REFRAME is almost a cliche: Its a learning experience.
This is an all-purpose, fall-back reframe in case you cant
think of anything else, and it is almost always valid. You can
gain some wisdom from almost any adversity if you are determined
to do so.
Rather than waste time feeling bad or beating
yourself up or lamenting your loss, this reframe boosts your
resolve to change your future actions.
In their quest to survive the savage sea,
had many learning experiences. For example, on the fourth day
on their raft and dingy, he was trying to catch a fish. He had
a spool of fishing line aboard, a wire leader (to keep sharp
teeth from biting through the line) and a lure. His family was
very hungry and needed to eat.
He cast the line out again and again, but
no fish seemed interested. Then he saw three good-sized fish
and excitedly cast in their direction only to see the spool,
the line, the leader, and the lure all arc through the air and
sink into the depths! He had made a foolish mistake. He couldnt
believe hed been that stupid. That was the only fishing
line they had! And that was the only lure they had.
But rather than wasting time beating himself
up or lamenting his loss, he immediately determined never to
make that kind of mistake again. It was a classic learning
I resolved to examine every move
before I made it, wrote Dougal, and every decision
before we acted upon it, for sooner or later, because I had overlooked
something, someone would die.
A BETTER EXPLANATION
One characteristic of a good explanation
is: you can do something about it. If you explain your failed
marriage with something like women are heartless,
first of all, it's not true, it's also unnecessarily depressing,
but more important for our discussion here, women are heartless
is automatically disqualified as a legitimate explanation of
a setback because you cant do anything about it.
In other words, if you come up with an
explanation you cant do anything about, keep looking. Come
up with something else because your explanation is worthless.
It may sound good. And it may even be true, but if it doesnt
help, keep looking. Find an explanation that you can do something
For example, Hernando de Soto explained
poverty differently (and changed the lives of thousands). It
started one day as he stood on a bridge in a town in Peru. He
could see two communities on either side of the river. One was
clearly prosperous, with businesses and big houses. The other
side was completely different: no houses at all, but makeshift
huts of cardboard, mud, and plywood. Each community had about
the same number of people.
He was curious how this happened, so he
talked with people on both sides of the river, trying to find
out more. He discovered that both communities were founded by
Latin American Indian immigrants some on either side were
even from the same village.
Hernandos curiosity was fully aroused
now. Why were these two communities so different? None of the
usual (demoralizing) explanations seemed to apply. Here was a
kind of perfect natural experiment that made it clear the usual
theories couldnt possibly explain what was happening.
For example, one of the prevailing explanations
for why Third World poverty is so pervasive in these regions
is that because Indians are so communal, free enterprise systems
dont work with them.
Look at that theory. Its a theory
you really cant do anything about, unless you wanted to
try making Indians less communal. Its a demoralizing
explanation and if Hernando wasnt looking at the stark
contrast of these two communities, it would be a hard theory
to refute. But here they were, the same "communal"
people, one group prospering, one group living in poverty.
Another, equally demoralizing theory is
that Yankie imperialists were exploiting the people.
But again, the difference between these two groups could not
be explained by that theory.
Now Hernando just had to find out. He kept
digging into the matter and found a man who had worked for over
twenty years with the Housing Ministry for the area. The man
was now retired. Hernando interviewed him, trying to get the
full picture of how these two communities developed over time.
It turns out the two villages started the
same way. Immigrants came and settled on land nobody owned. The
leader of one of the communities relentlessly pestered the government
to grant them property rights. Eventually, the government gave
each of the residents titles to the land they had settled on.
The people across the river never did that,
and they still didnt own the land they lived on.
Now Hernando had a reframe he had
an entirely different explanation for chronic poverty. When people
own their own land, they tend to develop it, to put down roots,
to invest in their community, and to accumulate wealth.
When people dont own property, they
have no incentive to invest or develop. Their home
and possessions are all temporary. They could be evicted at any
moment without notice. Why would they build anything permanent
This new explanation created tremendous
motivation in Hernando. Something could be done about it. And
that's true for your explanations of your own setbacks. A good
explanation of the setback will raise your motivation.
Hernando was on fire. If simple ownership
could make that much difference in the level of poverty, then
he could help poor people rise out of their plight. He created
the Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD). The institute
has conducted experiments, done research, and launched grass-roots
campaigns. One campaign, for example, convinced the government
to grant land-ownership titles to tens of thousands of citizens.
This one reframe changed the lives of innumerable
HOMELESS TO HARVARD
Liz Murrays mother and father were
drug addicts who didnt pay their rent and were eventually
evicted from their apartment. Her mom was taken away to be treated
for schizophrenia and alcoholism and addiction to hard drugs.
Lizs father went to live in a shelter
for the homeless. Liz was sent to her grandfathers, but
he was abusive, so she went out on her own to live on the streets
of New York.
After her mother died of AIDS, Liz decided
to complete high school. She had never really attended school.
She enrolled in an alternative school and completed four years
of school in two years and the whole time she was homeless!
She kept her homelessness a secret from her teachers for two
When she turned 18, she wrote an essay
to apply for a New York Times scholarship, and she won. She was
accepted to Harvard University!
At the awards ceremony where she was given
the scholarship, a reporter asked Liz, How did you do this?
He was incredulous, amazed, and so was everyone else. What she
had done seemed impossible.
Liz didnt see it that way at all.
How could I not do this, she replied. My parents
showed me what the alternative was.
In other words, one way to frame her life
is: The poor girl had terrible disadvantages and basically no
hope. She was given a raw deal in life, a terrible handicap,
a wound that could never heal. Any dreams she had were pipe dreams
and could never be otherwise. This is the obvious frame.
she reframed her circumstances. After living a life like hers,
she thought, how could she possibly be stupid enough to let herself
suffer the same fate as her parents? Her circumstances motivated
her because she saw what happens to people who are not motivated
toward positive goals. Because of her reframe, her terrible circumstances
actually became her advantage. It drove her on to accomplish
the impossible. (This amazing true story was made into an inspiring
movie: Homeless to Harvard - The Liz Murray Story.)
When bad stuff happens, see if you can
reframe it into an advantage. And if something happens you cant
do anything (or dont want to do anything about) change
the way you interpret it so you feel energized and motivated
and get more done.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor
of California, He told Jim Lorimer that he liked nothing
better than the feeling of living life on the outer edge of his
energy and ability.
Long before that, wrote Laurence
Leamer in his book, Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger,
if the Davis-backed bond issue was found to be illegal,
the state would find itself in a fiscal crisis unprecedented
in its history. Nonetheless, the governor was smiling
not a masked grimace, but an authentic expression of his emotions.
He loved it when life was on the edge, and the difference between
hope and despair no thicker than a dime.
Schwarzenegger has found a way to see challenges
as something desirable, something he likes. It makes him feel
genuinely good. Hes not faking his good attitude. He has
trained himself to reframe problems as opportunities, and has
enough experience actually turning problems into opportunities
that when a problem comes along, he genuinely feels good about
There is a big difference between this
and someone who tries to appear positive, who puts
on a happy face, who tries desperately to believe that everything
happens for a reason."
Never try to believe nonsense. The execution
of thousands of people in ethnic purges is not part
of some wonderful plan. This information on reframing is not
carte blanch for thinking up and trying to believe imaginative
nonsense. Find reframes that fit reality and that dont
contradict what you know about the world. And, ideally, reframes
that make you feel stronger. This isnt easy.
One of the reasons positive thinking
has a bad rap is people do it the easy way with phrases like,
Everything happens for the best. That point of view
is offensive to people who have lost a loved one to a tragic
accident, for example. It is an easy, all-purpose reframe that
glosses over the ugliness of life, and doesnt change your
feelings because you know it isnt true. In other words,
because you know deep down it is not true, it can't really make
you feel energetic or motivated. It is just lip service.
Use your head, take some time, put out
some effort, and make good reframes, and they can really and
seriously change your life.
Read next: Comparison
Go back to the beginning of the series:
A Way of Looking