Let's say a friend complains to you one day:
"I can't seem to figure out how to get someone to go on a date with me. I'm not charismatic enough."
What goes through your mind? How do you respond?
I wonder if you had an urge to tell your friend something like:
"Well, you don't have no charisma. Remember when you...?"
"Charisma isn't all that important in dating. I think it's more about finding the right people and setting up good filters for them."
"It's less about figuring out how to GET someone to date you. It's more about making yourself the kind of person people want to date."
or something like this.
The thing the above statements are trying to do is reframe the situation so that your friend can look at things in a different light. By offering new perspectives, they might then realize they were only seeing one angle of it. After realizing this, they might feel better, more optimistic, or as though they're not the only ones facing this situation.
And ultimately, the hope is that they can gain some real traction, by no longer being stuck with their original, unhelpful frame.
However, I want to claim that the goal isn't for them to find the "correct" frame. It is not to land on the one, true answer.
Rather, it is to "loosen" up their current frame, so that it has less of a complete hold on them, blinding them from other possibilities.
It's easy to see these different perspectives when it's someone else stuck in a particular frame of mind... But what about when it's YOU who's stuck? That’s the rub, innit.
I’m going to lead us through an exercise (I’m doing it too) to try out this whole reframing business.
Imagine yourself in a situation where you feel like your hypothetical friend above. The sensation might be one of self-defeat or putting yourself down. Alternatively, it might feel like somehow the universe is conspiring against you, or that others are stupid, wrong, or evil. It might have a counterproductive or pessimistic quality. What kinds of things do you tell yourself when you fail, or feel incapable, or seem all alone in the world?
Some examples of situations with unhelpful framing (may vary wildly by person):
- I can't learn X. Learning X is for other people. I'm not the kind of person who can learn X.
- I can't seem to get a raise at work. I must be bad at my job.
- I can't seem to get a raise at work. No one at work sees my potential or appreciates me.
- No one seems to agree with me. How can everyone be so stupid?
- Ugh, I really don't feel like going to the gym right now. I'm so lazy.
- My parents want me to come home for Thanksgiving, but I told my spouse we'd spend that weekend together with just the kids. I'm trapped between two losing choices. I can't win!
Examples at a higher level of abstraction:
- When I'm losing what feels like a zero-sum situation.
- I see two options, and they both seem bad.
- I want some skill or outcome, but for some reason I can't get it, and this is bad.
- I'm on a train to Doom Town, and there's no stopping it.
Think of such a situation of your own. If you have a place to write, write down a sentence or two describing it. (Or just think it in your head.)
Briefly note how you feel about the situation you've just described.
For myself, I've written down, "I should be reading more books. I'm bad for not. People who read a lot are better than me." My feeling around it is one of inferiority, not being good enough, and a tinge of something like guilt—but not quite that either. (It's fine to be imprecise about the feeling.)
Now, boot up your brainstorming module. (Y'know, the one that tries to think of all the uses of a paperclip or a brick or whatever.)
Next, brainstorm some new frames, writing them all down, until at least five of them are ones that you could reasonably tell yourself. Things that seem somewhat plausible. If you can get more than five, bonus points!
However, don’t let yourself be convinced by any one of the answers you write. Hold off on taking any of them as the "correct" or "true" frame, and don’t spend much time (>2 seconds) evaluating them.
Take a minute or two to brainstorm, either in your head or written down.
I'll share mine:
- I could read more if I wanted to; it’s not like I can’t. Not reading more doesn’t mean I’m automatically and forever a bad person.
- I obtain better insights from doing stuff or reading shorter things like blog posts.
- I could read more if I wanted to, but I'm choosing to do other things with my time.
- I do read a fair number of books actually, relative to some.
- I think I'd rather spend more time processing books than necessarily going through a lot of them.
- People who read a lot make tradeoffs to read. They spend less time on other things.
- I'd be better off spending time learning to read more efficiently.
- I can read book reviews (like by Nick Beckstead or Scott Alexander).
- I can ask my friends to give me the gists of books they've read.
- I can skip around when reading. "Reading a book" doesn't mean reading every line.
Once you’re done with your brainstorm, check in again with how you feel. Is it any different from the feeling you noted earlier?
[ If you're willing to share your brainstorm notes and feelings with me, I'd be super curious(!) what you came up with (email link). ]
Note that none of my frames above necessarily reflect the true reality of the situation. Nor is this process trying to help me decide whether to read more or not. (This is why I ask you to hold off on updating during the brainstorm.) The direct output of this brainstorm is not very important. The epistemic update we’re making is one level higher.
The goal is to realize my original frame is just one of many possible frames, and I don’t have to feel a particular way about the situation. There are many ways to see, feel, and think. My problem is one of not even being able to consider other frames. Brainstorming alternatives helps me broaden my horizon.
If you’d like to review your brainstorm more rigorously afterwards, you can. For me, I decided to change the way I read more than how much I read.
Training the Reflex
I had recently gone through a break-up, with winter approaching, and things were looking pretty bleak. I was also having a hard time focusing on my problems whenever I tried to work on them. And when I did work on them, I didn't feel like I was making much progress.
I was getting super sick and tired of how I was making sense of the world—the way I was framing things.
I didn't really know what to do about it. I felt like I'd tried most things I could try.
Then, I started executing this Trigger-Action Plan (TAP), without even realizing that I'd installed it:
Trigger: Notice you're using a frame that has a self-defeated, pessimistic, againsty, or counterproductive quality to it.
Action: Brainstorm at least five different plausible frames.
Just executing this simple TAP was surprisingly helpful. I believe it enhanced my mental flexibility. Where before I was only drawn to narratives inside of a narrow subset, I now had a new reflex to seek ones outside of my previous range.
In fact I trained two new reflexes:
- I trained noticing when I was in a frame. I started to recognize whenever I was seeing things from a particular angle. Especially if that angle felt bad, worn out, or unhelpful.
- Then I trained getting outside of my old frames. I had no problem brainstorming five new ones, but only by actually trying for a bit. Later I started finding more creative frames and could brainstorm more than five. I started seeing more "variables" to tweak, so to speak.
Occasionally, I could skip the brainstorming step of it because I had a strong sense that I'd be able to come up with enough plausible frames if I tried. And this was enough to relieve some internal pressure and increase my breathing room.
I’d appreciate any thoughts this post generates for you, including feedback on the technique and/or feedback on the writing. If you have any at all to offer, shoot me an email!