Both David Hirzel and I saw the musical Hamilton recently. We each saw the play in our local area — David in San Francisco and myself in London. Like everyone who has seen the show, we each came away stunned by the originality of it — the music, the staging etc — as well as the amazing story of Alexander Hamilton’s life — described in the opening numbers with the phrase, “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry. And I’m not throwing away my shot.”
The remarkable thing about Hamilton’s story, is it as much a story about his friend and rival Aaron Burr as it is about Alexander Hamilton. In fact the show could just have easily been titled, Aaron Burr. The more I thought about this, the more I thought Roald Amundsen was like Alexander Hamilton — a great hero yet someone, at times, misunderstood by history.
And just like Hamilton, it could have been said that Amundsen was, “Just like his country. Young, scrappy and hungry. And not throwing away his shot.” Norway was young. It became independent from Sweden in 1905. Amundsen was heading for the South Pole a mere 5 years later to plant a flag for King and Country. He snatched victory from the British in 1911 when Norway was only 6 years old. Paralleling the Hamilton story, America declared independence from Britain in 1776. Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson and the other “founding fathers” portrayed in the musical achieved victory approximately 5 years later when the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. Britain in both cases was the “empire” and it was the “young, scrappy and hungry for victory” upstarts who tamed it.
In another parallel, Hamilton’s rival was Aaron Burr; Amundsen’s was Robert Scott. Robert Scott may not have literally killed Amundsen, but in Robert Scott’s death resulting from trying to return from the South Pole, a nobility of scientific endeavor and achievement was made that somehow diminished or tarnished Amundsen’s achievement, and boosted Scott’s name as an Antarctic hero. Up until the point of the Hamilton musical which opened in NYC in 2015, Aaron Burr may have been a name better known to most Americans than Hamilton’s.
Finally, Amundsen was determined to “not throw away his shot.” Amundsen took great risks. For example by establishing his base called Framheim on the sea ice rather than on land (as we know from recent news articles, Antarctic sea ice can break away swiftly in massive chunks), he took a risk his base would survive for the duration he needed it to. Also he had to pioneer a new route to the South Pole. Scott in contrast based his hut securely on land and took the established route pioneered by Shackleton in 1907-1908. To also ensure he would not throw away his shot, Amundsen set out very early hoping to the jump on Scott. As it turned out he set out before winter had fully finished, and he and his team had to beat a hasty retreat to Framheim to prevent themselves from freezing to death. They set out a month later and achieved success.
Our book, When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision Making Lessons in the Antarctic, encourages people to think about the early Antarctic explorers as all great men and great explorers, and to consider their place in history. As we explain in the book and in our lectures, there are many lessons we can learn from their situations and their decisions to help us make better decisions in our modern lives. The Hamilton musical does the same with Alexander Hamilton’s life story. Like the polar explorers, Hamilton wasn’t perfect, but he was a great man who made decisions, took actions, and achieved success and his story and his life can also teach us how to make better decisions today.
PS. If you would like to read David Hirzel’s online review of Hamilton (with no reference to Antarctic figures), here’s the link. It is titled, “Hamilton at the Orpheum: Don’t throw away your shot.”