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Naming & Framing

I‘ve been amazed, time and time again, at the power of what I call “names and frames.”

Basically, what you name a problem, and how you frame it, can radically change how you feel about it, and how you work on solving it.

For most of Sarah’s and my married life, money’s been very tight. And one of our perpetual arguments has been about whether we should put any extra into retirement or towards some sort of vacation fund. I, being boring and practical, said “retirement;” my wife, lively and fun, said “vacation.”

On the plus side, the argument didn’t come up a ton, as there wasn’t often a lot left over after planning for the month, but, on the minus side, when there was money available, the conversation was more intense than normal because the stakes were higher.

Despite many, many conversations over the years, we couldn’t get on the same page. She felt like I didn’t value our family’s work/life balance. I felt like she didn’t value our long-term stability. We both had expectations about what was reasonable, and felt like the other person was falling short.

A few months ago, though, I had a revelation: Vacations are about getting away, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, and not having to worry too much about either work or the bills you have to pay.

And guess what? Retirement is about getting away, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, and not having to worry about either work or the bills you have to pay — just later on in life. They might not be the exact same thing, but they’re at least related.

So I made a decision. “Starting right now,” I said, “we aren’t calling retirement ‘retirement’ any longer.”

“From now on, we’re calling retirement ‘Future Vacation.'”

Sarah was in. Sweet. Since then, two upsides: we’ve fought less about the vacation / retirement split, and we’ve been able to actually make a plan about how we can put more money towards both.

When you put a nice frame around a piece of art — even just something your kid made at school — it completely changes how people see it. That same idea works in other situations as well.

Think of the mini basketball hoop you could put on a laundry basket that turns the chore of picking up dirty laundry into a game. That reframes the challenge (dirty clothes around the room) into an opportunity (can you make all of the shots?).

There are three ways that reframing helps.

Reframe the problem

Seth Godin commented that those warning about climate change made their own jobs tougher by originally calling it “global warming.” “Global” sounds pretty good, right? And everyone likes to be “warm.”

So when people hear fuzzy terms like “global warming,” and they hear that the effects are going to impact us over a long period of time, they aren’t motivated to change their behavior.

Instead, he says, if they wanted to provoke changes in attitudes and actions, they should have named it something more intense, like Atmosphere Cancer. That’s far more compelling, and immediate.

Reframe the goal

Just as changing the name of our retirement account to “Future Vacation” changed how Sarah and I look at that goal, finding a new way to think of your goal can have a profound effect on your actions.

I’ve heard that new (and unmotivated) runners are often given the challenge: Your goal isn’t to go running. It’s to be wearing your running clothes, standing outside your door. Once you do that, you’ve satisfied your goal for the day, and you can decide whether you want to go running or not.

By reframing the goal, that gives the runner the freedom from guilt they’d otherwise have, and allows them to make the choice to go running. And, of course, putting on running clothes and going out the front door is pretty easy, and by the time you’ve done that, there’s literally nothing stopping you from going running.

Reframe the path you’ll take

Last summer, I helped one of my best friends drive his family’s moving truck from Toronto, to Edmonton, to Victoria (for those of you in the U.S., it was about the same distance as Boston to Seattle). I was anxious about this journey. The truck (Bessie) wasn’t in the best shape. We didn’t have mobile phones or GPS. There were just two of us, and it was a long drive. Plenty that could go wrong.

But before we started the trip, my friend prayed, and in the prayer itself, rejected the common request for “a safe trip,” and, instead, asked for “opportunities for adventure.” He reframed the entire trip, with just a few words, and it radically changed how I looked at it.

The things that we could have looked back on as problems — getting lost, running late, almost dying in a freak storm at the top of Whistler’s Mountain — in the end, they were all opportunities for adventure. And, indeed, I look back at what could have been a long, arduous journey as one of the highlights of my life.

So, the next time you have a situation where you disagree with someone (your spouse, your kids, your own conflicted mind), try to reframe the problem, or the goal, or the path you’ll try taking.

Take a step back. Or closer. Or to the side. And find a new way to look at, think about, and experience the problem in front of you. See if you can find your own Future Vacation.

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  1. Carmen

    Oh Charlie. I think that is the best article I have ever read. Absolutely ingenious. It completely resonated with me; thank you for sharing. I think you just changed my life. I’m already thinking about what I might start reframing!

    I laughed at the ‘safe trip’ comment because I say that, when I really mean ‘I hope life continues to be kind to you’, or words to that effect.

    Interestingly, my husband and I have the same divided opinion over holidays vs retirement. He did reframe it in the way you did, but I’m not as bought in to that as your wife, not that I’m reckless caus I’m a ‘saver’ by nature. However, I lost two friends in college to accidents and lost a dear friend to cancer this year at the age of 46 which reminds me that life is precious and short. Every day is a blessing.

    • Charlie Park

      Wow, Carmen, thanks so much. And you’re so right, that every day is a blessing. I’m sorry for the losses in your life; there are few things that force you to reframe things as much as losing someone close to you.

      I absolutely hear you on the tensions about enjoying the present vs. worrying about a distant day (a day that, sadly, might not come). In fact, just this week I took a chunk that I was going to put towards retirement and used it to buy a plane ticket so I can visit my dad on his birthday. So I’m right there with you, that we can’t neglect to live life and celebrate the joys of living. It would be so sad to get to retirement and say, “well, we’re stable, but what a dull life we’ve had”! I’ll raise my Fourth of July hot dog to all of us finding the right balance of prudence and adventure!

      Thanks again for the kind words!

  2. JD

    Great article. It is amazing how shifting our wording, our focus ever so slightly can change our outlook and our moods.

  3. Dee

    Love it. But I still think your wife deserves a vacation before retirement!

  4. Pam

    I think I just experienced an attitude adjustment. Great article!

  5. Naomi

    Thank you for this ~ what a legacy if we (I) could train our (my) mind to think this way and teach/model this kind of thinking to our (my) children!

  6. Barbara Falvey

    Wow Charlie! This is a great article and very inspirational! Very wise! If you are able to re-publish this, you should think about submitting it to mags like, Oprah (think BIG) and if they accept it, then you can put it toward your two “vacation” funds! Hope to see you soon and please keep sharing your insights. Very valuable! Aloha!

  7. se7en

    This is brilliant I love it… there a few things that I need to re-frame right now… Thanks for the inspiration!!!

  8. Emily @ Tips on Life and Love

    This is such smart point about life, and why I love growing older. In an instant you can go from something terrible to an adventure. Finding a partner that feels the same is also very important. Cheers–thank you for this!

  9. Connie

    I needed to hear this today-looking forward to “opportunities for adventure”.

  10. Susan

    I’ll be the fly in the ointment here-years ago, while we were saving for retirement, I was the one who didn’t want to spend “extra” on long weekend jaunts. Hubby did. In January of 2007, we went to NYC over the MLK weekend. I was not happy about spending money I thought we should be saving.

    In April of that same year, my husband Daz died suddenly of a massive heart attack. (He’d been healthy/fit up until that point.) I am always glad now that we DID take that trip-because the future is promised to no one.

    Saving for retirement is a good thing-but now I know to make sure my family does some travel/have new experiences as often as we can-being in the now- as well.

    • Susan

      PS-he was 42 when all of life as I knew it stopped.

  11. Renee - Sapling House

    Yes!! I published a post about something very similar on my blog yesterday – about how all the ‘traps’ of simple living can seem overwhelming when you have young children and that all I needed to do was reframe what simple living actually means for me. Such an easy and brilliant way to inject some positivity and grace into your dilemmas.

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