When was the last time that you felt like Christopher Columbus? What about Neil Armstrong? Roald Amundsen? What if I told you that the journeys that you take in your life could actually equal the storied accomplishments of those great men? I wouldn’t be lying if I said that you were capable of discovering far more than any of them did.
Christoforo Columbo, or as we know him better, Christopher Columbus, is one of the most well known explorers of all history. In 1453, with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, the comfortable passage from Europe to “the Indies” via the Silk Road became considerably less comfortable to travel and trade on, posing issues for traders and economies alike. While expeditions in the 1480s from Portugal had already reached the Cape of Good Hope (in modern South Africa) seeking to navigate under Africa to reach the Indies, Columbus sought a more direct route, straight across the Atlantic ocean. Now, most Americans have been taught that Columbus had trouble getting funding for his voyage because most scholars of the time believed that the earth was flat and couldn’t be sailed around. In fact, scholars at the time knew pretty well that the Earth was round. They just also knew that the distance between Europe and the Indies was much larger than Columbus thought. Columbus was working with the three wrong assumptions that the Earth was smaller than it is, Europe was bigger than it is, and Japan and other islands East of China were actually much further East than they are. In short, Columbus had some very bad information going into his voyage.
What Columbus did have, however, was a great working knowledge of the trade winds, which would prove crucial to his success. On the way to the New World, Columbus’s voyage rode the Easterlies for five weeks, and instead of trying to fight against the winds for several months back to Spain, they sailed North and then East on the Westerlies, saving them from an attempted return home that probably would have killed them.
In the end, Columbus made four voyages to the New World, earned a spot in history forever as the man who “discovered” the New World, and was eventually arrested and imprisoned upon return to Spain, where he died around the age of 54.
While his list of accomplishments is certainly extensive (even after accounting for false histories and misnomers), perhaps his most educational accomplishment was that he set off into the relative unknown with conviction and courage. Today, we don’t remember Columbus for his doubt or his failures; we remember him for his courage and daring.
But taking three wooden ships across a largely unexplored ocean with limited supplies and technology is child’s play, right? What about going into space?
Neil Armstrong went into space. In fact, he was the first American civilian to be in space (although, in fairness,a big-time shoutout goes to Valentina Tereshkova from the Soviet Union, the first civilian in space nearly three years before Armstrong). Despite his fame and legacy, Armstrong did not have a defining moment in his decision to become an astronaut. He more fell into it. As announcements circulated that NASA was looking for applications for their second group of astronauts, Armstrong became more and more excited, but his application was submitted a week past the deadline. If it weren’t for a friend of his who saw the late application and slipped it into the pile, Armstrong never would have been an astronaut. Even once he became an astronaut, a series of thin threads is all that lead Armstrong to his place in history. The tragic Apollo 1 fire and the delays in the Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 programs that caused them to switch crews were both crucial steps that inched Armstrong closer to his destiny. It was because of that crew switch that, by the crew rotation, Armstrong would serve as the commander of Apollo 11. The rest is history. Armstrong journey to the moon with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and took one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.
Two things are important to note here: first of all, that Armstrong was selected as the first man to walk on the moon in part because NASA management did not see him as someone who had a big ego. Consider that the next time you’re in line to take a mission to Mars and you’re wondering how humble you should be. Second, Armstrong didn’t have grand plans of being an astronaut as a child. It wasn’t his goal from the beginning. But he seized the opportunities when they arose and had at least enough faith to guide him on the path to his destiny, and because of that courage, today he’s one of the most well-known Americans in our history.
But what about the lesser-known heroes of our time? Roald Amundsen lead a life that bears similarity to the other great explorers we’ve discussed so far. Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, the first to undisputedly reach the North Pole in 1926, and the first to traverse the Northwest Passage in 1903-1906. Amundsen is another unlikely hero, though. His original intention was to travel to the North Pole in the early 1900s, but after hearing that two others had already claimed the pole, he decided to reroute to Antarctica for the South Pole. Amundsen didn’t inform anyone about the decision to reroute- even his crew- until they had already left. This gave them a head start on English explorer Robert Scott, also vying to reach the pole, that would prove crucial to their success. For their journey, they utilized sled dogs, skis, and Eskimo style skins in lieu of heavier woolen parkas- all tricks that he had learned on his previous journey through the Northwest Passage. Additionally, Amundsen set up supply depots regularly as they traveled, just in case they needed the extra supplies on their return journey. The entire voyage over land was conducted in twenty mile segments. That principle alone has importance that can’t be underestimated. Every day, nice weather or poor weather, sunny or snowy, Amundsen and his men would march twenty miles further toward the South Pole. It was that consistency, along with meticulous planning and forethought that finally brought them as the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911. Amundsen’s crew left a tent with some supplies and a note detailing their accomplishment and the locations of their supply stores along their route back in case they didn’t make it, but they returned safely.
But what about Robert Scott? His expedition wore heavy wool parkas to battle the cold. They traveled light with just enough supplies to make the journey to and from the South Pole. On good weather days, they would travel 50 miles or more. In periods of extended poor weather, they stayed camped in their tents. As a result, they reached the South Pole more than a month after Amundsen, tired, worn out, and frostbitten. Their return journey was short-lived and tragic. Members of their party were hampered by hunger, injuries, and old wounds, and slowly dropped off one by one until only three were left, including Scott. The last three died in their tent in early 1912, just a short distance away from one of Amundsen’s leftover supply stores.
While Amundsen’s accomplishments may be less famous than Columbus’s or Armstrong’s, his are perhaps the most applicable to our lives today. His meticulous preparation and steadfast determination, along with the unwavering dedication to progress of the twenty mile march not only carved his name permanently into history, but ensured the survival of his crew and himself. Too often we live our lives like Robert Scott: moving forward without much planning, preparing just as much as we think we have to, and working on progress when it’s comfortable but staying in our tents when it would be uncomfortable to press on. We remember Amundsen because of what he did; we remember Scott because of what he didn’t. There’s a lesson there.
But I did tell you that you could accomplish even more than these men have, and I don’t aim to disappoint. The story isn’t long because I don’t know much of it. In fact, you’ll need to be the one to write it. What I can do, however, is tell you this.
Each of these men- Columbus, Armstrong, and Amundsen- were exploring various finite areas. The New World, while it was unknown in the Western World, was not growing or changing. The moon isn’t going anywhere. Antarctica is actually shrinking more than anything. But what about you? Have you figured out yet where your exploration will take you?
Do you realize yet that your life is a journey into the unknown? That your life’s path needs to be explored? Not only do you have a unique and specific purpose that you’re being guided toward every day, but the land that you have to navigate to get there- your life- is constantly changing based on how you choose to live it! Columbus couldn’t change the size of the Atlantic ocean! Armstrong couldn’t alter the topography of the moon! There wasn’t enough global climate change at the time to make it relevant to Amundsen’s expedition! But YOU can change where your journey takes you any time you want! YOU get to decide if the path is rocky or smooth! Sort of. YOU get to decide what stops you make along the way! That’s why YOUR journey is grander than Columbus, Armstrong, and Amundsen combined! ONLY YOU can do it, and YOU create it as you go! How incredible is that?
It is a pretty tall order though, isn’t it? And couldn’t we all use some advice for our journey? Luckily, even in this blog post alone, there are lessons to be learned.
Learn from Columbus
Be courageous. Known where you’re going. Columbus “knew” everything he needed to know to get to “the Indies.” Where he ended up wasn’t where he expected, and he was unarguably wrong about the distance he would have to travel if he were to reach his intended destination, but he never faltered in his determination to get there. If there’s somewhere you want to be in life, get out and get there!
Learn from Armstrong
Take advantage of opportunities when they arise. Armstrong didn’t intend to be an astronaut when he was growing up, but today he’s the most well-known Astronaut in America. He took advantage of the opportunity to join the space program when it came up and through a series of thin threads, found his way to his destiny. If there’s something that piques your interest in life, give consideration to whether or not it’s an opportunity you should take. You never know when your future might be just one week-late application away!
Learn from Amundsen
A failure to plan is a plan to fail. Amundsen overstocked for his expedition, left extra supplies for his return journey, and made sure to maintain a steady pace toward his goal regardless of the circumstances. Make sure that you know what it will take to get to where you want to go and then do more than you think it will take. Utilize knowledge that you’ve acquired in other areas of life toward your success in your purpose. Commit to a twenty mile march every day- do something every day that moves you closer to achieving your purpose, whether you feel like it or not.
If you apply these principles to your journey in exploring your life and your purpose, I have no doubt that your discoveries and accomplishments will dwarf the side of the New World, the moon, and Antarctica all put together. That’s because they’re finite land masses. Your life, on the other hand, has unlimited potential to be as vast and grand as you want it to be. So set sail and explore- let me know what you find.