Reframe to See the Gain

Sun is Coming Out from Behind by images ®

Last month I visited the town where I grew up for the first time in years and found myself remembering helpful words of wisdom I’d recently read.

My visit had put me in reflective mood, particularly in regards to my career path and related decisions I’d made.

One trigger was the sight of numerous “Congratulations Class of 2013” signs around town for the new graduates of the high school I’d attended years ago. These signs made me wonder what I would choose to study in college if I were graduating high school now – with the advantage of my current knowledge about myself and the world.

I began to imagine different fields of study and different careers thereafter. Inevitably I compared those fantasies to my actual career and wondered if I’d have been happier had I’d taken one of those alternative paths.

That’s when I remembered the sage advice that I’d read weeks earlier.

It had come from Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant who recently published a book about the famous Grant Study, which he directed for many years. This study has followed the lives of hundreds of men from the Boston area since 1938 with the goal of determining what leads to long and happy lives.

In response to interview questions about lessons learned from the men who had achieved contentment, Vaillant shared the following about looking back at choices one has made (and the resulting tradeoff caused when one chooses to pursue X instead of Y or Z):

For anyone dealing with disappointment about lost opportunities, I would ask them to reframe the question and focus on what they gained by taking the paths they chose.

I tried doing this – and learned that such “reframing” took a concerted effort. My mind didn’t easily let go of the ideas it’d previously been entertaining.

However, I was able to change my focus when I realized and accepted the inherent unfairness of comparing idealized outcomes (one fantasizes about best-case scenarios not potential failures) with actual occurrences.

I thought about unique things I’d experienced, interesting people I’d met, and friends I’d made at each of my jobs. I also thought about how my career had unexpectedly taken me to a new city, where I met my wife and where we started a family.

Once truly focused on this thought process, my inner voice was calmed by the “reframed” perspective and the acknowledgement that I enjoy the type of work I do.

Curious to learn more about the Grant Study and Dr. Vaillant’s findings I found and read a few more articles. All included insightful points. If interested, here are a couple of the shorter ones:

I’m considering reading Dr. Vaillant’s new book, Triumphs of Experience.

As always, I’d love to hear opinions about these topics, whether in the comments section below or via email using the ‘contact’ form.

6 thoughts on “Reframe to See the Gain

  1. Enjoyed the post Josh!

    I always try to learn from past choices/events, but not dwell on them. Ultimately we have much more control of our future vs none over the past. This topic is worthy of a more extended discussion versus a simple reply or comment though. We will have to engage on that another time.


    • Frank, thanks very much for the feedback. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

      I’m glad you brought up the future and remembering that’s where we actually have the ability to make changes. One good thing about evaluating the past (without dwelling on it or feeling bad about something we can’t change) is that it helps inform the future. Maybe I should expand on this in a follow up post, since it’s an important related point.

      Hope to have the chance to speak with you about this and all other topics in person sometime soon.


  2. Very interesting topic. I am glad to hear your visit had such a powerful impact. Based on the findings of the Grant Study, I think ( and hope) you will have a long and prosperous life. It is definitely easy to think about the path not taken and how positive that path might have been. I am glad you see that there is no guarantees that following a different path would be better, like going to law school. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Have you sent this to Mom? Dad

  3. Thanks for posting the link to article in The Atlantic. Although I had heard about relationships being the key to happiness (result of the Grant Study), the part about relationships to Mom is completely eye opening.

    Another thought that comes to mind is from John Wooden. He defines success as the “peace of mind which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” Re-framing experiences through this lens, one should focus not on results or choices, but the effort put in once those choices were made. Easier said than done, of course.

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