After winning the Open Women’s Division of the NSSA in 2002, thirteen-year-old surfer, Bethany Hamilton, was just beginning what others assumed to be a bright and favored surfing career. All of that changed October 31, 2003 when Hamilton lost her left arm to a 14-foot-long tiger shark, losing over 60% of her blood during the attack.
And yet, as with many of our favorite tales, rather than giving up, Hamilton pressed onward, teaching herself to surf with one arm and going on to become a professional surfer and win 1st place in the NSSA National Competition only a year after the shark attack.
When looking back on that fateful day in 2003, Hamilton notes, “I wouldn’t change what happened to me because then I wouldn’t have this chance, in front of you all, to embrace more people than I ever could have with two arms.”
It’s the heartening story we all love to hear, and the type of grit that we admire most in famous people throughout history.
We hear these stories of individuals like Bethany Hamilton and it’s easy to set her apart as an anomaly and exception to the rule, seeing a visible separation between her and the rest of us.
And yet, the reason Bethany Hamilton’s story resonates with so many of us may have less to do with her athletic prowess or her senseless tragedy, and more to do with her unique use of a simple psychological trick that sets the good apart from the great.
It’s called mental framing and, when used correctly, it can change the way you see everything in the world around you for a better, more vibrant life.
What Is “Mental Framing?”
The concept of mental framing first began with the foundational work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, made famous for the coining of “prospect theory.”
“Prospect theory” is the human tendency to make irrational decisions regarding losses and gains, preferring loss-avoidance tactics in the face of an equal or greater reward.
According to prospect theory, when deciding between keeping $50 or betting $50 (with the potential to lose $10 or gain an additional $50), a person is more likely to avoid betting than risk the loss of their original money, even in the face of greater gains.
Since this initial discovery, psychologists have gone on to learn that human decision-making is far more irrational—based on their emotions, implicit logics, and belief systems—than it is a rational, straightforward process.
This means that our decision to stay in a job or leave it, take a risk or avoid it, view failure as a stopping point or as an opportunity for growth, has very little to do with any well-reasoned argument and far more to do with how we shape our minds and perspective.
Knowing this, we give ourselves the power to control our reality and destiny, all by the mental frame we give any one scenario. We can see a job loss as a failure or, instead, as an opportunity to find a better fit that aligns with our passions and goals.
How Mental Framing Leads To A Growth Mindset
If imposter syndrome (or the perception of personal incompetence/self-doubt) teaches us to think that we are never good enough, then mental framing teaches us that one of the biggest things holding us back may very well be ourselves.
What one person may perceive as a failure, another may perceive as a learning opportunity to further hone skill and talent. Mental framing is most commonly associated with grit, or the attitude of unrelenting persistence toward a goal of achievement. While the journey may be long and slow, mental framing is the consistent reminder that we are one step closer to any given goal than we were before.
As with anything, mastery and competence both take time, and mental framing allows us the perspective to see the progress rather than feel deterred by the lack of instant gratification. This is what psychologists consider a growth mindset, or the belief that your qualities and competencies are a culmination of your effort.
Mental framing is especially helpful in the world of job-seeking and career decision-making, as it gives us the confidence to sell ourselves as competent individuals, rather than playing the comparison game and wondering if we could ever be good enough.
Mental Framing & Empathy
Beyond mental framing and a growth mindset, incorporating mental framing can also directly impact how you view others in your life and the world around you. Depending on your mental frame, you can either assume positive or negative intent.
It’s the difference between thinking that the person intentionally cut you off while driving to be rude versus thinking there may be more context to the action, whether it be a family emergency or an important interview or maybe even not paying careful enough attention to the situation. With a positive mental frame, we can allow ourselves to see the very best in people, or inversely, the worst.
Life can be difficult, and often filled with grief and senseless tragedy, and mental framing does not discount that. Rather, what mental framing allows us to do is choose growth over failure, light over darkness, and joy over grief. We can be sad for our losses, and also see the goodness that continues to persist around us.
Although mental framing can be difficult to master, that shift in mindset can create dramatic ripples throughout your life—in terms of career, relationships, self-esteem, and so much more.
So today, right now, ask yourself the frame you want for today, in this moment and place in time. Choose to make today the best you can, seeing setbacks as opportunities, failure as growth, and each day as a new day to be a better, brighter version of yourself.
Photo: Dana Drosdick