JUNE 11 ― Say your son tried very hard on his Maths exam but only obtained a C.

Instead of saying “You’re a mediocre student who can’t excel, I’m disappointed” why not try something like “You’re a diligent student who doesn’t quit no matter the results, I’m proud of you”?

Obviously, the latter statement is more encouraging and empowering.

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Even more so if your son/student believes it, internalises it and keeps fighting in future exams.

The important thing is to reframe a below-average performance in terms that encourage students to keep trying without losing their enthusiasm.

Likewise, assume someone has worked for decades at a job and feels like a failure. Instead of accepting something discouraging like “I’ve worked so many years and I’m still not super-successful” a better alternative framing could be “I’ve proven I’m a survivor, I’ve provided for my family; I can’t wait for the next phase of my career!”

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According to the writer, brain-reframing seeks to transform the way we experience life by playing around with our language and 'fooling' our brain in a way which helps reduce fear and/or move us forward. — Unsplash pic
According to the writer, brain-reframing seeks to transform the way we experience life by playing around with our language and 'fooling' our brain in a way which helps reduce fear and/or move us forward. — Unsplash pic

Okay it’s a bit corny but such verbal sleights of hands are hardly a bad thing. Plus, we all use these “mind-hacks” every now and then on our kids, friends and colleagues, don’t we?

Anyway, this approach ― on switching the way we look at and think of situations ― is what Scott Adams (the man behind the Dilbert cartoons) has set his sights on in his latest book, Reframe Your Brain: The User Interface for Happiness and Success.

Not unlike Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) tactics and Cognitive Behaviorial Therapy, brain-reframing seeks to transform the way we experience life by playing around with our language and, uh, “fooling” our brain in a way which helps reduce fear and/or move us forward.

It’s almost a cliché that our reality consists of whatever our thought-life consists of. If we’re afraid of public speaking it’s more than likely we have phrases like “I’m scared because people always judge me” floating around in our heads.

Likewise, an average employee who keeps telling herself “I can do better because I have so much more to learn” will most likely achieve more than someone who keeps repeating the opposite.

The point is, according to Adams, we can have a (literally) transformed life if we only learn to transform the way we frame reality with our words and thoughts.

Old thoughts = Old reality in our head = Old life. Replace old with new and, voila, you have a new life.

Whilst this method is hardly novel or revolutionary, I think Adams has done a good job in re-presenting this approach in his characteristic humorous, lucid and clear manner.

One thing I like about the book is he gives many examples of reframes which, for me at least, brought out the contrast stronger than how I recall learning it in the past.

For example, if you’re feeling unenthusiastic about the future success of your new book or project or relationship maybe you can consider this rethink:

Usual Frame: My odds of success are low.

Reframe: Maybe I am bad at estimating the odds.

Adams goes on to explain that most of us are very poor predictors of anything anyway. So why not unshackle yourself from an inhibiting belief about your ability to estimate what may or may not happen?

If the new reframe or mind-hacking helps you be more excited and determined about your plans or projects, why not go for it?

Or if you’re the shy or socially inexperienced type, instead of avoiding functions or parties out of fear, you may consider this:

Usual Frame: Each person at the gathering is a source of potential embarrassment for me.

Reframe: Each person has a problem (social awkwardness) that I can solve right now.

The important thing Adams emphasises about reframes is that they don’t necessarily have to be true. The point is to tell your brain something so it gets the “juice” or “spring” it needs to overcome a mental obstacle, be more motivated, conquer a fear and so on.

When you perform a reframe, you’re not just trying on a new frame, you’re also questioning the previous frame (and, in so doing, reducing its power over you).

(I’m reminded here of the movie Max Payne (2008) where a cop takes a drug which makes him believe he is protected by Valkryies who are, in Norse mythology, angels who come to take those who died in battle up to Valhalla thereby empowering him with super-human courage and strength. In a sense, a brain reframe is the less sensational “version” of this sort of reality-bending drug which works independently of the truth.)

A fluid take on truth is paradoxically apt because throughout the book, naturally, Adams shares his own philosophy of the world not all of which people will find palatable, for example his perspectives on work (“Hard work isn’t as important as the illusion of hard work”, etc), society (“Marriage is a poor system”, “Fairness is the enemy of success”, etc.), ultimate reality (“We may be living in a computer simulation created by an advanced civilisation”), politics (“We pick a team and the media assigns us our opinion”, etc.) and so on.

Still (and again) the truth of these statements is, in Adams’ view, less important as their impact on the individual to deal with his/her fears, plans, dreams and all that. Mind-hacking doesn’t depend on objective “verifiable” reality, only on the impact to the individual’s cognition, drive, motivation, etc.

The book has easily 50 reframes, all of which Adams helpfully lists down in the final chapter. Whilst, as expected by Adams himself for sure, nobody will agree with all of them or find all of them equally helpful I must say it was a pleasure being reminded of the power of, well, reframing life in a different way.

I’ll conclude with one of my favourites in the book, a mind-hack we no doubt need more of today:

Usual Frame: Judge people by their mistakes.

Reframe: Judge people by how they respond to their mistakes.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.