Beyond brute force: Harnessing Shackleton’s compassion for enduring personal change

By: Russ
Estimated Length: 9 Minutes

As the new year approaches, many of us will be taking on the task of change. It’s common to use the stroke of midnight on January 1st to course correct, and while we’re often quite good at identifying things to change, we’re perhaps less good at formulating a plan to achieve those changes. Do we use brute force, or compassion?

Most will go the route of brute force. We aren’t enough. We should be doing things differently. We’re sick and tired of ourselves. It’s no wonder brute force is such a popular method to change… it almost sounds like most of us hate ourselves.

But does it work? Certainly it can. Every day people beat themselves into a new shape, but the change most of us want is lasting, and for that type of change, science and history suggest compassion would be a wiser direction.

Are we perhaps going about this all wrong? How heavy of a hand should we use when the time comes to change ourselves? If you’re like many people, you probably believe you need a swift kick in that ass you seem to hate so much. What you need is a drill sergeant of personal change.

Meet Sargent Asshole

When most people think of the military, they think of a movie called Full Metal Jacket. The imagery is never far away, even if you’ve never seen it. A row of clean-cut recruits stand at the foot of their freshly made beds while an ominous drill instructor walks between them, hurling brutal insults. The humour in the scene is that he’s such an asshole. For a few reasons, this has become the default view of what the military is like in most non-military minds.

There’s a problem with this though. It has a way of making people reluctant to join the military. As it turns out, when you need people to potentially go off to war and die for you, screaming at them might be a motivator, it just isn’t a great one. The military learned this as soon as people began to wise up, and phrases like “but you have to” and “there’s this country you’ve never heard of out there doing stuff we aren’t fond of” stopped working.

The drill sargent from Full Metal Jacket screams at a recruit, showing no compassion whatsoever, while Elton John sings Can You Feel The Love Tonight in the background.

The military of today is different from the military of yesteryear. It’s built around coaching and self-improvement, and once they began digging into how to accomplish that most effectively, they began to realize demoralizing the people they need might not be the best tactic. As it turns out, what you need is Shackleton.

“For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
– Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist

One time Earnest Shackleton tossed a guy with frozen feet into the ocean and he shouldn’t have done that.

Earnest Shackleton is one of the key figures in what’s commonly known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. I’m guessing an Antarctic Explorer named it that.

Shackleton was the leader of an expedition to cross Antarctica in 1914, and after several minor hitches in the plan (like his ship, The Endurance, being entombed in ice and dragged to the bottom of the Weddell Sea), his mission objectives pivoted to not joining his ship at the bottom of the Weddell Sea.

The reason Shackleton is often heralded as one of the great leaders in human history is a testament to the black magic fuckery of his overall accomplishment: not losing a single man on the expedition despite being stranded in one of the planet’s harshest locations for over two years.

While there are many stories of this true-to-life superhero (and you should read about them), one always stood out to me because, unlike the others, it was one of his missteps.

Perce Blackboro was a plucky lad of 18 when he attempted to become a crew member of The Endurance. Being among the first to cross Antarctica was a big deal, as much of the planet had been discovered already. There were still other feats to tackle (the heights of Everest and the depths of the Mariana Trench remained up for grabs), but Antarctica at the time remained one of the last prominent places humans hadn’t fully traversed.

For a young Blackboro, he wanted on the ship. The call of discovery and the zeal of youth demanded it. Unfortunately, he sucked a bit too much to make the final cut, so his journey on The Endurance would have to start as a stowaway. With the help of some other crew members, he snuck on the ship. While Shackleton was initially pissed about the indiscretion, we study Shackleton because he was an incredible leader. He would adapt to the problem and integrate Blackboro into the crew, making him a valuable team member.

Plus, it wouldn’t be a big deal because it’s not like food rationing would become a huge problem.

Food rationing and other huge problems

Before The Endurance would even be able to make landfall to begin their mission to cross Antarctica, the shifting ice flows would hold it in place. For about ten months, the sailors more or less hung out on board, waiting for the ice to release them so they could start.

Of course, ice has almost no sense of adventure, nor does it appreciate the gravity of human exploration. It would eventually crush the ship and drag her to the icy depths, leaving the crew scrambling to find land without her buoyant help.

The men would sail for a week in the profoundly less-prestigious lifeboats that The Endurance left behind. After a harrowing navigation, the adventurers laid eyes on Elephant Island. After 500 days stranded on ice, they would soon have the luxury of being stranded on land. Shitty, but preferable.

To keep morale high, Shackleton calls out to the young stowaway not to chastise him or remind him that he screwed up hard sneaking onto his ship but to encourage him.

As told in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance:

““Blackboro,” he shouted in the darkness.

“Here, sir,” Blackboro replied.

“We shall be on Elephant Island tomorrow,” Shackleton yelled. “No one has ever landed there before, and you will be the first ashore.”

Blackboro did not answer.”

After a perilous advancement towards Elephant Island, the lifeboat grounds ashore. Remembering his promise, Shackleton calls to Blackboro to–respectfully–get his goddamn ass on that island. Blackboard doesn’t move, though. Growing impatient, Shackleton grabs the young man and lifts him over the side of the boat.

Blackboro crashes into the sea, landing on his hands and knees. Of all the ways to be in a frozen ocean, this is one of the less desirable ones. Shackleton screams at him to get up. He responds that he cannot. Wrapped up in his emotions of excitement and annoyance, Shackleton had forgotten an important fact that he’d learned days earlier: Blackboro’s feet had frozen. He didn’t respond to the captain’s proclamation the night before because he knew he wouldn’t be the first man ashore.

Shackleton would feel shame for this error (even though, in hindsight, it’s a little funny). It also shows a very human side of him. While he meant well, his emotions got the better of him. It was a rare folly from a man who did not typically lead with emotion or anger.

A fake painting of an enraged shackelton who has forgotten his compassion and tossed a young man overboard

There’s no photo of this happening so you can’t tell me this wasn’t exactly how it looked.

But what a guy

The traditional idea of breaking us of our humanity to build us back up doesn’t work as well as recognizing and encouraging our humanity.

I find this story interesting for a few reasons, and they all outline why Shackleton is indeed one of history’s greatest leaders.

For starters, consider the utter annoyance of telling a sailor he could not join the crew and having that sailor show up anyway. Most captains would be furious (as was Shackleton initially), but this one managed to move past it and not only accept him, but he offered up the great honour of being the first man to set his frozen stumps upon Elephant Island. How many captains would demand that they be the first ashore? Shackleton offered it up merely to encourage Blackboro to keep going. Any other captain would have had that kid at the top of his mental “ok, so who do we eat first” list.

Secondly, when offered the encouragement the night prior, Blackboro doesn’t not respond because he’s fearful of Shackleton, but rather because he’s worried he’ll let him down. Shackleton doesn’t command respect; he earns it. Indeed, this respect plays a role at the end of the story, where men must perform inhuman feats to reach ultimate safety.

Contrast these behaviours to that of the traditional drill sergeant. The rigidity and cruelty of that character outline precisely why the military has had to come to an entirely new way of thinking and leading because it’s just so damn ineffective (plus Vincent D’Onofrio might shoot you). The traditional idea of breaking us of our humanity to build us back up doesn’t work as well as recognizing and encouraging our humanity.

So why are you more drill sergeant than Shackleton?

Will your New Year’s Resolution involve signing up for some torturous physical transformation? Be honest; I’ll know if you’re lying. Will you pay money to be yelled at by some 24-year-old who runs for fun and only eats for fuel? Is it quite literally called a boot camp?

This is not me raging against the fitness industry. This is me pointing out that punishing yourself for positive change can work, but it isn’t the best way. Drill Sergeants do produce results (just as boot camps do), but are they the results we want for ourselves? Is the fact that so few seem capable of keeping change from sticking because we all suck, or maybe we’re just going about change the wrong way?

I claim today that some of us (not all, but some) undergo these arduous physical classes not because movement is pivotal to a healthy body, but because we feel we deserve some form of punishment. Yes, millions of people have a healthy relationship with fitness, but I’m not talking about them. If that’s you, you may return to your yoghurt and blueberries. I’m talking about the ones that grab a handful of belly in the mirror and feel they need to whip themselves into shape (“whip” being the operative word there).

This can go beyond the physical, too. Maybe you take this approach with your mind instead. An endless parade of “I shouldn’t be like this” or “I’m not enough” is no different than having that drill sergeant spit-screaming in your ear.

Self-compassion and health

Within us, we all have a bit of Shackelton, and we all have a bit of Sargent Asshole. At some point, we need to decide which one to listen to, and unfortunately, a lot of society tells us that Sargent Asshole is who needs to come out when things are really bad.

… a lot of society tells us that Sargent Asshole is who needs to come out when things are really bad.

And that’s a shame because the available science tells us if we’re looking for a link between how we think and how we behave and feel, this is backwards. For investment advice, give me Buffet; for spaghetti night, Bourdain; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

A 2015 study by Sirois, Kitner, and Hirsch examined the relationship between self-compassion and healthy behaviours. Reviewing multiple pre-existing studies showed that people who practiced self-compassion were likelier to engage in healthy behaviours such as eating better, sleeping more, and moving their bodies.

Nobody would deny eating, sleeping, and exercising lead to a rapid increase in overall health, yet we often ignore the catalyst of self-compassion. This isn’t shocking–even the study found that it wasn’t necessarily a direct route from self-compassion to healthy behaviours but rather a cascade from self-compassion to happiness and then to healthy behaviours (emotion seems to play a huge role here).

So it’s fair to say self-compassion is upstream to health both for the mind and body. That would mean being a total dick to yourself is like installing a sewage treatment facility upstream of your drinking water. It serves a purpose, as sewage does need treating… but does this iced tea taste funny?

A man drinks iced tea in the wilderness with a sewage treatment facility in the background.


I ask you today to consider a shift from self-discipline to self-compassion. It is sometimes said that once you give up the struggle, the path to freedom can begin. Perhaps once you accept yourself for the person you are, avenues to change suddenly become available.

We can get so wound up in the oxymoronic world of “tough love” that we can lose sight of the fact that most science does not point to overly harsh pressures leading to lasting positive change.

Today, we marvel at the feats and leadership skills of Earnest Shackelton because of his tremendous victory at leading his team into hell and back, but we’re mostly looking at the results. Along the way, he also planted seeds of incredible personal courage and compassion, resulting in a crew that believed in him without hesitation.

And your inner Shackelton can do the same for you if you’d only let him be your leader instead of Sargent Asshole. It isn’t easy, and the answer to “ya but how” is for another day, but for today, the argument I’d like to make is this: the path to self-improvement very likely starts with showing yourself the respect, forgiveness, and love you rightly deserve. Now stop being such an asshole and get out there.