Antarctica & an Achievement Mindset

February 12, 2021
image of antique ship in icy water
Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash.

Amongst many other challenges, COVID-19 continues to pervade our daily lives. It’s changed our professional and personal reality in ways I doubt any of us thought would be necessary. It’s challenged our social, financial and economic infrastructures in ways we never considered possible just 9 months ago.

Perspective is important. We are not the first generation to face tribulation, in fact, far from it; try to imagine serving on the front end of a world war, living day to day on the edge of a frontier or engulfed in a major economic depression. It’s tempting to allow the moment to overtake us, but if you reflect on how people overcame such historic and society-changing events, it is often less about the actual challenge, and more about how we respond to it that makes all the difference.

At the turn of the last century, a celebrated polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton, faced challenges in a way that I believe speaks directly to our time. When his expeditionary ship, Endurance, set sail in August 1914, Shackleton had a bold goal: he and his team would be the first to walk across Antarctica.

Judged by its initial objectives, the entire venture was a colossal failure. The Endurance never reached land, was trapped in ice and crushed. None of its 28 crew members set foot on the continent. Remarkably, everyone survived and made it home after several years. Theirs is a compelling story of overcoming disaster when it strikes again and again. If you are unfamiliar with this story, it’s likely because their amazing accomplishments were eclipsed by the horrors of World War I at the end of 1916.

How is this historical footnote relevant to us today? What began as a voyage of exploration quickly turned into a mission of survival. The ability to respond as a team to constantly changing and dire, circumstances was critical to their goal of returning home. The human capacity to persevere, to survive when the changes and challenges just keep coming, is vital in our own time.

Effective leadership and teamwork are crucial- then and now. Leaders and entire organizations must often change course midstream — jettisoning earlier standards of success and redefining their purposes and plans. And it’s not just about trudging through the snow and ice and surviving another day; it’s about remaining positive, seeing what needs to be done and getting it accomplished. Simply put, an optimistic achievement mindset is what creates real success, no matter what comes your way.

So, leaving Antarctica, how does this translate at MUSC? If the pandemic is teaching us anything, it’s demonstrating the power of teamwork and collaboration. MUSC was well-positioned to respond to this moment because of path we were already on with telehealth, research and care delivery integration and expansion of our physical presence around the state. As an organization, however, the challenge of COVID has unveiled the true power of teamwork – the emergence of the pandemic forced us to focus on the moment, to work together in new ways – to fully embrace an achievement mindset, not encumbered by our daily “check the box” norms. Just doing the usual isn’t enough. The mindset that matters is how you can elevate not just yourself, but others around you. It becomes less about personal measures of success and more about the success of a team- making an impact.

Because of COVID, I believe that we already are a more impactful institution than the January 2020 version of MUSC. Health care organizations inherently have the potential to make a real and lasting impact by virtue of what we do. So, we started at a great place. The opportunity has been, through our response, to become a better version of ourselves- quite literally becoming the beacon of hope that our communities need when unprecedented challenges threaten the health and vitality of families, neighbors, co-workers, friends and even ourselves.

It is not merely institutions that respond. I would challenge all of us (including myself) to ask how you are adding value to the world around you. Your footprint, your impact, positive or negative, whether intentional or not, is larger –and greater – than yourself. When you commit to having a real impact, you must make the choice every day to be a positive force, navigate through or around barriers, stand up to challenges, and be a difference maker.

I leave you with two quotes coming to us from the ice flows of Antarctica to consider:

“Superhuman effort isn't worth a damn unless it achieves results.”

“Optimism is true moral courage.”

― Ernest Shackleton


About the Author

David J. Cole
MUSC President
M.D., FACS