SURVIVORS, and most people who become very successful, are good
at reframing. The ability to see things in a helpful way is one
of the skills that gives them persistence and the ability to
endure. A survivor who became very successful was Nelson Mandela.
And, not surprisingly, he was good at reframing.
When Mandela was in prison in South Africa,
for example, he was a political prisoner and of course many of
the other prisoners were simply thugs. Mandela wrote, I
saw the gang members not as rivals but as raw material to be
converted. And Mandela, in fact, recruited many of them
to help in the cause (ending Apartheid).
He could have legitimately seen the gang
members as bad people, dangerous, and viewed it as a terrible
misfortune to be thrown in with men like those. Nobody would
argue with that point of view.
But he saw these men through the frame
of his goal. Instead of wishing things were different so he could
accomplish his goal, he had the attitude, How can I use
circumstance as they are to accomplish my goal?
That question can help you reframe your
circumstances. When you use it this way, your goal becomes a
lens you see the world through, and it can reframe setbacks with
the all-purpose question, How can I use this to accomplish
Mandela had dedicated himself to his mission.
The South African government responded by cracking down harder
and harder. Did that discourage Mandela? One possible way to
see the situation was demoralizing: The more we try, the
harder they make it for us, so it would be best to give up. We
That way of seeing the situation is certainly
valid, but of course, the goal could not have been achieved with
that point of view.
Mandela had an attitude more like this:
I will fight until we have our freedom jail, beatings,
whatever I have to endure. He eventually reframed it this
way: The harder they suppress us, the more justified we
are in fighting them. The more repressive the government, the
more determined people will be to fight for their freedom.
Thats the same reframe Gandhi used. The reframe gave their
followers fortitude and helped them gain new converts.
Let me point out here that these reframes
were not pulled out of a hat magically. Both of these men spent
the time to think. They came up with many ideas and discarded
most of them.
And when you have a challenge or difficulty
or setback and you want to reframe it, take longer than thirty
seconds to come up with something. Give it some thought. Come
up with lots of ideas. You will be able to find a good reframe.
That will change the way you think about it which will change
the way you feel about it which will change what you do about
it, and make you more effective.
IT HAS TO BE REAL
youve seen the movie, Stand and Deliver, youre familiar with
Jaime Escalante. He was an immigrant from Bolivia who taught
math at Garfield High a run-down, dangerous ghetto school
in East L.A.
Most of the students parents were
immigrants from Mexico. These students felt they had no future
and they couldnt care less about mathematics, especially
higher mathematics. But Escalante inspired a group of them to
study for and take the AP Calculus exam this is the Advanced
Placement exam for higher mathematics and most of them
passed! The following year, even more of them passed. The next
year, even more.
How did he do it? He used a reframe to
motivate himself to do the impossible against overwhelming
The natural and automatic way to see the
kids at the school is They give me no respect, they are
lazy, they dont pay attention, they dont care, they
dont do their homework, theyre not interested in
school, the system is a disaster and works against reform, and
the students will probably never amount to anything. Ill
just go through the motions here and try to get moved to another
Thats the point of view many of the
teachers had. Their demoralization was almost total. Escalante,
however, saw the situation with a different frame. He thought,
I need to find a way to get their attention.
This is a purpose reframe. He wanted to
teach math. The only students he had were these. But to teach
them math, he had to get their attention, and that became his
focus. You can see that if that was his focus, rather than seeing
their lack of attention as proof the kids were hopeless, it was
now simply feedback Okay, that didnt work.
I wonder what else I could try?
He saw it as a challenge. How can these
kids be reached? His reframe motivated him to find innovative
ways to teach. He saw the setbacks along the way through the
frame of his goal he wanted to teach and inspire these
students, to show them with hard work they might find a way out
of their dismal surroundings.
And Escalante succeeded. Many of his students
went on to college and promising professional careers
almost a miraculous result in those seemingly hopeless circumstances.
Reframing can make a huge difference by
intensifying your motivation. And remember, motivation is not
just nice, it is tremendously powerful. What one person can do
when sufficiently motivated is sometimes astonishing.
Sichan Siv, for example, came to the United
States as a refugee from Cambodia. He barely escaped the country
with his life. When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia,
it brought starvation and privation and hopelessness throughout
Sichans entire family was eventually
executed (they were too educated a crime punishable by
death). Sichan was the only one of his family to make it out
of the country alive.
In America, he worked hard. His first jobs
were low-paying labor work, sixteen hours a day. And yet he was
glad to do it. Not just lip service, he was very happy. He couldnt
believe his good fortune! He was in America now and nobody was
trying to kill him.
He eventually got more education and better
jobs. For a long time, he had a little note posted above his
desk that said, The road to success in America is paved
with hard work.
This is a comparison reframe. On the one
hand, sixteen-hour days are exhausting and difficult especially
scrubbing floors and washing dishes. Such long days of work would
seem like torture to a lot of people. But compared with suffering
and actual torture and no prospect of a better future, the sixteen-hour
days in America were wonderful. His past (and his point of view)
reframed the long, hard days into a privilege.
A good attitude and hard work tend to pay
off, and Sichan eventually got a job as an assistant at the U.N.
And then one day he got a call from the White House inviting
him to become the first Asian refugee to ever be appointed as
a ranking Presidential aide.
Sichan was able to work hard and keep a
good attitude, in part because of his reframe. Instead of feeling
bad because he had to work so hard, he felt glad to have the
privilege to work so hard and get somewhere with his hard
Why did he feel good and work hard? Because
thoughts produce feelings, and feelings produce action. The thought,
poor me produces negative feelings, which produce
bad actions. The thought, Im fortunate to have the
opportunity to work toward my goal produces just the opposite.
But you cant just say Im
fortunate. For a reframe to have any effect on your feelings,
it must be genuine. If you dont believe what youre
saying, it will have no impact on your feelings. This is not
a magic formula it requires you to use your mind, not
robotically repeat affirmations. You have to really
look at your circumstances and think about them until you can
come up with something real that makes you genuinely feel this
When I was working on the manuscript of
this book, I often felt disheartened when it seemed to take forever,
or there was too much material to work with, or organizing it
seemed like a boggling task.
But one way I reframed it worked well for
me (because it was genuine): Even if this book never gets done
even if the worst case scenario happens and I die before
its finished I need to learn this material. This
reframed the job so I was more patient and persistent. I was
more motivated during those times when the end result seemed
very far away.
Since one of my strongest motivations is
to learn, I was able to protect myself from disheartening myself
with an all-or-nothing point of view.
My reframe worked because it was real.
I really do want to master this material and writing a book on
the subject is a great way to do that.
movie and book, Alive, is the true story of two boys who
reframed their circumstances and saved the survivors of a plane
crash in the Andes mountains. Nando and Cannessa had suffered
with their fellow survivors, hoping for a rescue that never came.
So the two decided to hike out of the mountains themselves.
They had no warm-weather gear, no hiking
gear, they didnt know where they were, they didnt
know how far they would have to hike, and they had very little
food. First had to climb the enormous peak in front of them.
When they got to the top, they were hoping to find green valleys
on the other side, but all they could see were more snow-covered
mountains stretching into the distance.
They were filled with hope as they climbed
that first mountain, but when they saw the endless mountain ranges
they would have to climb, they thought their chances of making
it home alive were slim to the point of hopeless. They were probably
going to die in these mountains, they thought. But if they went
back to the plane, they would be even more certain of dying in
the Andes. If they stayed where they were, they would freeze
to death. Their situation seemed hopeless.
After they got over the shock and horror,
they decided as long as they were going to die, at least they
would die walking in the direction of salvation.
This is a reframe. Instead of seeing it
as an all-or-nothing goal, where failure was almost certain,
they decided to view every step in the direction of salvation
as a victory. They would not give in. They would fight as long
as they could.
Their ordeal was long and difficult, but
they kept walking. They didnt give up. Their decision to
die walking to the West cast a new light on their suffering and
kept their attitude determined even in the face of overwhelming
If they had stuck to the first and most
natural point of view that came to mind, they would have been
demoralized themselves, they would not have struggled on, and
they would have given up and died on the mountain. Behold the
power of a reframe.
Read next: Time,
Place, and People Reframes.
Go back to the beginning of the series:
A Way of Looking