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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.



MOST 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 my goal?”

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 can’t win.”

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.” That’s 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.



If you’ve seen the movie, Stand and Deliver, you’re 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 couldn’t 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 odds.

The natural and automatic way to see the kids at the school is “They give me no respect, they are lazy, they don’t pay attention, they don’t care, they don’t do their homework, they’re not interested in school, the system is a disaster and works against reform, and the students will probably never amount to anything. I’ll just go through the motions here and try to get moved to another school.”

That’s 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 didn’t 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 the country.

Sichan’s 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 couldn’t 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 work.

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, “I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work toward my goal” produces just the opposite.

But you can’t just say “I’m fortunate.” For a reframe to have any effect on your feelings, it must be genuine. If you don’t believe what you’re 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 is good.”

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 it’s 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.

The 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 didn’t know where they were, they didn’t 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 didn’t 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 obstacles.

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

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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