Tacitly the book is supporting the recurrent myth that the British, in their Burberry cloth jackets, were wearing the wrong clothes for a march on the pole. Yet Amundsen wore clothes made from exactly the same cloth as the British! It is true Amundsen started out wearing furs, which were useful when they were ski-jorring (being pulled along on skiis while attached or holding onto the sledge) because the lack of body movement made them colder. But once they had to actively ski, furs were too warm and too heavy to just carry. Once Amundsen and his team encountered the barrier and were ascending to the polar plateau they ditched their reindeer furs. At the pole Amundsen wore a ventile cloth anorak cut to allow lots of movement. He only kept a fur hood which he had cut off his reindeer coat.

My kids came home from school and told me Amundsen beat Scott because he had dogs. It isn’t that simple. It was initially settled by Mear and Swann in 1986 and many subsequent expeditions (indeed all current expeditions as dogs are banned in Antarctica- crazy I know) that manhauling is a perfectly acceptable form of polar transport. If Scott had only manhauled, things might have been different. But he used dogs, ponies and motor tractors as well. All this made for exceptional planning problems. Add in the fact that his polar party- for reasons of service etiquette included the unfit Oates- was enlarged at the last minute from four to five- which made all the prepacked rations the wrong quantity. When the supply teams returned they over consumed from already-opened ration packs and most importantly already-opened paraffin cans.

If there is a single biggest failure in Scott’s expedition it was probably the fact that his fuel supplies were too low to start with and were further reduced massively by paraffin ‘creep’. At very low temperatures paraffin becomes a strange semi-solid that can creep up the inside of a can and out of a poorly secured bung. Lead soldered seams can also open at low temperatures. Amundsen had his cans silver soldered and once opened, Bjaaland soldered a tap on a can so that the precious liquid wouldn’t creep out. Scott was eating semi -frozen rations by the end and sitting in freezing tent because he had not enough fuel. It was not the food he needed at one ton depot but the fuel. Amundsen, with his experience of five years in the arctic knew that fuel supplies were hugely important- for warmth, cooking and for melting snow to avoid dehydration. He took ten times the weight of supplies that Scott did.

It is interesting to look at the expedition structures and how responsive each man was to information and advice from below. Both Scott and Amundsen were desperate to not leave the Antarctic empty-handed. Here we see the germ of ‘overloading’ the mission ie. losing focus. In Scott’s case this meant proposing his 13 day side journey to the western hills and glaciers. Amundsen proposed a similar pre-pole journey to King Edward VII land only to be dissuaded of it by the other expedition members. Because his position was less authoritarian than Scott’s, he backed down. There was some give and take in how things were decided. Scott, as naval officer, simply drafted orders from his desk in the Discovery Hut and expected them to be followed. Evans pointed out that they would better off going 150 miles in the direction of the pole than poking around in the wrong direction- whatever the geological benefits. Scott overruled him.

One can easily get caught up in Scott v. Amundsen as it’s so fascinating. However I am just as interested in what we can learn about the ‘Amundsen factor’. How, while still making errors, Amundsen was never floored in the way Scott was.

Amundsen’s major ‘error’ was to leave too early for the pole when it was still very cold. He was mislead, to some extent, by Scott and Shackleton’s previous temperature readings from the warmer McMurdo sound. But the major cause was over eagerness to move.

His error in starting out too soon when the weather was too cold became apparent very quickly. After five days they turned tail and returned to the hut- some of the men with frost nipped heels. Yet this failure was turned to his advantage in many ways. First it precipitated a bitter argument between Amundsen and Johansen, who was the more experienced polar explorer but resented Amundsen’s leadership. The mutinous comments made by an irate Johansen gave Amundsen the right to remove this troublesome explorer from the polar team. He had already been worried about Johansen’s instability but had lacked a hard reason to exclude him. But it had to be done- emotional ructions use up far too much energy to be countenanced on a serious expedition. A second benefit of the early start was that the ski-boots were revealed as over tight- these were taken apart and restitched to make them more comfortable. Given that tight boots are the single easiest way to get frostbitten feet this was no small advantage.

Perhaps the Amundsen factor is best revealed in the way Amundsen takes ‘bad luck’ and turns it around. Scott constantly bemoans his misfortune in his diaries. If there is a storm Amundsen is philosophical but Scott is depressed. So much so one is tempted to suggest- “What did you expect? It’s the south pole!”

To believe that luck is needed in any enterprise is the wrong footing to start out on. Of course you are probably going to need a ton of luck along the way, but you need to be able to visualise success without it. This Amundsen did, with massive quantities of supplies and meticulous planning for every eventuality. Scott bemoaned his luck because he relied on it. When his luck ran out he lacked the inner perspective to turn things around.