The Shackleton Sniff Test: A Game Changer

One of my favorite thought experiments is what Bryan Johnson calls, “The Shackleton Sniff Test.” Bryan, who is the founder of OS Fund and Braintree, exposed the world to this great idea on the Tim Ferriss Podcast back in 2015 (check out the episode).

Creating any sort of project or business often comes with the occasional wave of self-doubt and fear, especially when things don’t go as planned. At least, that’s been my experience. And whenever I’m in a funk, I’ve found this “test” to be an incredibly helpful tool that always pulls me out of it.

First, who is Ernest Shackleton?

Shackleton was a famous British explorer at the turn of the 20th century. By 1914, after having been on two expeditions to Antarctica, Shackleton decided he was going to attempt his most ambitious expedition yet: to cross Antarctica, from coast to coast. At that time, it had never been done before and was widely believed to be impossible. 

Yet, it was because of that widely held belief that Shackleton decided to do it. It was the most daring and audacious expedition he could think of, and therefore, the one he had to undertake.

A recreation of Shackleton's recruitment notice, which he used to gather many of his men.

A recreation of Shackleton's recruitment notice, which he used to gather many of his men.

In December of 1914, he set sail towards Antarctica with a 27-man crew, and his ship, Endurance, which he named after his family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus - "by endurance we conquer."

The conditions were far worse than Shackleton had anticipated, and by January of 1915, they we’re completely stuck and trapped in a floating sea of ice. Immediately, all of their plans went out the window. What started as an ambitious expedition had quickly turned into a desperate struggle for survival. They were forced to abandon their original plan, and spent the next two years battling through the arctic and fighting for their lives. Eventually, after an epic 17-day journey through the open ocean in a lifeboat, Shackleton found help, borrowed a new ship, rescued his men, and got everyone home alive.

Although it was a failed attempt, what Shackleton is remembered for was his grit, leadership, emotional strength, his attitude, and his ability to unite his men under terrible circumstances. In addition, he’s remembered for how he decided to live his life. He didn’t settle for something safe and secure, but instead, found the greatest challenge he could possibly conceive of, and went for it guns blazing. 

So, what is the test?

For Bryan, anytime he’s considering a new venture, or already working on one, and going after various goals, he will ask himself:

Is this the most audacious goal I could be going after, or thing I could be doing with my life, and does it meet Shackleton’s threshold?

If the answer is no, then he has to ask himself, why waste his time with it? Life is short, and it’s a reminder for Bryan to spend his time only going after the things that truly matter. Or as Steve Rennie says, "listen to the screams, not the whispers." If the answer is yes, then it helps him get his head in the right spot - bringing the same level of determination and tenacity that Shackleton embodied, and that is required for going after any new challenge. 

For me, it serves as a great reminder that my fears are often disguised as being big, but are actually small. For my podcast, Story Riot, I usually have at least one moment every week where I start to question everything. It could be triggered by no one downloading my podcast, people who I thought would help support it don’t, people I want to interview not emailing me back, etc., etc. At times, it will start to feel like the wheels are coming off, and I’m wasting my time.

But then, when I ask myself Bryan's magical question, I’m brought back to reality. And the reality is, I’m not even close to Shackleton's threshold. In fact, my podcast isn’t the most audacious thing I could be doing. I could absolutely raise the stakes, try harder, and assume more responsibility and risk. It forces me to realize my fears are irrational and insignificant, and that men have put themselves through significantly more audacious endeavors in life - and have survived. Struggling to grow a podcast isn't a big problem. Being stranded on a sheet of ice for two years is. Any fear or self-doubt I have usually gets replaced with enthusiasm, and it helps me reconnect with the deeper reasons behind why I decided to start this podcast in the first place. 

So, the next time you’re at your job or working on a business, and some self-doubt starts to creep in, ask yourself: does this thing I'm worried about meet Shackleton’s threshold? Is it the most audacious goal or thing I could be doing with my life right now?

And if not, then what are you worried about, and what are you waiting for?