On Framing

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Reframing is one of the key mindsets within Design Thinking and something we address in almost all of our classes and workshops here at Johns Hopkins. My colleague, Dr. Patrick Brugh, has a wonderful LinkedIn article that outlines the approach to reframing that he has used in his courses and workshops. Consistent with Life Design, Patrick focuses on first identifying and then reframing dysfunctional beliefs, those deeply held ideas that are “un-generative, unhelpful, and untrue.” For example, a dysfunctional belief might be “In order to be successful in college, I need to discover my passion and then get a job in a field related to that passion.” But what if you don’t discover your passion? Or discover you have several passions? Or discover that your passions don’t align with your career interests and goals? A reframe might acknowledge that you could have many passions, some of which you have yet to discover, and then shift the focus (the reframe) to college being a time to explore interests and opportunities aligned with your values and goals. This approach has the advantage of putting common ideas about careers out into the open and then immediately reframing them in a way that allows the conversation to move forward.

But what if instead of jumping straight into reframing, we spent more time helping students understand the frames that they are using in the first place? Recently I’ve been reading a new book, Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil by Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and Francis de Véricourt. Cukier and his co-authors illustrate numerous ways in which framing provides us a mental model of the world that allows us to make predictions, see patterns, and understand how the situations around us will unfold. The ability to frame is a uniquely human trait, and is what gives us a competitive advantage in a world of algorithms and artificial intelligence. Unfortunately our success as framers is only as good as the frames we create, and Framers is full of examples where people failed due to faulty, incomplete, or out of date mental models.

At the same time, Framers, relying on evidence drawn from social and cognitive psychology, economics, business school case studies, and real world examples, offers detailed insights for understanding, adding to, creating, and successfully making use of the frames around us. These insights are summarized in a handy “Guide to Working with Frames” at the end of the book. Steps include:

  1. Harness Mental Models – understand the frames you are using, how they impact your conclusions, and what you might do to change them
  2. Dream With Constraints – Make use of counterfactuals and alternate scenarios while being mindful of the ways that constraints can bound your ideas
  3. Reframe Wisely – switching to a different frame, or creating a new frame, is a powerful tool but one that should be used sparingly as it can be time-consuming and disorienting
  4. Conditions Matter – Be curious, seek different viewpoints and ideas, be comfortable with the tensions between different frames
  5. Think Beyond Yourself – Embrace difference and diversity, see frictions as an advantage, and reject universal frames

There’s a lot of overlap here, not only in terms of what we are trying to do at the Life Design Lab, but also in how I approach my Arrive and Thrive course for first-year students. Framers has helped me think about the frames that my students are using to understand their college experience and the ways I might help them construct new frames in order to understand this experience in a more meaningful and holistic way.

Understanding Student Frames

In my experience, most students at a selective institution like Johns Hopkins have been trained to evaluate their options, process their experiences, and understand their success through the lens of the college admissions process. If the goal of high school was to get into a good college (as it was for most of my students), they have developed a worldview that has prioritized those things that they believe an admissions officer will value in order to maximize their success in the admissions process. This process typical focuses on a few key areas:

  1. Academic excellence – as measured by grades, standardized test scores, and academic honors
  2. Extracurricular involvement – as measured by time dedicated to and success in extracurricular pursuits (with some extracurriculars – like varsity sports – and markers of success – like positional leadership roles – being seen as more valuable)
  3. Letters of recommendation – as measured by the number of letters from teachers and supervisors who can speak to your strengths and evaluate you more highly in relation to your peers
  4. Your “hook” – as measured by your ability to write a personal statement that highlights an experience or aspect of your identity that sets you apart, or to be recruited for a special skill or talent (eg varsity athletics).

Nearly every decision they have made – from what courses to take, to how to spend their summers, to what extracurricular activities to pursue, to how they identify themselves – has been made to maximize their competitiveness in these categories. Why take a class outside of your comfort zone when that could risk your GPA? Why try out a new activity just for fun, when that time could be devoted to leadership pursuits? Why develop a meaningful reciprocal relationship with one teacher when you believe another teacher can write a much stronger letter of rec? Why embrace one aspect of your identity when you think that colleges really care about another aspect?

If we think about frames as literally allowing users to separate information that is important from information that is irrelevant, then visually the College Admissions Frame might look something like this:

As you can see from the above image, so much of what make us who we are becomes irrelevant if we view our lives through the college admissions frame. So too does activities like attending to our own self-care and wellbeing. It would be wrong though to describe the College Admissions Frame as a dysfunctional belief. It is absolutely a rationale response to a process in which a competitive school like Hopkins might only admit around 10% of its applicants. And for our students it is a frame that works, since it got them into a top college.

It is precisely because the College Admissions Frame was so successful in helping them get into college that high achieving students continue to apply the College Admissions Frame once they arrive on campus. This is particularly the case for students who are pre-med or pre-law, or who aspire to careers with structured application processes that emphasize grades, test scores, and other readily identifiable markers of academic or extracurricular excellence, such as banking, consulting, or tech. 75% – if not more – of our first-year students at Hopkins fall into this category, with the vast majority planning to apply medical school.

For these students, the College Admissions Frame seems to translate well to the med school admissions process:

This is why – I think – pre-med students default to a handful of majors, stress out over grades, obsess over getting into research labs as freshmen, and worry that COVID restrictions will prevent them from every getting the clinical experience they need to get into medical school. In reviewing their Resumes of Failures, I’ve seen first-hand how they have understood even minor shortcomings (i.e. receiving one A-minus in high school) to negatively impact their college admissions outcomes (i.e. not getting into Harvard), and they assume a similar causal relationship to every perceived misstep in college.

Of course, while this framing seems to work, it leaves out a lot. For one, it leaves out a lot of the experiences that might help students develop their core competencies, build empathy, broaden their worldview, and learn to take care of themselves and others – things necessary for success as a physician. In focusing on outcomes, it also leaves out a lot of the experiences and self-reflection necessary for students to understand their motivations – their “why” – for pursuing medicine. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, this frame leaves out experiences and opportunities that might allow students to explore lives and careers beyond medicine, labeling any pursuit that does not actively contribute to their admission to medical school as a distraction, or worse, a failure.

Creating a New Frame

After reading Framers, I’ve come to realize that part of what I am trying to do in my Arrive and Thrive course is to help first year students create a new frame. This new frame doesn’t dismiss their professional aspirations entirely, but incorporates them into a way of seeing the world that is based in their values rather than a predetermined career outcome. In Life Design, this is often described as “building your compass” and I’ve written on this process previously on this blog. The compass framework is helpful (not the least of which because it fits neatly with the whole outdoor theme that pervades Life Design and career services – exploration, wayfinding, Odyssey Plans, journey maps, True North, etc.), but thinking of this process as a frame not only has the advantage of making the reframing discussion explicit, but is also doesn’t stigmatize their existing frame as being dysfunctional.

Here’s how such a frame might combine some of the core reflective pieces of Life Design (Lifeview, Workview, Collegeview) with a student’s aspirations to create a new way of looking at the world:

For me, the value of such a model is that it brings a student’s aspirations – who they hope to become – into the frame, rather than using a frame to evaluate those aspirations. Such an expansion allows students not only to see previously unvalued aspects of their lives as meaningful and important, it also allows them to view their career aspirations through a values – as opposed to admissions – lens.

At the same time, for students who hope to become doctors, the med school admissions frame is still valuable and can be used alongside a values-based frame to understand their experience and evaluate their options:

Using these frames in tandem shows areas of alignment (meaningful clinical and research experiences) but also areas of potential tension: learning vs. grades, failure vs. awards, meaningful service vs. quantifiable hours, etc. As Cukier and his co-authors note:

As we engage multiple frames to explore different perspectives, it becomes apparent that different frames are often in tension with one another. One frame may highlight certain elements of a situation that another frame may neglect… It is not possible to reconcile these tensions – nor is that the point. Only when we appreciate these tensions can we see beyond the individual frame and gain a fuller, more comprehensible picture. Actively navigating the tensions among frames translates into better choices of frames and strengthens our emotional stability.

Framers, 160-161

Much of life is navigating these tensions, making decisions in the moment based on the information you have and the frames at your disposal. Our students feel these tensions acutely. Do I stay up to be with a friend in need or study for tomorrow’s chemistry midterm? Do I spend winter break with family practicing self-care or in New York building my resume? Do I read the latest novel by my favorite author or get started on next week’s problem set? Despite Life Design’s maxim that a well-designed life is “a life in which who you are, what you believe, and what you do all line up together” such a goal can seem impossible. Our beliefs, values and actions are constantly changing, often in tension, and line up fleetingly. By embracing our abilities as framers, we can design with these tensions in mind and build our way forward.

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