Roald Amundsen, Dr. Who and Me: Why Resilience > Consistency

Scott, Wilson and Bowers grave
By Lieut. Tryggve Gran (d. 1980) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m doomed.

At least, according to the prevailing wisdom I am. I’m going to die alone in a frozen wasteland of blighted dreams, because in order to be a successful writer — or a productive writer — or even a marginally-respectable writer, the one thing I absolutely must practice is consistency. And that just ain’t gonna happen.

The preponderance of writing advice out there follows right along with mainstream goalsetting advice. It’s often based around the concept of the “20-Mile March.” Briefly, you set a daily progress goal and finish it. Every day. No matter what. Even if a competitor seems to be pulling ahead in the short-term, your regular incremental progress will get you to your goal quicker and more reliably than making hay while the sun shines and conserving your energy when chaos hits. Jim Collins, who popularized the term, calls it “fanatic discipline.”

The 20-Mile March is usually illustrated with the story of the race to the South Pole between explorers Amundsen and Scott. Have you ever read it?

Freaking terrifying, man.

Amundsen (spoiler alert: the winner!) had his men travel by one degree of latitude every day, in all conditions. Scott (in case you hadn’t guessed, the frozen corpse) traveled as far as possible in good weather, and slowed down or stayed put on rough days. Amundsen planted his flag first, and returned safely with his team to international accolades and undying fame.

Scott and his last 2 teammates got dug out of a snowbank eight months later, and buried on the spot.

Oh, fantastic. Thanks so much for that great motivational snippet.

gifSee, I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of rough days. I’m a mom. I run a freelance business from home. I have an unlovely string of health issues that limit my daily spoons, and an array of elderly relatives in various states of sanity who call me up at inopportune times for help with their head-wounds, legal paperwork, and WiFi passwords.

Nothing in my world is going to happen every single day without fail, and that includes food, sleep, and showers.

It’s at this point I start really panicking. Because I’ve done fanatic discipline. I spent my 20’s doing it for an acting career, and wrecked my body. As a writer, I’ve done “make wordcount no matter what,” and wound up with the NaNoWriMo Horror Show of 2014. Fanatic discipline makes my life miserable and unsustainable, and doesn’t even produce good art as an excuse.

So that’s it. Mottley and Baker’s complete series will never see the light of day. My chick-lit serial will shrivel up and get frostbite. I’m doomed.

Fortunately, I did what I always do in the face of panic and doom: research. (No, really. It helps. Even if you don’t fix anything, it’s like a brain vacay so you can chill the heck out.)

I discovered there’s more to this South Pole story than first appears.

Right off the bat, Amundsen was focused on a single goal: get to the Pole and return safely. He built his team for that purpose, and kept it small: 5 guys.

Scott had an elaborate agenda of scientific observations and experiments, specimen-gathering, fundraising, and political payback. His squad? 17 guys.

For transport, Amundsen used a well-tested, low-tech, low-input, multifunctional system: sled dogs. They are bred to run on snow, dig their own shelter, and can eat nearly anything, including each other. If they don’t work out for transport, they can be lunch.

Scott set up a fancy, complicated, high-maintenance system combining horses and motorized sleds. Trying to make them work consumed time and resources, and their failure left him depleted and behind schedule.

For supplies, Amundsen calculated a large margin of error, and doubled it. He brought enough food for the journey that he could have missed every waystation and continued another 100 miles before resorting to any desperate measures. Altogether, 3 tons for 5 men.

Scott brought 1 ton for 17 men. No margin of error. Things got desperate real quick.

Finally, that consistent daily distance? One degree of latitude is approximately 15 nautical miles. They could make it in 5 or 6 hours in good weather and have plenty of time to make camp and rest. If the day went badly, it was still a manageable distance.

Scott went as far as physically possible, pushing his team harder and harder, with no set rest point to look forward to. Some days they’d travel 9 or 10 hours. Remember, this is Antarctica, and they were pulling the sleds by hand. You ever walk an hour in deep snow? How about 10?

That’s when I realized that consistency is the “B” storyline in the tale of Amundsen Takes the Pole. The real driving force here is resilience.

Amundsen created a process that could absorb multiple levels of failure without jeopardizing the mission. Like a Time Lord with two hearts, he had a spare for everything.

He respected the size of his goal and the extreme conditions he’d face, and left space in his schedule and resources for the unexpected.

His “fanatic discipline” was not fanatical about pushing harder. It was fanatical about when it was time to stop, even when he felt like he could do more.

So will you join me in fanatical resilience?

Let’s respect the extreme conditions we face, whether that’s physical, mental, financial, or time limitations. Let’s respect the size of the goal we’re shooting for — making a life of our art. It’s huge! Let’s tell ourselves the truth about our very worst day, so we can find a target that’s doable even then. Let’s simplify — simplify our process, our goals, and our materials. We make stuff up! All we really need is paper, ink and the inside of our own heads. Let’s give ourselves the gift of knowing when to stop, of saying, “you’ve done enough today.”

by thelittleone417 via flickr
by thelittleone417 via flickr

And let’s make sure to build a little extra margin into our schedules, our budgets, and our hearts – not just so we can absorb our failures, but so we have something to give our people. They have needs, too. And we want to still have them with us at the finish line. Right?

I’ll do it if you will. Ready?




Ellen Seltz writes good old-fashioned mysteries with a big shot of humor, described by one reviewer as “Dorothy L. Sayers having drinks with P.G. Wodehouse.”

After working  in the entertainment industry for twenty years as an actress, producer, comedy sketch writer, librettist, and script doctor, she turned to fiction writing in the vain hope that the performers would do as they were told.

Joke’s on her.

You can find Ellen on Facebook (Ellen.Seltz.7), on Twitter @EllenSeltz, and on her blog,

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