The world has gotten larger in the last few hundred years, thanks to a hearty handful of explorers who dared to challenge convention and pursue their vision.
Nearly 500 years ago this week, Ferdinand Magellan and a crew of 270 set sail to find a western sea route to the Spice Islands. Three years later, the remnants of the crew returned aboard just one of the original five ships. They had done more than find the western passage; they had discovered a much larger world than once imagined.
Five centuries later, Magellan’s quest highlights some truths about moxie that ring true today.
Humble beginnings don’t hamper moxie, they breed it.
Magellan wasn’t born into an exceptionally powerful family. His was born into a family of minor Portuguese nobility. As a young teen, he travelled to serve at court in Lisbon. Surrounded by the opulence and pageantry of the court, Magellan feasted on stories of the rivalry between world powers for supremacy on the sea. The experience planted a fierce desire in young Ferdinand to pursue the wealth and power possible through maritime exploration.
Magellan had too much moxie to believe he was just a lowly nobleman with little opportunity to advance. He made his own way.
Success lies in finding a problem and solving it.
Spices were essential for many facets of life in the Europe of Magellan’s day. Spices were used to preserve meat – an essential in a time before the Viking sub-zero freezer was widely available. They were used not only to flavor food, but to mask the flavor of spoiling food.
The problem was that spices were nearly impossible to grow in the dry, cool climate enjoyed by most of Europe. The warm tropical climates that were favorable to spice cultivation lay far away, at the end of long, treacherous journeys.
For the explorer who dared to risk it all to find a new and better way to reach the Spice Islands, the rewards promised to be great.
Solving that problem and satisfying the market’s need and desire for a scarce product drove Magellan to take a great risk with the promise of great reward.
Moxie means finding a different avenue to “yes.”
Magellan pitched his idea about finding a western sea route to the Spice Islands to his own king. Repeatedly. He was shut down every time. Did he give up? No. He took his pitch to Portugal’s great rival and nearest neighbor, Spain.
It was a good move. Spain had a track record of backing risky ventures – they had funded Columbus a few decades before.
Leaders with moxie know when to stop hitting their heads against a brick wall, and find a different way to pursue their vision.
Leaders with moxie sail on.
Within months, Magellan faced mutiny, shipwreck and storms. As the fleet – now down to three vessels – skipped down the coast of South America, and through what came to be known as the Strait of Magellan at the very southern tip, the crew was restless and distrustful of their leader.
He sailed on.
The emerged into a sight never before seen by European eyes. A vast, calm sea, reaching beyond the curve of the earth to the west. It was so peaceful that Magellan named it the “Pacific” Ocean. He must have been filled with optimism and hope, convinced that his goal was just across the peaceful waters stretching out before him. He estimated the crossing to the Spice Islands would take no more than a month, similar to the Atlantic passage. They sailed on.
He was wrong in his estimate. The journey took three long months. For days, the anxious sailors scanned the sea, hoping for sight of land, until finally they reached Guam.
Megellan’s own personal voyage would end not long after, when he was felled by a poison arrow during a battle with Philippine natives. But his crew sailed on.
Like many leaders with moxie, Magellan didn’t live to see his vision realized, but he empowered others to complete the journey.
Different kinds of victories.
Just 18 of the original crew and one ship made it back to Spain. But that one ship was loaded down with spices.
The western passage was far too long, arduous and dangerous to be practical. Viewed from that lens, Magellan was not successful.
But his daring attempt yielded something far more valuable that a boatloads of spices. His exploration expanded the world. He vanquished once and for all any notion that the world was flat, pushing back the boundaries of ignorance. He discovered a vast ocean previously unknown. He mapped shorelines and continents that until that point remained unexplored.
Sometimes leaders with moxie set out to make one discovery, and end up discovering something else of much greater value.