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ivoh | November 16, 2017

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The value of hope

Dean Miller

Dean Miller

By Dean Miller

When hope is a problem, I think about Ernest Shackleton, a British explorer whose goodness was not of the sweetness and light variety.

His story comes to mind when I feel I’ve put myself in an impossible position and others are depending on me.

Shackleton’s story first inspired me when I was the editor of an obscure newspaper in a state most people can’t properly locate on the map: Idaho – not Iowa or Ohio – Idaho. The Post-Register was one of a very few employee-owned independent papers in the country. We competed with Clear Channel radio, three mid-sized television chains and neighboring papers that drew on the resources of conglomerate media companies. I spent 14 years there, hiring the smartest young people we could find and teaching them the discipline of verification, the power of multiple revisions and the habit of dogged public service.

About midway through my time in Idaho, the balance sheet made it clear I, along with other departments, had to cut my already-meager staff by almost a quarter. Despair swamped me. Only an investment banker far from your workplace believes you can do more with less. Every improvement we had worked for seemed to be at risk. It fell to me to dismantle the staff we had trained and recruited, most of whom I had invited into my home for brunches, dinners and cocktails. I knew their kids, the names of their dogs and even some of their parents.

I’m ashamed to say I was one of those managers who wasted time in self-pity. Why did I, big-hearted about tough love, have to be this particular bad guy? Luckily, though, as the crisis escalated, I visited the Seattle Museum of Natural History to see an Antarctic exploration exhibit. That led me to Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance.

It’s the story of Ernest Shackleton’s cursed journey to Antarctica. His ship, Endurance, froze into the pack ice near the South Pole in 1914, was crushed to kindling and the crew had to abandon it and take their chances, living on the floating ice for five months.

Shackleton and his crew were alone and out of range of rescuers in a bitterly cold place about which almost nothing was known. All were there by choice. Most were experienced explorers, with useful skills and knowledge about the earth and sky.

But most important of all was their attitude and clarity. When the ship was wrecked, they used the salvageable pieces to build shelter and feed warming fires. When food ran short, they stopped feeding their sled dogs, killed them – and ate some of them.

Purpose bound Shackleton’s crew together: Bring everybody home alive; Keep gathering (and protecting) the photos and field observations that were the reason for the voyage.

Purpose enabled them to control their internal weather, not letting pack ice and other forces beyond their power extinguish hope. Certainly this required a strong leader. But with experience I’ve learned that a follower is leadership’s silent and crucial partner. Shackleton’s crew were intent on exploration, not merely on following Shackleton, so they made a success of whatever trouble they encountered.

They understood the necessity of fighting despair in themselves so as not to drag down their comrades, who would in turn buoy them up. Good humor proved contagious.

In the end, as we always must, they stuck together and rescued themselves.

A skillful team was selected to make an open-sea crossing in a tiny rowboat, navigating with a sextant (while underway on rough seas in dark weather) to the one island whaling outpost in the vast ocean wilderness at that end of the earth.

In five months shipwrecked on the ice, they did not lose a single member of the crew and they brought home invaluable photos and scientific data that thrill students of Antarctica a century later. For all of us, they brought home the example of skillful followers and leaders whose clarity made the best of every opportunity in a situation that is commonly viewed as hopeless.

In journalism, hope is in short supply. News leaders and their followers obsess over a mythic past, and heap coals on the heads of those who seek the way forward.

Maybe, facing a deadline, the crush of the holidays, or even a term paper, you feel hopeless today on a cheerless floe of ice on which you have stranded yourself.

I don’t think we should be tempted to believe we require circumstances as dramatic as Shackleton’s to muster our best selves, be we followers or leaders. The point is the near- featureless monotony of ice edits the story down to its essentials.

In hopeless moments at work, Endurance’s crew helps us remember we choose our dangers and that’s the first thing to remember when luck runs out.

Focusing on our mission the way Shackleton and his men did gives us the clarity to live the wisdom of the good books of many faiths: You can’t control circumstances, only your reaction to them.

At my newspaper, we never regained the staff we shed. But in the intervening years we did better work than in the years before, largely because of the way adversity focused our attention. That clarity is a skill I learned from Shackleton and the crew of Endurance.

It wasn’t the journey I expected, but having survived some bad weather, I wouldn’t give up the lessons learned. You must find your own way, which means you have to be clear about where you need to go. And if you’re too busy crying, you can’t carry out the duties you’ve trained for, such as reading a sextant in rough seas.

In the last four years, circumstance has forced me to move from coaching employees in a newsroom to teaching students in a university. My choice has been to move across the U.S. three times, from Idaho to Cambridge, Mass., back to Idaho and then east again, to the north shore of New York’s Long Island.

More than at any time in my life, I realize I have no idea what the world or even my life will look like in five years. But I am accumulating skills and knowledge and experience every day. I have the happy clarity of a person with a family to support and a mission in mind.

When hope is a problem, I think of hard-eyed Ernest Shackleton’s crew and I expect to work out a way through whatever storms may come.

Dean Miller’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.