the classic reframe: it's a learning experience



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This article is excerpted from the book, Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things. Read more about it here.



ANOTHER REFRAME is almost a cliche: It’s a learning experience. This is an all-purpose, fall-back reframe in case you can’t 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, Dougal Robertson 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 couldn’t believe he’d 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 experience” reframe.

“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.”



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 can’t do anything about it.

In other words, if you come up with an explanation you can’t 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 doesn’t help, keep looking. Find an explanation that you can do something about.

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.

Hernando’s 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 couldn’t 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 don’t work with them.

Look at that theory. It’s a theory you really can’t do anything about, unless you wanted to try making Indians less “communal.” It’s a demoralizing explanation and if Hernando wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 or valuable?

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 people.



Liz Murray’s mother and father were drug addicts who didn’t 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.

Liz’s father went to live in a shelter for the homeless. Liz was sent to her grandfather’s, 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 years.

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 didn’t 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.

But 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 can’t do anything (or don’t 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. He’s 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 it.

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 don’t contradict what you know about the world. And, ideally, reframes that make you feel stronger. This isn’t 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 doesn’t change your feelings because you know it isn’t 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 Reframes.

Go back to the beginning of the series: A Way of Looking

This article is excerpted from the book, Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things. Read more about it here.

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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