Some years ago, I was able to convince my eldest son to go for a run with me. He was 14 at the time. He was plenty capable. It was a short, 6km, loop from our home that would take about a half hour. The run would take us past a golf course nestled amongst mountains, then down a hill where we travel along the lake front, we then wander up a private golf cart path through our community containing a couple hills. One hill towards the end of the run does consistently produce a challenge. As we topped this hill, we were both breathing heavily. My son converted his jog into a walk, and I kept going. I got home a couple minutes ahead of him.
After he arrived home and cooled down a bit, I thanked him for coming along and congratulated him on his efforts. After another minute or so, I asked him if I could offer an observation. He said, with about as much enthusiasm as an inmate being led down the Green Mile, “sure”. I observed that, “at the top of the last hill it seemed we were both suffering. We were both probably feeling similar discomfort. Let me guess, was your heartbeat racing, lungs burning, head pounding, and leg muscles aching? Because mine certainly were. There was nothing easy, fun, or comfortable about those moments. I think the difference at that point is I have done this enough to look forward to this moment. I try to view it as the point of maximum accomplishment. I try to tell myself that this is what I have set out on the run to accomplish. Cresting this hill while holding my jog is the point. I have reached my goal. Every step forward will now be easier. I am rewarded with a wonderful mountain view in the distance of which I never tire. I am doing something that is making me better. I am earning future sins (or treats). I am doing something I really like with someone I really care about. Right now, I’m right where I want to be…”
I went on to offer, “I’m guessing you didn’t share my warm and fuzzy sentiment? You were probably thinking something else at that spot? Perhaps, something like ‘this sucks’, my Dad’s a ‘such and such’, ‘why am I bothering’, ‘who cares’. Am I close? Physically, we were feeling the same, yet our mental views determined our mutual willingness to continue and persevere.” Our personal perception of an event or experience influences our performance. This is a choice that is entirely up to us.
Psychologists formally call this concept reframing. It is the idea of trying to interpret any given circumstance in a way most favorable to you in that moment. Though we can`t choose what will happen to us, we always have the ability to determine how to interpret something. There’s no question this is easier said than done. Getting oneself out of a negative thinking spiral can be terribly tough in the moment. It, like anything, requires conscientious effort and practice to try to manage. Reframing is an effort to change our perception of a given set of facts. We are accepting the facts as they are. We’re not denying them. We’re not pretending they aren’t there. In our jogging story, we accept that our heart is racing, our lungs bursting, and muscles screaming, yet we choose to focus on why these facts are exactly what we’re after. We are actively interpreting our circumstances in a way that will help us. (The above is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Earn Everything).
Have you ever lost your job? Been laid off, fired? Have you had a relationship in which you were deeply invested end suddenly? Have you ever dropped the ball when given responsibility for something? Have you experienced something which when it happened felt like it was the worst thing that could happen? Did you think your world was coming to an end? Did you think it was something which would affect the rest of your life in some negative way? When we’re fired or suffer a break up, our initial impulse may be to question ourselves. We ask things like what did I do wrong or what is wrong with me? These questions lead us backwards or down into depression. We doubt our decisions. We question our abilities. We get lost in what Scott Adams affectionately calls Loserthink.
Assuming your experience was sometime in the past, how do you look at it now? Is your view the same today as it was then? Is it reasonable to suggest that the further you are from the event that originally troubled you, the less you are concerned by it now? How is it that the same event when viewed from two moments in time can mean very different things? Is it just the passage of time that provides perspective? Is there something we can do which helps us interpret or reinterpret events constructively sooner, even in real time?
Right Where I want to be is the idea that we are little more than the stories we tell ourselves. We should, therefore, tell ourselves better stories. How we interpret or perceive a situation has a significant influence over how we will perform or adapt to a situation. The same facts can be interpreted in different ways which, in turn, lead to varied responses. To give ourselves the best chance at making the best of our circumstances, we should be telling ourselves a story that helps us instead of one that hurts us. The stories we tell ourselves are something that is within our personal control. The interpretation of our circumstances we make can inspire us or weaken us. Our choice.
UFC 250 took place in Las Vegas in early June, 2020. One of the prelim fights involved a Featherweight battle between a wily veteran and a striving up and comer. A brother of the up and comer had passed away unexpectedly just days before the fight. The brother, only 18 years old, died in his sleep. The fighter had the weight of this tragedy as a massive distraction in the days before one of, if not the biggest, events of his life. Unfortunately, this is a story that has occurred many times in sport and life. We encounter an unexpected difficulty that shakes us to our core. The natural reaction is to want to fall to our knees, crumble, and just soak in the sadness. However, Cody Stamann used the sadness to double down on his discipline and focus and commit to going forward. He used the pain that was occupying every ounce of his body to compel himself forward. He continued to prepare with the support of his team. He battled through a gruelling fight, suffering exhaustion, being battered and bruised for three five minute rounds to be rewarded with a victory by decision. The true victory wasn’t the judge’s decision, but his efforts in handling himself with dignity and composure. The respect for his character was shown by opponents, commentators, and viewers from around the world. The emotional catharsis he let go immediately upon the end of the fight reflected the difficulty of bottling up and deferring intense emotions for days. Stamann was able to tell himself a story to help him move forward when faced with deep devastation.
The stories we tell ourselves can follow the questions we ask ourselves. When faced with frustration, what is our likely perspective when asking questions like “Why does this always happen to me? Why can’t I figure this out? What is wrong with me? Why are people always taking advantage of me?
Why wallow in your weakness when you can shift your perspective to one that empowers, emboldens, and explores constructive actions? Contrast with questions like “How can I use this situation to get better? When have I faced a similar challenge and succeeded? If I haven’t faced this circumstance before, who has successfully faced it and what can I learn or apply from their experiences?
In George Orwell’s 1984, the main character, Winston works in the ironically named Ministry of Truth. His job is to, when directed, dig up past historical records and news articles and edit these to reflect the “new” truth. We’re not suggesting that we rewrite our histories in a way that things didn’t happen like Winston does, but that we work to reinterpret the meaning or significance of events such that we can use them as stepping stones to progress.
The poet, John Milton, wrote “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” We can interpret things in the worst possible way and make ourselves and those around us miserable or we can choose to accept the circumstances as they are and try to interpret them in a way that can be helpful for us. We should work to question the thoughts we have, seeking to answer, how does this help?
Reframe for gain, not for pain. Nietzsche offers us a recommended default definition for difficulties. He wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” The idea is that we benefit from struggle and challenge. We want to lean in to difficulties. At a minimum, adopting this posture puts us in a position to best manage the circumstances we’re facing. It’s not a ruse, you get to choose. Embrace your place. Interpret events from the perspective that you’re right where you want to be. Doing so is accepting your agency, responsibility, and puts you in a position to put your best foot forward. Telling ourselves better stories begins by asking ourselves better questions.
Consider working to apply the idea of reframing during the challenges we’re facing during COVID. How can we view this situation such that we’re “right where we want to be”? What are some positives that have materialized for you personally in the past three and a half months? In what ways have your life improved? Have your personal priorities become clearer to you? Have you found new time to take on a new hobby? Have you signed up to learn a new skill? Have you connected with people in different ways than you had previously? Have you learned any new technology? Have you had a chance to spend more time with your immediate family? Do you have a greater appreciation now for how our individual actions can have consequences and impact on our neighbors and fellow citizens in ways we hadn’t given much thought to in the past? Have you found things for which to be grateful? Isn’t it remarkable that as separated as we’ve had to remain for some months, we’re still able to be in almost constant contact through technology?
Here’s a great example of a group that has just released an economic paper related to Alberta that attempts to paint a positive future for the beleageured Province. Or, consider that 51% of Fortune 500 companies were started during bear markets, recessions, or both as reported by the Kaufman Foundation. Perhaps, troubled times can present positive opportunities? If we look for the learnings in where we find ourselves, we open ourselves up to interpreting things more favorably improving our moods, our current actions, and, therefore, the direction we’re moving. Asking ourselves better questions leads to telling ourselves constructive stories which results in constructive actions taking us down a positive path.