This week a couple of people asked me about frames and reframing and how I got into using this particular approach to personal development, so I thought I’d share a quick piece about this. Our courses in particular includes lots and lots of different frames for solving practical problems in many areas of life.
What Is a Frame?
A frame is a way of representing a problem or situation. With respect to self-development, a frame typically assigns meaning to events.
I think you’ll ready understand this with a simple example.
Suppose someone says: My wife cheated on me.
The word “cheated” is a way of representing events. Cheating implies that the wife broke a rule or did something inherently wrong. This framing casts her actions as problematic. Apparently she did something she wasn’t supposed to do. She crossed a line.
If you use that frame, it’s surely going to influence how you approach the situation and the people involved.
But is that the only frame that could be used for the same events? No, of course not.
What was the apparent event? The wife supposedly had sex with someone else. By itself that event doesn’t mean anything. But of course humans love to assign meaning, partly because the assignment of meaning motivates us to make decisions, take actions, and make sense of the world.
So what other frames could we use here?
Here are some other possible frames for the same events:
- My wife enjoyed herself with a new side partner.
- My wife craved some extra variety and had a lovely fling.
- My wife is polyamorous.
- I have a really horny wife.
- My wife is good at making people happy.
- I’m in an open marriage.
- My wife hates me and is doing this to get back at me.
- I haven’t been as attentive to my wife as I should have, so no wonder she strayed.
- My wife is a sinner and is going to hell.
- My wife has ruined our family.
- Many people will assume that she strayed because of me.
- My wife must have a mental disorder.
- My wife has unmet needs.
- Apparently I’m not enough for her.
- We never should have moved to this city because it obviously corrupted my wife.
- My wife has been taken advantage of by some marriage-ruining creep.
- Human beings are such sluts.
- All of my relationships end in ruin; it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.
Some frames assume that the marriage is broken or threatened while other frames don’t. Some frames define an event as a problem while other frames might even define that same event as normal or even as an opportunity. Some frames assign blame to individuals while other frames don’t blame anyone.
This is similar to looking at events optimistically or pessimistically except that you have many more options available to you.
Where Did I Learn Framing?
I would say that I learned this concept from computer programming and also from mathematics. I started learning to code when I was 10 years old, and I learned that there are multiple ways to transform an idea into computer code.
Any problem can be defined in different ways. Some definitions make a problem easier or more efficient to solve. Other definitions make a problem more difficult to solve.
When I was writing computer games in the 1990s to run on 386, 486, and Pentium computers, efficient code was important. Otherwise the game would run too slowly to be playable. Why write 100 lines of code if you could use a 10-line solution instead? The difference often came down to how I approached the problem to begin with.
It wasn’t enough to just solve a problem. I often had to find more efficient solutions than the standard approaches if I wanted to do something creative. Sometimes the best way to devise a more efficient solution was to step back and define the problem in a different way.
Suppose a game needs to do a lot of trigonometric calculations for objects that spin or rotate. If you want those calculations to be done faster, you could try to optimize your code to be more efficient. But you could also look at the problem from a different angle, no pun intended. You could instead pre-calculate as much as possible and save it in a lookup table, which is generally much faster than doing calculations while the game is running. The sine of 40º is always going to be the same, so there’s no need to compute it more than once, and the same goes for every other angle you may need to compute. Instead of having your game doing sine and cosine calculations during gameplay, you could just precompute and save all the sine and cosine figures for every 1º or 0.1º (whatever resolution you desired) and then just load the precomputed answers when you need them.
On a similar note, I remember learning a technique called compiled sprites. Instead of saving animations as graphics and using standard functions to display them on the screen, for a couple of games I did some extra preprocessing of the graphics to essentially turn them into code. So if I needed to draw a dragon on the screen, I bypassed drawing the dragon with a general purpose drawing algorithm (i.e. a block transfer or “blitting” function), and I had the computer pre-generate custom code specifically to draw the dragon in a more efficient way. So I basically reframed the dragon as code instead of as graphics.
I suppose a less geeky analogy would be if instead of filling your fridge with food from the grocery store, which you must assemble into meals, you had someone come over and do a week’s cooking for you, and then they stored all the complete meals in your fridge for you to enjoy later. Some years ago I hired a local chef to do that for a few months, and it was indeed more efficient to have a fridge full of meals instead of a fridge full of ingredients to make meals.
In mathematics I also learned that if I wanted to solve a problem, there were usually many ways to do it. Sometimes a problem that would take 20 steps to solve with the textbook approach could be solved in 5 steps if I just looked at it from a different angle to begin with.
So I got into reframing for efficiency reasons. The purpose of reframing was to find a smarter or quicker way to solve a given problem. It’s not about working harder. It’s about using less energy and effort to get a similar or better result.
Reframing for Motivation
There’s also the fun and engagement factor to consider. Some approaches to problem solving are boring while other approaches can be more lively and stimulating.
When I was younger, I often got stuck partway through big creative projects. I was good at starting big projects, but I wouldn’t always be able to maintain enough momentum to finish them, especially when I ran into setbacks along the way. I suffered from a lot of partially finished projects. Of course when you don’t finish a creative project like a computer game, it provides no value for anyone else, and you get paid nothing. At least that’s how it worked while I was an indie developer. I invested years in projects that were never completed. They were learning experiences at least, but it would have been nicer if I could have moved more of them across the finish line.
Reframing helped me remedy that situation, so now I’m way better at fully finishing big projects. They may sometimes take longer than I expect, but I have gotten good at finishing them. Since 2018 I launched and published 4 major courses which collectively include more than 200 lessons as well as tons of bonus content. Soon we’ll be launching our 5th course, called Guild, which is about social alignment, and I’m super confident that will be completed too. Reaching this point also gives me more flexibility to experiment since even when I’m doing something a bit unusual, I know how to stay motivated till it’s complete, and I have reframing to thank for that.
Instead of framing course development as a solo creative endeavor, I frame each new course as a social experience. Instead of going into my cave and working on my biggest creative projects alone for months on end, my creative projects are more like spirited parties that I invite people to attend. So first I invite the people, and then I engage with them and do my best to serve them creatively, lesson by lesson, till the course is complete. This approach is very effective and satisfying, and it’s a win for all involved.
This people-first framing works really well for me, as opposed to the content-first framing I tried using in the past. I realized I also use this framing for blogging, which is why I’m still actively blogging after more than 17 years on this path, and I still feel motivated to do it. Sometimes I take weeks off from blogging, often because I’m being more active in Conscious Growth Club or maybe working on personal projects, but I still enjoy writing and intend to keep going with it. I don’t think of blogging so much as writing content but rather as communicating with real people. The content framing often feels a bit cold and even creepy to me… so blah and lifeless. I find it more motivating to know that I’m always writing for real human beings, and the motivate to write arises from the flow of energy among us.
For many days in a row now, I’ve been reading feedback from people about their intentions and desires for the new Guild course. I emailed my list 8 days ago and shared a bit about the course, inviting people to tell me more about their social challenges. As I read and take notes and reflect upon what people are sharing, my motivation to do the course is increasing day by day, and so is the flow of creative ideas for what we could include. I’m also thinking of doing something a bit more creative format-wise for this course.
I’m not sure what the exact launch date will be, but I always get a strong signal when it’s time to launch. And I often find that this synchs up pretty well with when people are feeling ready to begin. So I like using the framing of allowing the universe… or my intuition… or the collective social energy of all involved to help move the project forward at just the right pacing. Admittedly I still sometimes struggle with being patient when I feel that progress is a bit slower than I’d like, but it never actually helps to force it. As long as the social energy has been invited in, I know that I need to trust the way this energy likes to engage and let it work its magic, and an avalanche of creative flow will soon follow. I can always tell that we’re getting closer to launching when the feeling of motivation starts amping up.
Applying Framing to Personal Development
Whenever I get stuck with a particularly challenging problem, I like to step back and consider how I’m framing it. What is the problem I’m trying to solve? What is the goal I’m trying to achieve?
I love to write out my intentions and reflect upon them. That helps me see their potential limitations. Then I consider other ways of looking at the same situation. What other angles could I use? What other kinds of intentions could I set?
Being flexible with my framing allows me to solve many problems more enjoyably and more efficiently.
I especially pay attention to how a particular framing affects me emotionally. Many common frames seem very boring, and if I use them I’m not going to feel very motivated. Trying to make more money is one example – by itself that framing is an all-around dud.
I prefer to think of money as the result of doing something fun, engaging, creative, and socially beneficial. That may be why I haven’t had a job or a boss in 30 years. I like to work on interesting creative projects where money is a predictable side effect. And since my creative projects are framed as social experiences, instead of asking how I can make more money, I will ask a different kind of question, such as: What kind of growth experience would people appreciate next?
So I don’t fuss over jobs or money. I think of my work life as a stream of interesting shared experiences. This is probably closer to how people think when they’re traveling or on vacation. If your work isn’t at least as motivating and rewarding as your vacations, perhaps you ought to reframe your entire approach to work.
Don’t be stubborn and clingy with your frames. If a frame isn’t working beautifully for you, drop it and try a different frames. There are so many other frames to explore that it makes zero sense to remain clingy with a frame that isn’t even giving you the results you want.
I often say to people: Don’t blame yourself. Blame the frame. There’s no point in beating yourself up for getting poor results if you’ve been using the wrong tool for the job. Just pause and acknowledge that you’ve been using the wrong tool all along. Then reach for a different tool. And keep trying different tools (or frames) till you find something that truly works.
Frames Versus Beliefs
The idea of beliefs and getting your beliefs right is very popular in personal development circles. Personally I think this is really lame and gets a lot of people stuck. Sometimes I wish I could purge this field of its clinginess with beliefs. We don’t actually know how this reality works, so any belief is just a guess anyway. Historically speaking, our guesses are usually wrong or at best inaccurate.
A belief is basically a frame that you weave into your identity. Is that a good idea? Well… imagine taking a hammer and gluing it to your palm. You’ll surely get really good at hammering if you do that, but it’s going to get in your way and limit your performance sooner or later. Heck… maybe that’s why your wife cheated on you. 😉
You can use beliefs, but do so very sparingly. I’m willing to weave veganism into my identity and make that a permanent part of my character because I’ve been vegan for more than 25 years, and there are no appealing alternatives, nor do I expect there ever will be. I’m happy to solidify that framing in terms of my behaviors. Even so, I still have access to the frames that I used before I was vegan, and while I don’t use them behaviorally anymore, I can still use them to understand other people’s behaviors.
Most of the time, however, it’s best to stay nimble and flexible with your framing. I don’t subscribe to any religions or philosophical systems because they’re all limiting. I prefer to keep my mindset adaptable because that gives me many ways to solve problems and keep making interesting improvements. Just as I learned to write computer code in multiple programming languages, I like being able to think with different mindsets. There isn’t one mindset to rule them all. There are some really powerful and versatile tools, but I don’t need any of them glued to my palm.
One thing I’ve noticed is that I seem to be getting happier as I age. I find life more satisfying and fulfilling. I enjoy my work and my relationships with other people more. I feel more centered. And these feelings don’t seem to come from taking pride in accomplishments so much. They seem to arise more from building up my reframing skills, problem-solving skills, and social skills.
Don’t try to be a one-frame wonder. This life is full of mystery, and none of us really know how it works behind the scenes. There is no singular answer to life, the universe, and everything. So be curious. Keep exploring and experimenting, especially with your mindset. Discover through direct testing which frames and mindsets work best for you. And please don’t get clingy with frames that aren’t filling your life with beauty and delight. If a frame isn’t working for you, look upon it with fresh doubt. Doubt is actually the key to reframing, such as when you say, Hmmm… I doubt this is the best way to define the problem. Could there be a better way of looking at this?
Ya think? Of course there’s a better way.