Lessons from a 100-year old polar expedition, fascinating fat facts, and how to make a power-free phone speaker
How are you doing? I’m currently enjoying the heightened sense of relief and wellbeing that comes from feeling normal again after a bout of illness. It’s funny how simply getting back to baseline can feel so amazing when contrasted against how terrible being ill feels. A reminder that all things are relative, I guess. Last month, I was lamenting the end of summer and looking forward to hunkering down on autumn projects. But today, as I write this, I am in my garden, wearing shorts, and it feels like a midsummer’s day. I’m not complaining.
I’ve had a busy few weeks, so I haven’t been doing any writing (and I’m feeling the lack of practice right now). To help me make the most of what little free time I’ve had, I have gone cold turkey on social media. I can’t say I’m missing it.
Instead, I’ve been reading more books than usual and seem to have hit a hot streak in terms of quality. I’ve easily read half a dozen excellent titles in the last few weeks. The one I want to talk about today is Endurance by Alfred Lansing. It’s the definitive account of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated South Pole expedition a century ago (a journey regarded by many as the last great voyage of the Heroic Age of Explorers, before technology made global exploration considerably more straightforward.)
My initial interest in the book came from my recent discovery that Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second in command, was born in the town in which my parents live. The story itself is incredible. A team of 27 men set out to become the first people to reach the South Pole on foot and get stranded in an icepack near Antarctica before reaching their destination. They end up being forced to abandon ship and travel on by foot with minimal gear, living on ice flows for several months as they try to find a way back to civilisation. And that’s before the shit really hits the fan.
(Spoiler alert: if you want to read the book, you might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs.)
Things continually go from bad to worse, and the situation becomes an ongoing matter of life or death that lasts many months. In the end, the original party of 27 ends up split into three groups as Shackleton undergoes an unbelievably daunting and desperate rescue mission. His skeleton crew has no option but to travel 800 miles across some of the most inhospitable seas on the planet in a small wooden lifeboat, living off meagre rations and minimal sleep for several weeks. When they finally hit land, they must traverse the interior of a remote island previously considered impossible to cross on foot, armed with only an axe and a length of rope, in a last-ditch attempt to find help. It’s an interminably bleak story, but it’s fascinating on so many levels.
For one, the scale of the ambition behind the expedition is immense. But, as circumstances become increasingly dire and cracks appear in the ship and the mission, the original plans get cast overboard. What these cracks reveal is the scale of thinking that lies behind such an ambitious goal.
When one of the worst winters on record traps the ship in an ice pack that extends to the horizon in all directions, Shackleton and crew are initially unphased. They settle in for a winter camped on the boat until the ice thaws, seeing the several month delay as a mere inconvenience. But as the ship gets destroyed by the pressure from the ice, things become increasingly wretched and desperate. What then emerges are stark lessons in leadership, human courage, strength and weakness.
It’s amazing what man can endure when he has no other choice and the stakes are life or death. Or, as Lansing puts it in the book, “Sufficiently provoked, there is hardly a creature on God’s earth that ultimately won’t turn and attempt to fight, regardless of the odds.” Yet, despite the constant suffering it documents in detail, Endurance ultimately serves as a testament to the triumph of the human spirit, ingenuity, and courage in the face of adversity.
This story is as thrilling a pageturner as you can get and worth reading purely as a piece of drama. It’s wonderfully written, with vivid descriptions of events, excerpts from crewmates’ diaries, and a level of detail that makes you feel like you are right there with them. The fact it’s a true story full of human insights and life lessons is a bonus. I recommend listening to the superbly narrated audiobook on 1.3x to amplify the sense of urgency and desperation these courageous explorers experienced.
Speaking of audiobooks, here’s a quick tip for anyone who finds sped-up audio challenging to listen to: Listen to the first 30 seconds at an even higher speed (say 1.6x) before slowing it back down. In comparison to the faster speed, 1.3x will seem more pedestrian and easier to digest. Like I say, everything is relative.
So, what else have I got to share this month?
Fascinating fat facts
Dietary fats are confusing for even the most nutritionally aware people among us. So-called experts used to tell us fats were bad. Life seemed simple, but that thinking turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Then we realised that some fats are healthy and some are not. But there are so many different types of dietary fats, often with multiple names for the same thing, that the world of dietary fat became hard to wrap your head around. Common thinking used to be that animal fats and saturated fats like butter were unhealthy due to their cholesterol content, but it turns out that’s probably not the case either.
Then there’s vegetable oil, commonly used in cooking. Sounds harmless enough, right—we all know vegetables are healthy, so surely their oils are too? Think again. It turns out that, because of how vegetable oil is extracted and processed, it has little in common with vegetables chemically or nutritionally, tastes pretty bad, and has been linked to obesity and various modern health complications. Despite this, it turns up everywhere. Why, you ask? Money, of course.
Even good old olive oil undergoes a state change when it’s heated, which means while it’s fine on a salad, you might want to think twice before using it for frying. In short, the world of dietary fats is complex and is skewed by profit incentives. So I was glad to find a video recently that has helped me clear up a few things in my mind and create some simple rules to follow in the kitchen. In short, I’m using olive oil for salad dressing, cooking with butter and coconut oil, and staying the hell away from processed food. If a half-hour video on the intricacies of dietary fats sounds like your kind of thing, knock yourself out here.
Product recommendation: dotted notebooks
My go-to method for organising my life is through digital products (mainly because making information searchable and having automated task reminders makes life easier). Still, it’s hard to beat writing in a notebook for quickly jotting down ideas in the moment or thinking through things that are hard to get clear in your mind.
I’ve tried many different notebooks over the years, but my favourite is the A5 dotted notebooks made by Stationary Island. I find the dotted paper less obtrusive and more versatile than lined paper — it lends itself well to drawing diagrams, making gridded page layouts, and bullet journaling. These books are similar to the popular Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks I hear a lot of people favour, but they use thicker paper, so the ink doesn’t bleed through from one side to the other and are a little cheaper than the Leuchtturms too. The only downside is that the pages are unnumbered. Give one a try next time you need a new notebook. The price/quality ratio is hard to beat.
Quick tip: acoustic phone speaker
Here’s an old tip I had forgotten about until I found myself wanting to listen to a podcast while I was without my BlueTooth speaker the other day. You can use an empty glass or cup as an acoustic speaker in a pinch. Just rest your phone inside it with the speaker pointing downwards, and the natural shape of the cup will act as an acoustic amplifier, making your audio far louder than just resting your phone on the counter surface. The quality won’t do music any justice, but for spoken word, it can give you the boost you need to cut through typical household background noise.
Oh, and a fun fact about BlueTooth I learned recently: it was named after a diplomatic Viking who had blue teeth due to his fondness for blueberries. He was instrumental in bringing many warring tribes together to figure out how to get along peacefully, thus uniting Denmark in the late first century.
I have written a lot about achieving goals and increasing your chances of success in the last few years. But recently, I have been reflecting on the idea that it is better to appreciate what you have rather than chase what you think you want.
Maybe it’s me maturing and becoming a parent, but I can sense a subtle value shift has taken place. I am feeling less driven to go out and start new ventures and am developing a deeper appreciation for—and sense of satisfaction from—what I already have instead. I feel such a sense of gratitude for my wife and son, my home, my good health, and all the ways to satisfy my intellectual curiosity I have at my disposal; what more do I need?
One of the reasons I’m currently stepping away from social media (and the internet in general) is to focus more on living intentionally in the moment IRL. I don’t feel anything is missing in my life, so I don’t feel I need to be searching for anything in the way I once did. That doesn’t mean I suddenly lack ambition or intend to stagnate. I still want to work on myself and feed my mind, but the current goal is developing my awareness and understanding rather than accomplishment. Perhaps getting to that place is the best accomplishment of all. The spirit of what where I’m at is captured well in this quote:
“I set high goals for myself, I seek perfection, dream of exotic faraway places. But ultimately, what I long for isn’t far away at all. It’s in my own backyard. Imperfection charms me, familiar things move me… a celebration of what we have, instead of what we long for.”Isabella Rossellini
Until next month,
P.S. I am not paid to endorse any of the products I recommend in this newsletter. I just want to share the things I have found to genuinely improve my quality of life so you can make better buying decisions and avoid inferior products.