Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 10: Your frame as the game





One of the toughest physical and mental challenges I have faced was hiking the Grand Canyon. A sublime mix of grandeur, depth, and stillness, the GC taught this adventurer two great lessons – the value of framing your perspective and the limitations of multitasking.


The two-hour descent to the Colorado River, which runs through the base of the canyon, quickly impresses the value of doing one thing at a time. The fundamental choice posed to those hiking the GC is simple and clear. Either stop and take in the view, or walk and look at your feet – mixing leads to mishap.


The insight into framing your perspective was revealed during the three-hour return to the summit (that is if one considers the summit of a big hole in the ground being the other side).  From the bottom, the top of the canyon looks unrealistically distant and high – almost like looking at a postcard. I confess to looking at it with a skepticism that I’d make it back up – it looked impossibly high and remote.  Then, as some of my younger and fitter companions began their return journey in a jog, I, with savvy appreciation for my limitations, began walking the twisting and turning uphill path with a hopeful but wearied resolve.


About halfway up I stopped for a break in a small nook in one of the countless bends. From there I couldn’t see the summit – in fact because of the winding nature of the path, the top had been obscured for the previous 30 minutes. Tired and still mildly doubtful in my capacity to complete the journey, it was comforting to look below and discover the great distance I had come. From the bottom, the river of the canyon is impressively fierce and wild but from this midway vantage it looked more like a gentle stream.


No doubt the rest break eased my physical stress but seeing the river morph into a serene flow of water more greatly eased my mind.  Progress had been made and I was somewhat enlivened to continue on with a restored vigour and belief.


But an hour later that restoration dissipated, along with my energy, and another small break was critical.  At this point, I could see the totality of my completed and uncompleted mission.  The top was still improbably distant and high while the river, although now like a creek, offered little consolation. At this point in my journey, seeing the end or seeing how far I had come had a similar dispiriting effect – there was more work to be done and I was tired, thirsty and really over it.  What to do?


It is said of meditation that in the silence, the answers appear and in my fatigued mind, a solution emerged.


“Just take 10 steps, rest if needed, then take 10 more.”


Which is what I did for about the next 45 minutes – until my saviours appeared.


Two young women, walking towards me, idly chatting to each other in Italian, and dressed in a style that ignited my whole being with glee.


A glee that dissuaded fatigue.


A glee that subjugated doubt and fear.


A glee that showered my despair with hope, and optimism.


A glee that settled my mind.


These makeshift maidens of mercy wore jeans, non-hiking shoes, and were not sweating – in fact they bore no sign of hardship or suffering.  This was proof that the summit was near and upon turning the next bend, the stark reality of completion was undeniable – foundations of the summit restaurant were just above my path.  Less than 20 minutes to go and this ordeal will have passed.


Minutes later, resting comfortably (and gratefully) at the summit, a message from this physical, mental and emotional saga arose from the mist of a mind silenced (or perhaps more accurately, deadened) by fatigue.


My lesson.  The absolute truth and organizing principle in success and achievement is to always continue forth and never give up.  Seeing the finish line or goal will aid this campaign of perseverance, but it can hurt too by not being immediate.  Seeing how far one has gone is likewise beneficial but not always enough to conquer the remaining hardship.  Focusing only on the next step will increase productivity in dire times but the greater sense of purpose is lost.  The trick is to choose the frame that helps you move forward.  By constantly orienting your perspective toward the one that best promotes movement forward in that moment of time, your chances to succeed remain alive and vital.


We always have a choice of three perspectives – the past (how far we’ve come), the present (our next step), and the future (our goal).  Each perspective is equally weighted in how it can help or limit our progress and so to me, wisdom is the ability to use the right frame for part of the journey you are on. It’s an insight and skill much admired and used by the Stoics of ancient Rome and Greece – they saw it as our fundamental method of agency.  We may not be able to control our situation but we can control our view of it.


In our modern times however, although sports psychologists and athletes won’t directly acknowledge Zeno or Epictetus, they are referencing Stoicism whenever they talk about taking it one step at a time and controlling the controllables.  I’m not sure that knowing the genealogy of reframing is important, but I do acknowledge that it’s masterful in persevering through challenge.  In my career, the ability to frame my perspective managed and consoled me during difficult periods and kept me grounded and consistent during the high times.


About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. Wisdom distilled. Thanks David.
    As a 12 Stepper I always liked “you fall like a stone but rise like a feather”. The path is uncertain and fluctuates, but in a positive direction over time. Then one day you look back and what looked impossible, now seems a doddle.

  2. Thank you again D Stiff.
    This is a wonderful series.

    Stoicism intrigues me.
    I’ve been digging (over previous years) and struck gold at Alain de Botton’s “School of Life” site.
    Within that is his “Book of Life”
    Within that is a series of videos on philosophy.
    Within that, what represents the final Babushka doll for now, is this one on Stoicism:
    All of it searchable via the web.

  3. Thanks for your comments.

    Yes, I’m a huge fan of the school of life stuff too – many a youtube wormhole evening has been spent listening to the dulcet tones of Alain de Botton.
    I’ve also often wondered why Stoicism didn’t become a more dominant philosophy over time – perhaps it was blended into Christianity?
    I’m not sure if you’re aware of the podcast philosophy bytes but below is a link from it on Stoicism.

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