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( Personal Reflection )

How to Change Your Frame Of Reference

Chris Cundari
September 20, 2016
4 min read

The Voyage of Sir Ernest Shackleton

Sir Ernest Shackleton was a man of ambition. In 1914, after completing two major expeditions, Shackleton would push the limits of human exploration and aim to become the first man to cross Antarctica end-to-end through the South Pole. Shackleton would need two crews of twenty-eight men. One ship – the Endurance – would drop him and his team on one side of Antarctica, while the support crew would station supplies along Shackleton’s team’s route and pick the men up on the other side of the continent – or at least that was the plan. To obtain his crew, Shackleton put out an ad, which read:


Clearly he was not fond of false advertising, or as Donald Trump would call it, ‘truthful hyperbole’. Five thousand men responded, and fifty-six were chosen.

In October of 1914, after sailing south from Buenos Aires for six weeks through the bitter cold, Shackleton’s ship got stuck in ice and ground to a halt. No one knew the ship’s location or predicament, nor would anyone be crazy enough to travel there even if they could. After ten months, the shifting ice crushed the ship. The men abandoned the ship and most of their original supplies to then set up camp on a giant ice raft below. Survival meant hunting penguins and seals in darkness and a constant wrestle with the cold. Shackleton tried to lead several marches off the ice, each time needing to cover hundreds of miles to be successful, and each time failing. Shackleton had one last-ditch effort to survive: he and his crew would attempt to travel 850 miles by sea to South Georgia Island, a voyage through frigid waters that would require an almost miraculous feat of navigation. Against all odds, they survived the treacherous journey, only to find their landing spot was on the wrong side of the island. Consequently, the crew had to march thirty-six hours through mountains and glaciers without rest, for if they had stopped, the crew could have fallen asleep in the cold and never awakened.

Though unsuccessful in his mission, in a remarkable tale of heroism and fortitude in the face of hardships, Shackleton ultimately saved all of his men and is recognized for his epic feat of endurance.

My Personal Voyage

“You run the first half with your legs, the second half with your mind” // Old Running Proverb

Though we may not have mapped new territories or been lost at sea, there are relatable lessons to be learned from Shackleton’s adventures. Let me start by explaining some of my adventures this year.

In the past eight months, I have competed in my first three races: a ten-kilometer run in February, a thirteen-kilometer obstacle course in July, and an eighteen-kilometer obstacle course in September. Prior to this, I have only ever run ten kilometers once and it took all my will power to do so. Though these distances may seem miniscule to some, for me it was difficult to sign up because I knew how excruciating they would be.

For my first ten-kilometer race, I trained for a month out of fear of failing. Despite pulling my groin halfway through the race, I finished at a pace well above average. I refused to not finish.

My second race was the Spartan Super, a grueling thirteen-kilometer course that tests your physical and mental capacities. A year ago, thirteen kilometers seemed like an impossible distance, above and beyond my physical capabilities. Yet because of my success at my first race just four months prior, the impossible seemed within reach. By the time I crossed the finish line, I surpassed the average race time by forty-five minutes.

Finally, the hardest of them all: The Tough Mudder. This unforgiving eighteen-kilometer trek pushes you beyond your mental capabilities. There are no congratulations along the way. The entire time you are cold, wet, and miserable, slogging through mud and scrambling out of ditches. And when you think you have nothing left, there are twelve-foot walls for you to climb. Just thinking about it made me not want to start. Despite this fear, I knew that if I can do the Spartan Race, there is no reason why I cannot complete this. Lo and behold, there I was crossing the finish line, wondering why it was over so soon.

How Changing your Frame of Reference can Impact your Life

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you are right.” // Henry Ford

Everything in life is relative.

The two mid-distance races prior to the Tough Mudder made the eighteen kilometers through mud and over walls seem like just another day. In contrast, if I have never done those races and the most strenuous thing I had gone through physically was walking my dog, a race of that magnitude would have posed an unbelievably imposing obstacle. Their difficulty depends on your frame of reference – on what you are used to and are comfortable with. Those last thirty-six hours in Shackleton’s journey seemed to pale in comparison to what he and his crew had already gone through, yet to us that sounds like hell in itself.

We as a society have been conditioned to spend tremendous resources eliminating obstacles from our lives, rather than teaching people how to surmount them. “Easy” has become the greatest marketing hook of all time. Diet pills and get rich quick books have caused people to think that you can skip the hard work to get the result you want. Under this frame of reference, when you are confronted with the life-equivalent of a twelve-foot wall, you will be squashed like a bug on a windshield.

In life, the biggest obstacle, the tallest wall, is imaginary, existing only in your mind. Some people stay stuck to one spot for years because they are paralyzed by the fear of change. They may be stuck on the couch instead of working out, or in a dead-end relationship because they are struck with the fear of being alone, or in a lousy career instead of doing something that excites them. They are stuck in a prison of their own design. You must change your frame of reference to what is hard and all other obstacles will seem easy in comparison. Just think to yourself, “What would Shackleton think of this obstacle which I am facing?”

In Closing

The harder the race, the more I loved it. It is an experience so alien from daily life that returning to “normal” becomes very hard. Normal now seems so unsatisfying. Whether I was running toward or from something, I willingly put myself through hell, and I loved every minute of it. At those moments, everything else that I thought was important in life, the things I stressed out about, vanished. All that mattered was my laser focus to finish something a year ago I thought I could never do, and as a result, my frame of reference on what is possible was expanded.

I will continue to sign up for more difficult and excruciating races because I crave to push the limits on what I think I am physically and mentally capable of. Though it may not be obstacle course races, find something that makes you feel uncomfortable, as this is where true growth lies. No matter what situation we see ourselves in, if Shackleton was able to make it out alive, there’s no reason why we can’t.

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