You, and only you, are responsible for your life and what you create. And in deciding what you want, by default, you are deciding what you don’t want. The modern myth of “having it all” is not modern, but it is a myth. You must make choices every single day. You cast votes for some things which are votes against everything else.
I call this process “framing.” Framing is what happens when you decide what is in the picture and what isn’t—what you’re going to focus on and what you’re going to ignore. Framing is critical not only in deciding which creative project to begin next, but it applies to life as well.
We create frames that we use to focus our attention, and sometimes those frames remain constant. But at other times, we create temporary frames or ones that serve us only in certain stages of our life.
If you don’t create your frames, someone else will do so for you—like your boss, your community, your culture. That is not to say these are negative forces, but by not being the one in charge of your focus, you can end up drifting on a sea of expectations imposed by others, even if or when they don’t align with yours.
Take a carpenter’s pride in building your frame because what’s inside the picture is your most valuable asset—your focus, and therefore, your life energy.
FRAMING THAT FIRST CREATIVE PROJECT
A new writer. That’s the default frame we build when we begin to carve out a new identity. That frame borders a world of potential, excitement, and possibility. We spend time getting our desk together, maybe purchasing a new computer, or recording our writing schedule on the family calendar.
But that first frame is a weak one, wobbly and hastily put together because we don’t yet know what we don’t know. We may have educated ourselves, such as earning a college degree or an MFA. Or we might have experience in writing lab reports or sales documents. The frame is mismatched and cobbled together with duct tape.
That’s why the first encounter with resistance hits us so hard. Our rough frame can’t withstand the onslaught of writer’s block, rapidly changing industry expectations, or brutally direct reader reviews. We cower and cry as the unexpected challenges fall upon us.
Being a writer. Finishing that novel. It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. We expect a sturdy frame of brushed steel, something that will protect the thin and fragile piece of glass in front of our dream. But we discover that the frame is loose and that the glass can easily slip out, which exposes our aspirations to the world.
When the first criticisms explode like grenades upon our manuscript, we feel the natural and immediate urge to protect ourselves. We put up our hands to block the punches, but we still end up with a bloody nose and a black eye because we haven’t yet made a choice.
Do we take the beating, go back to whatever frame we’d already created, and abandon this creative endeavor, or do we learn from the experience and push on, knowing that persistence is the only true path to a satisfying life?
Many will quit because the pain is unbearable. They’ll smash the frame to the ground and stomp upon the debris of broken glass while shedding tears. We feel stupid. We feel inadequate. We’ve been told we can’t do this. We’re too old, too young, not smart enough, not ambitious enough. We’re doing it wrong, or too fast, or too slow.
Allowing the critics to make your frame means you’ll always come up short. Those with unfulfilled dreams want to pull the rest of us down with them.
That leaves us only one option, which is to create the frame for ourselves—we write the next manuscript, memoir, poem, or essay. We have to push through the deafening voices of despair and know that every artist had to discard those immature frames. At one point, Stephen King was unworthy. Shakespeare was unworthy. Hemingway was unworthy. Angelou was unworthy.
But we get to decide, as did the masters, that we won’t accept that frame, at least not permanently. Fulfillment comes when the frame shines, when it begins to protect the work within from the voices that want to demolish it.
GOVERNMENT AND ORGANIZATIONS HAVE FRAMES—AND THEY RARELY MAKE SENSE TO US
“I need you to step aside as we have to go through your bag.”
I didn’t panic. I knew there was nothing in there that would get me in trouble. I’ve led a fairly clean life for the past 15 years. But I have to admit that I did feel a ball of anxiety forming in my stomach. What exactly had the TSA screener seen in my luggage?
With a soft smile that seemed to come with the uniform, the young woman started unzipping my carry-on luggage. She went through it, pocket by pocket, until she came to my soft-shell, insulated lunch bag. Inside I had packed my breakfast that I intended to eat before the flight—a piece of jerky, some blueberries, and a 15-ounce vegetable juice drink.
“Oh, this is it,” she said, holding up my green juice.
“It’s nonalcoholic. It doesn’t even have sugar in it.”
Another smile, but this one felt genuine. “No, sir. It’s not the ingredients we’re concerned about. You see, it’s bigger than 3 ounces, which means you can’t bring it through the checkpoint.”
I nodded. “Okay. What should I do?”
“You can go back out through security and drink it, or you can surrender it.”
“Can I drink it right now? Right here?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but you have to go back out and drink it and then come through security again.”
At this point, I knew I wasn’t going to go through the line again. I had the time but not the patience.
“So what you’re saying is that I can bring my green juice on the flight as long as it’s in my stomach and not in that piece of plastic you’re holding?”
I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass. I really wasn’t.
“Are you going to drink it or surrender it, sir?”
Like an old Cheap Trick song, I surrendered. On the way home, I drank my green juice before passing through security. I surrendered it in the airplane lavatory.
OUR LIFE WITHIN THE FRAME
For many of us, the frames already exist. We come into this world, born into a culture that dictates who we need to be and how we need to live. The assumption is that everyone does it the same way, that everyone follows the same path.
Family is probably the first frame surrounding us. Our parents start building that frame from birth. They teach us how to walk, how to talk, how to behave. They mold us into the people we will become—a work of art inside the frame they’ve created together.
It isn’t until those early teenage years that we begin to get our first taste of resistance.
I can remember listening to my parents’ record collection as an 8- or 9-year-old kid. They loved Kenny Rogers, the Beach Boys, and Neil Sedaka. And up until that time, so did I. But around the age of 11, the frame of my musical tastes began to expand. In 1983, I discovered hard rock and heavy metal, no longer enjoying the Endless Summer of my childhood.
But the early framing and its inevitable resistance is not confined inside the walls of our house. Communities and organizations build their own frames for us. We might go to temple, or mass, or church, or service, and yet, another frame exists to focus our attention on what our tribe believes is important.
Whether you believe organized religion is important or not, its effect on society is immeasurable. Atheists and agnostics can’t break free of the framing—just ask most Americans if they celebrate Christmas, and you’ll find an overwhelming majority do, regardless of their religious affiliation.
As we grow and mature, our friends create another frame. Social psychologists believe this frame could be the most powerful of them all. As we intellectually and emotionally separate from our parents, we begin to identify with our peers in a way that can be in direct opposition to the values we’ve been taught by our family, church, or community.
In each of these stages of adolescence, we’re constantly bumping into the edges of the frame. We’re in constant conflict with what we’ve been taught versus what we discover as we move through the world. For most of us, this dissonance causes great turmoil during our teenage years when our parents are clearly at their stupidest, but as we reassemble and refit our new frames, our parents magically get smarter.
But before we get to that point in early adulthood, we’re faced with a choice: Do we accept and honor the frame built for us, or do we smash it to pieces to build our own?
When I was growing up, religious education classes for Catholics was called CCD. Every week, we’d spend an hour with the nuns learning about the faith. Like many good obedient young men of my time, I did what my parents told me. I accepted the frame they’d built and worked inside of it.
But when I was 15, my friend Mike and I would go bowling instead of attending CCD. Our parents would drop us off at the back door of the parish hall. We’d wait a few minutes until the car pulled away, and then we’d race through the adjacent parking lot and into the bowling alley where we’d play Space Invaders for an hour until it was time for our parents to pick us up—Sunday School Hooky.
I realized that allowing others to blindly create my frame was risky. That is not to say everyone should turn their back on their faith as a teenager, but teenagers naturally want to rebel and doing so against their parents and religious leaders is common.
WE MUST ACCEPT OR REJECT OUR GIVEN FRAMES
Not choosing a new frame is still a choice.
Being intentional about the decision, being thoughtful, will always lead to a consequence that is more aligned with your internal values. There’s no guarantee you’ll get what you want. Many times, you won’t. But if you can build the frame, you’re much more likely to get to decide what goes inside of it.
Careers, professions, jobs, roles, responsibilities—these are all the results of the frame we choose. You can become a lawyer, a teacher, an accountant, or a computer programmer by changing your frame.
Education or experience serves as the catalyst for creating new frames. It takes one or the other (often both) to manifest your desired outcome. There are others I’ll touch upon later, but these are the two primary elements.
For most, education was the thing we did as a kid, the compulsory activity that the government mandated we attend from kindergarten through twelfth grade. But that’s only one type of education.
I learned how to learn when I went to college. Through grade school, middle school, and high school, I was taught how to be compliant, how to follow the rules. But I didn’t learn much, other than how to game the system by not going against the grain. It wasn’t until I spent a few years at the University of Pittsburgh in a liberal arts program when I learned how to read, write, research, and most importantly—think.
As my own children are now contemplating college, I understand the complexity of the world they’re entering. More kids than ever graduate with a degree and a mountain of crushing debt from student loans. However, a college degree tremendously increases lifetime earning power, compared to those with a high school diploma—it’s not even close.
Once the choice is made to become a student, the frame is created, and the future spirals up.
Experience is another outcome of a decision made. Seeing how the world operates and then capitalizing on patterns is the rudimentary recipe for lifetime success. Whether you’re day trading on Wall Street or seeing children as a pediatrician, the experience you gain from doing the activity is invaluable.
Combining education and experience becomes truly transformational. Nobody can repossess your diploma. You can’t have your experience stolen. Because of that, the accumulation of knowledge and practicum strengthens the frame and protects the ego from the decision made to change, which is never an easy one.
THE STORYTELLER FRAME
Framing can be external, a way to contain the setting, the character, or the scene. It sets the parameters and informs the reader of the rules.
However, a frame can also be the support within the piece. In the tech world, this is known as a wireframe. Authors call it theme. Brian McDonald calls it armature.
“A website wireframe, also known as a page schematic or screen blueprint, is a visual guide that represents the skeletal framework of a website. Wireframes are created for the purpose of arranging elements to best accomplish a particular purpose. The purpose is usually being informed by a business objective and a creative idea. The wireframe depicts the page layout or arrangement of the website’s content, including interface elements and navigational systems, and how they work together.”
In the visual arts, framing is standard practice. Artists and storytellers direct your attention to the piece and by doing so, inform you of everything else you can ignore. The absence of a frame means the absence of focus or definition that leaves us disconnected or uninterested in the work.
If you don’t frame your stories, the reader won’t know the point you’re trying to make—your armature, or the reason you’re telling the story in the first place. And without a frame for your life, you allow other external forces to write your story for you. Bosses, familial demands, financial responsibilities—these frames can become shackles because they’re being imposed upon you, often in direct opposition to your own desires.
“Branding” is simply an exercise in framing. When you build the frame for your brand, people will pay attention to everything inside of it, whether you intended to put those things there or not. When blocking certain ideas, values, and beliefs through framing, we accentuate what’s been left inside. What’s inside is your “brand.”
While the frame is never as important as the piece, the piece cannot exist without it. If art lacks boundaries and definition, it loses focus. Whatever message the storyteller had hoped to deliver is lost if it is not properly framed.
In life, activities and aspirations without a frame also lack focus, creating what Napoleon Hill called “drift”—a mindless, thoughtless existence supplicating to society’s demands and expectations.
“In visual arts and particularly cinematography, framing is the presentation of visual elements in an image, especially the placement of the subject in relation to other objects. Framing can make an image more aesthetically pleasing and keep the viewer’s focus on the framed object(s). It can also be used as a repoussoir, to direct attention back into the scene. It can add depth to an image, and can add interest to the picture when the frame is thematically related to the object being framed…The goal is often to focus the viewer’s attention upon the subject, but the ends and means are ultimately at the discretion of the artist. It is accomplished by manipulating the viewpoint of the image, rather than the object(s) within…Framing, especially in the photographic arts, is primarily concerned with the position and perspective of the viewer. The position of the observer has tremendous impact on their perception of the main subject, both in terms of aesthetics and in their interpretation of its meaning.”
A TEENAGE FRAME
When I was sixteen, I took a second part-time job in the summer so I could buy a car. I worked for Deck the Walls, which no longer has a shop in the state of Pennsylvania, but Monroeville Mall is still standing—George Romero filmed Dawn of the Dead there.
Although I can’t remember their names, an older, retired couple owned the shop, which was part of a franchise. The store sold frames and prints, but its unique value proposition was custom framing—an expensive luxury that was quite rare in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, in the 1980s.
As a kid, I’d never given a second thought to frames. They were just things that kept our family photographs on the walls. During my first week of work, the older gentleman asked me if I’d ever assembled a frame, and I had to laugh. I told him I’d never purchased one, let alone put one together. With a smirk, I said I thought frames were irrelevant. After all, what did it matter? People care about the art or the photograph, not the thing holding the protective glass covering.
My kind boss then explained to me that I’d taken a job as a part-time framer at a shop that built custom frames.
“There are other places in the mall you can find work.”
He quietly suggested that I begin to think more about frames if I was going to be working this job. He was right. I had chosen this gig, and I had friends working in the food court. The alternative to working at Deck the Walls was smelly, greasy, and gross.
I finished out the summer, discovering and then understanding the importance of a good frame. To this day, I can’t bear to buy cheap, mass-produced frames for my most cherished memories.
THE STUFF FRAMES ARE MADE OF
Internal and external influences affect the size and shape of our frames. Some of these things are out of our control, such as genetics and our family programming. But most are completely under our control, even though we often convince ourselves they aren’t.
As mentioned earlier, the two dominant elements in any frame are education and experience.
Our attitude toward life is something we get to change from moment to moment. There is no such thing as a “bad day.” Only a bad moment. You get to decide if the next one will be good or not. A series of moments create our attitude. Frame the positive and your outlook will be the same. Focus on the negative and you’ll end up with a bad attitude.
Education can help to shape your frames. Not just conventional education, which is often outside of our control, but ongoing and informal education. Do you listen to informative podcasts? Do you read books? Do you practice a skill set, always trying to get better? If so, these are ways to strengthen that frame and dedicate yourself to a lifetime of learning.
As the ancient Stoics might say, we cannot control what happens to us—only our response to it. This is the definition of experience, and experience is another fundamental component of our frames. How we respond to things beyond our control can be determined by its frame.
Navy SEALs choose to put pain outside of their frame during SEAL training. You might not be a young, tough, buff Navy SEAL, but they don’t have any human capacity you don’t. When something happens to you, acknowledge it, and then decide whether or not to place that experience inside of your frame.
Inequity. For tens of thousands of years, we’ve struggled with this. Some people have access to or have acquired resources that we haven’t. Some of us are taller, smarter, in better shape, more outgoing, more business-oriented, more athletic—the list goes on. We’re not equal. We never have been. Some squirrels gather more nuts than others. We are bigger squirrels.
However, you have resources that others do not. Someone somewhere is envious of you. A stranger wishes they had your life. Therefore, reframe how you look at your assets and recognize them as such. Focus on your strengths, ignore your weaknesses. That doesn’t mean you should never improve or abandon education. But instead, prioritize practice and education of things you already have an affinity toward, rather than trying to improve a skill from poor to mediocre. You want to go from good to great.
The more empathy you have, the stronger your frames will be. If you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, seeing what they’ve put in their frame, this can only make yours stronger. Rather than discounting another’s morals or values, strive to understand them. While your frames will be unique to you, the most prosperous ones are created from the same spiritual elements—love, respect, understanding.
LOCALS HAVE A FRAME WITH A STICKER ON IT THAT SAYS “LOCALS ONLY”
Getting from Venice Beach to downtown L.A. should not take an hour. It’s about seventeen miles as the crow flies. I was simply grateful not to be the one navigating the frenetic flow of traffic on the 10.
David had taken over 7,000 people to where they needed to be in Los Angeles. As soon as I got in his car, I knew I was in for a treat.
“I grew up right here. In Venice. The place sure has changed since then.”
David wasn’t much older than me, but I knew what he meant. When you’re approaching 50, you begin to see the world as it is instead of the way it was. My hometown, while always recognizable, looks completely different than it did when I was a teenager.
He chuckled. “Venice Beach used to be the place where writers, poets, painters, artists, and musicians would come. They’d live together, work together, create together. Now? It’s so corporate.”
I nodded and said something affirming like, “Yeah, don’t I know it.” But I didn’t know anything. I was hanging at Venice Beach because I thought it wasn’t as commercial as the other parts of L.A.
David’s upbringing is his frame. It’s the same for all of us. He’d lived his entire life in southern California. He grew up in Venice and worked for decades in the film industry. His outlook, his attitude, his values—all framed by the ethos of Los Angeles in much the same way that the gritty steel mills created a border around my perspective on life growing up in suburban Pittsburgh.
I could have gone searching for that “authentic” part of Venice Beach, but it wasn’t my frame—it was David’s. Instead, I found a hipster vegan café and ordered an $18 plate of lettuce. I would have been better off making a salad out of all of the marijuana I was offered while strolling down the boardwalk.
When you look at your frames, what do you see inside? Is the view of your choosing? Does it match your personal hopes and dreams? If not, now is the time to make a new frame. You get to decide what goes in it. You choose where to focus your vision, and by doing so, become blind to everything else.
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