While holding a book event for “When Your Life Depends on It” yesterday, I was asked to talk about some of the bad decisions that were made. A very short, unqualified answer could be: “There are no bad decisions, only bad results.” Decisions quickly made under extreme circumstances in the face of sudden unforeseen hardships or opportunities cannot be faulted for inattention to preparation or willful disregard of reality.
Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20. The results of decisions—polar and non-polar, extreme and ordinary—are known by their outcomes. The roads not taken lead to obscurity.
We can speculate, for instance, the success that might have come to pass had Shackleton’s Endurance put the transcontinental party ashore at the first possible landing place—the party landed, the ship safely returned to South Georgia, the pole attained possibly, but if so at greater cost. And so on. Those outcomes would have been justly celebrated. Shackleton’s decision to push farther south could have resulted in a better situated starting point, a more successful crossing. The future was (as it always is) still unknown. Given the state of geographical knowledge of the Weddell Sea, his decision was neither good nor bad; it’s result, the destruction of the ship by the ice, was clearly bad. But could not have been foreseen.
Those who would fault Scott for his choice of transport have not seen his careful computations made long before the South Polar journey, of the relative efficiencies of dogs, ponies, motors, and men in transporting the necessary supplies long distances over the ice. The tragedy on the return from the Pole was more the result of the inaccurate assumptions on which his calculations were based, and weather that deviated from the known patterns, than from inattention to detail in the preparation.
There can be endless discussions, point and counterpoint, on these two and innumerable other polar decisions, as to what might have happened if a different course of action had been chosen. The intent of our book on extreme decision-making is to stimulate those conversations.
In the end, when facing the unknown, we can only make our best preparations extrapolating from what we already know, and determine our courses of action by what we confront in the field, wherever that field may lie.