On Job Satisfaction and Antarctica

Or why I'm heading off on my twelfth expedition

I’ve been talking a lot recently about the anti-climax I felt at the end of the Scott Expedition; about how I’d expected the achievement of the biggest goal I’d ever set myself to feel rather different to how that day panned out in reality. I’d always imagined that the last few kilometres of that long walk would be the most emotional of my entire life, and that Tarka and I would be skiing towards the coast of Ross Island with tears freezing on our cheeks, hugging and high-fiving and back-slapping at every opportunity.

When those last few sliding ski-strides finally came, they were strangely devoid of emotion. We walked together in silence, more exhausted than I have ever felt, and when we stepped across the finish line – a crack between the Ross Ice Shelf and the rocky shore of Ross Island – nothing happened. There was no elated rush of satisfaction, no collapse to my knees in relief, just a happy realisation that we didn’t have to walk any further. The apocryphal Shackleton recruitment ad talks of ‘honour and recognition in event of success’ but we didn’t experience much of either on our homecoming.

Given all of this, many have understandably questioned why I’m heading back to Antarctica this year. In truth there are dozens of reasons, ranging from the mundane to the existential, but a book I read earlier this year, Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You (which I found in Derek Sivers’ brilliant reading list) made me think differently about how I viewed my skills, and the work I’ve done so far. His argument is essentially that the people who are most satisfied with their careers are not those who followed some sort of passion or calling, but rather those who have dedicated a lot of time to becoming really good at what they do, something Newport calls the ‘craftsman mindset’.

I’ve spent nearly 17 years working on polar expeditions, and in many ways this next project is merely an extension of that: I’m doing what I’ve become an expert at, and that in itself gives me satisfaction and pleasure. My skis and ski poles and sledge harness are like the musician’s guitar, or the sculptor’s mallet and chisel. They are tools I am now proficient at using, that allow me to create something that I hope some people will derive value from. ‘Doing work I enjoy’ rather than ‘following my calling’ sounds like a pedestrian answer, but it’s a big part of why I’m heading south again.

Ben Saunders (@polarben)

Ward Irvin


One of the greatest posts I’ve read in some time.
So true, Ben. So true.
Excel in your craft.
Best of luck as you set off on those skis pulling that massive sledge.

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