Founder Psychology: The Importance of Frames

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy 
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti 
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready 
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgetting — Eminem

It was the summer of 2013. My friend Bryan and I nervously sat at a large mahogany conference table. We were in the final stages of acquisition talks with Yahoo for our fantasy football startup. We glanced at each other anxiously as we waited for the senior executives who would determine the fate of our small company.

I set this scene to introduce one of the most powerful concepts in psychology: the frame. Simply put, a frame is your interpretation of reality. Our senses are constantly bombarded with stimuli, and our brain uses frames to make sense of the chaos. Think of it as the user interface for your neural activity. I won’t go too deep into the science, but if you want to read more, Tversky and Kahnemann have done a ton of groundbreaking research on this topic. Here are some examples from their papers:

  • People prefer “80% lean” beef rather than “20% fat”
  • People prefer a condom that is “95% effective” to one that has a “5% failure rate”
  • “How do you feel about Obama’s policies” gets very different responses than “Compared to Hitler, how do you feel about Obama’s policies?”

I think you get the idea.

Control the Frame

Back to the conference table. As the senior executives from Yahoo walked in fashionably late, our frames violently collided. In every social interaction there is a battle of frames, and the stronger frame always wins. Consider the default frames in our situation. We made a 30 minute pilgrimage to their office. They walked 10 seconds from an adjoining conference room. We waited anxiously for 15 minutes. They strolled in unapologetically late. We represented a small, unknown startup. They represented one of the most famous companies in the world. We wore a t-shirt and shorts. They were custom suited up. We occupied the weaker frame in almost every way imaginable. If this negotiation were an NBA game, it would have been the Golden State Warriors against the Phoenix Suns…ballboys. By all accounts, it should have been a complete bloodbath. But not only did we hold our own, we quadrupled the initial offer. That’s the power of controlling the frame.

Understand the Frame

How do you do that? It starts with understanding your own frame in any given situation. All persuasion and psychology begins in your own mind. No one is a good enough actor to constantly behave in a way that contradicts their core beliefs. “Fake it till you make it” can work every once in a while, but it’s unreliable. Real frame control always starts with a confident and authentic internal belief system. I’m not talking about fluffy “everyone is special in their own way” mumbo jumbo. I’m talking about having a genuine understanding of the value you bring to the table in every single interaction.

The best way to think about this is in terms of abundance and scarcity. Millions of years of human evolution have trained our primitive lizard brains to behave differently depending on the perceived abundance of a resource. In the caveman era, the difference was obvious, and critical for survival. In the modern era, everything is abundant. Most of the time, scarcity is literally a hallucination to protect our ego from rejection. Here are some everyday examples:

  • Job interviews: Most candidates have a default frame that their talent is abundant and money is scarce. The opposite is true. Companies have more money than they know what to do with. Look at the amount of cash on the balance sheets of the top 5 tech companies. If they knew how to deploy it effectively, they wouldn’t have hundreds of billions sitting around doing nothing!
  • Dating: If a man is nervous approaching a girl, his default frame is that beauty is scarce and his virtues are abundant. However, the opposite is true. Beauty is an abundant resource, but most men have a combination of attractive personality traits that are actually quite scarce.

Hold the Frame

During our Yahoo negotiations, we realized a few things that helped us control the frame. One: there was a new CEO at the helm and she was scooping up startups like a kid in a candy store. Two: Yahoo’s investment in Alibaba had paid off handsomly and created a ton of capital that was waiting to be deployed. Three: There was significant pressure to convert Yahoo’s desktop offerings to mobile. Our startup was the perfect fit on all three points. Once we realized the reality of the situation, we were able to overcome their negotiation tactics and hold our frame.

Another great example of this comes from my friend Amy Jin. She has an awesome post about controlling and holding frame as a woman in tech. During an encounter between her young female team and a room full of experienced men, she describes the following frame collision:

1. We were hardly qualified to run these projects. We didn’t know the industry as well as they did, and we weren’t subject matter experts. We weren’t trained for this.
2. There was no one better equipped to do this job. We were the world’s foremost experts on our company’s strategy, product, and plan. We brought the background, skills, and experiences that landed us this role. This project had never been done before so all of us, on both sides, were new to it. What we didn’t know, we had the tools and resources to figure out.

This group of women held their frame in an incredibly intimidating situation. That’s the power of framing! I will reiterate that this is not something you can convincingly fake. Amy and her colleagues internalized the frame that they were the scarce resource, and gained the respect of their male counterparts.

Now for some practical application. Next time you are in a social situation, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What is my default frame for this interaction?
  2. What are my core beliefs around abundance and scarcity that inform my default frame? Are they correct? If not, how do I recalibrate?
  3. How can I control and hold my recalibrated frame so I can level the playing field.

You can also apply this to any internal struggles and stresses you might be going through. Everyday there are frame battles in our own minds. Often, the key to overcoming anxiety and depression is to reframe your situation.

I hope this was helpful. Next time, I’ll talk about how I’m applying frame control to something I’ve never done before: pitching my startup.

PS: Shout out to Amy Jin for proof-reading this post.