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Reframing: An Instructive Example

States of mind

I’ve made no secret of how brilliant I think Randall Munroe, author and artist of the webcomic XKCD, is (see “Randall Munroe and Zombie Marie Curie on Greatness,” “Off-topic: Does Wanting Something Make It Real?,” and “Some Common Misconceptions“). A few days ago, he offered a really, really good example of reframing. Reframing is looking at something in a different way, and when I talk about it on this site, I’m usually talking about looking at a situation in a more constructive way. Here’s Munroe’s comic, in which he offers a means of looking at cancer that in a weird way is almost joyful.

(Sorry for the shrinking: it’s a limitation of my blog’s design. You can click on the comic to see it full size on XKCD.)

There aren’t many perks I know of to being a cancer patient, but cancer patients go through experiences more harrowing than anything most of us have ever experienced. Coming through that kind of trouble without crumpling is a feat worth some serious respect, especially considering it’s more or less impossible to know for sure whether you’ve survived cancer or not (as Munroe explains in this comic).

It’s not unlike the massive outpouring of goodwill that greeted congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords when she appeared in Washington earlier in the week to vote on the debt ceiling bill (on which subject please don’t get me started). One not-very-politically-correct thought that crossed my mind is “does she like being applauded for getting shot in the head?” Fortunately I caught up after a minute or two and realized that it was not getting shot in the head she was getting applause for, but for months of struggle to get back to her job and for showing up at a vote despite enormous hardships. In the same way, cancer patients aren’t laudable for having cancer; they’re laudable when they show courage and perseverance in carrying on despite it.

We all get visited with trouble sometimes. We get fired, lose friends and family to illness or accident, have money troubles, have romantic troubles, get hurt … and none of that is really very encouraging to think about. It’s nothing to celebrate. Yet our responses to those situations when we persevere or overcome, even if we’re not doing anything particularly out of the ordinary, are definitely something to celebrate–and making celebration out of hardship can turn your whole outlook around.

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Black belt

Self-motivation examples

I’ve always been interested in the martial arts, ever since I lingered over ads offering the secrets of judo in the backs of comic books I read as a kid. There’s a kind of promise in martial arts that it’s possible to do things with our bodies that are very nearly magical. This is the same reason I’ve been drawn to the psychology of self-motivation, because just as I’ve been learning and practicing the basic skills of Taekwondo (stances, blocks, kicks, sparring techniques, etc.), over the past several years, in that same period I’ve also been learning and practicing the basic skills of self-motivation (feedback loops, idea repair, visualization, reframing techniques, etc.). And it turns out that training in self-motivation can achieve things that are also very nearly magical.

Friday night, in Burlington, Vermont, I tested successfully for my first dan black belt in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan at the Blue Wave Taekwondo Association‘s Winter Camp. This was a big win for both my Taekwondo training and my self-motivation training.

In some ways it seems as though my self-motivation training was completely unnecessary: as I describe in this post, I love training in Taekwondo even though it’s effortful, sometimes inconvenient, and occasionally painful. Since I love to do it, why would self-motivation be necessary?

But that’s a trick question: the key to self-motivation is to love what you do, whether that thing is getting your personal records in order, writing about the psychology of self-motivation, crafting a novel, or doing the dishes. This sounds both simple and useless: sure, we get things done when we love to do them, but if we don’t love to do them, we’re out of luck, right?

But of course my sense of things is that we’re not out of luck at all. It took a conscious shift in attitude every time I dragged my tired butt up the steps to the third floor Taekwondo gym after a long day at work over the past few years, changing my thinking from “I’m too tired to work out” to “I work out whether I feel tired or not.” And it’s been improved by mindfulness, like when I had begun my testing Friday night and consciously brought myself to realize that while there was definitely pressure to do well (especially from myself), I was having the time of my life. I had told people before testing that I wasn’t nervous yet, but that I thought I would be at testing. As it turns out, I wasn’t nervous. I screwed some things up (though fortunately not badly enough to threaten my succeeding), but when something did go wrong, I just did my best to collect myself and move forward. I may have been a little hyper, and my attention was certainly scattered at times, but I wasn’t nervous: I was profoundly content.

The secret about learning to love doing something–like testing for black belt or starting a workout when you’re really tired–is that even things that seem unappealing to us at first, if they’re really furthering goals we care about, tend to become more interesting and enjoyable once we resign ourselves to doing them and get started. Loving to do something sometimes comes naturally, sure, but a lot of the time it takes work, which comes in the form of using the skills and practices I talk about on this site: idea repair, feedback loops, visualization, identifying mental schemas, and so on.

The phrase “black belt” is often used to mean mastery, but in Taekwondo at least, becoming a black belt is just the beginning. As my instructor, Master White (who is profiled here and who also tested on Friday–incredibly, for his seventh dan black belt) says, “black belt” means that you’ve gotten down the basics and are ready for the real fun to begin. And although I think the real fun began long ago, I am definitely ready.

Photo by Mr. Lloyd Blake, via Mrs. Carrie Blake

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