In 1960, a renowned plastic surgeon named Dr. Maxwell Maltz published a groundbreaking work about cognitive bias called Psyco-Cybernetics: A New Way to Get More Living out of Life. In the book he described patients who literally were given new faces through his work, and yet afterwards still reported experiencing the old feelings of inadequacy that plagued them pre-surgery. Through his extensive and evidence-based research, Maltz discovered that the new face was too big of an emotional leap for many of his patients; what they really needed first was an “emotional facelift” before they could feel grounded enough to fully embrace their physical facelift.
A similar dynamic could explain why most lottery winners find themselves right back where they started financially, an average of five years after their big win. Becoming a multi-millionaire overnight is too large a leap for many minds to comprehend. Without the smaller steps of self-identity growth to go from average wage earner to millionaire, the subconscious mind may motivate the winner to give away their new-found wealth to revert one’s life (and underlying identity) back to the way things were before the winning ticket.
If you ask most people what the first step is to achieving a goal, you will usually get answers focused around visualization and planning. But all of the visualization and planning will do you no good without one critical component: belief. The first step in achieving any goal – whether it’s a new body, or a new lifestyle – is believing it’s possible.
This might seem like a no-brainer when you read it, but the reality is that a huge number of highly achievable goals are abandoned by people who, despite having no shortage of desire, can’t quite manage to imagine themselves having the thing that they want.
The bad news is, if you can’t believe it, you won’t achieve it (or, like those lottery winners, you won’t be able to maintain it). The good news, however, is that you don’t have to believe all of it at once. Just one piece will do, for now.
When I was growing up, my family would play a game called Word Morph on long road trips. The game starts by selecting two words of the same length, usually four or five letters. One word is your starting place, and the second word is where you want to end up. The challenge is to take turns finding the next word in a sequence that lets you go from start to end, with each word being only one letter different from the previous one. Ideally, you can go from the starting word to the end word in 10 moves or less, however the more complex the start or end words, the more steps it will take you.
As an example, your starting word might be HERE, and your ending word might be MOON. To go from the starting word to the ending one, the group could take turns coming up with this path: MERE, MORE, TORE, TORN, TOON and finally, MOON.
The secret to playing this game is twofold. First, you have to believe that it’s possible to make it from the starting word to the ending word by only changing one letter at a time. I’ve watched people struggle with the game when their brain fixates on how impossibly different the end word feels from the starting word. Once this “internal critic” takes hold, it can be hard for the mind to think of anything else. This results in a player’s mind being too paralyzed to come up with the next word.
The second secret is that you need to focus only on what’s next. Some people become too wrapped up in figuring out the whole Word Morph path before embarking on the journey. They think that having the entire sequence planned out will help them be more successful when their turn comes. However, it can be nearly impossible to predict all the various combinations of words a group of people might take to get from one word to the other. For these “preppers,” all of their mental planning goes out the window as soon as the game begins. Once one unpredicted word is used, they scramble to come up with a word on the fly that they did not anticipate.
The principles that govern the Word Morph game parallel the same principles that structure how our minds operate when it comes to our beliefs about ourselves and what we can accomplish. Often, we struggle to make strides towards our goals because we simply cannot fathom how we could possibly get from where we are (or what we feel) today to where we want to be (or feel) in the future. Additionally, some of us will wait to get started down our path until we have the whole journey mapped out. By the time we feel “ready,” the landscape has changed, and our plan is obsolete.
Just like the Word Morph game, our minds operate better when we accept that we can get to where we want to go without worrying about how to get there. Instead, we can find success by solely focusing on accomplishing the small things directly in front of us that we expect can eventually carry us down the path towards our goals. In Word Morph, the requirement for each step is that you create a new, slightly different real word. In goal achievement, the requirement for each step is that you create a new, slightly different reality that you can fully embrace and believe in.
In my coaching work, I call this concept Interlocking Frames. It’s based on ideas from foundational psychology that suggest that for the mind to exist, it needs a contiguous state of identity. This means from one day to the next, the mind can recognize itself enough that it feels confident in who it is and who it is not. Significant changes to the mind’s identity often do not appear “safe” and cause it to go into a crisis that results in the mind reverting back to an earlier state of personality that feels more familiar.
It’s this journey from one mind identity to the next that the interlocking frame concept illustrates. Think of one’s journey from where they are to where they want to be like a series of hoops laid out on the floor labeled A through E. Very few people are so skilled mentally that they can make a leap from position A to E and manage the mind identity shift required to sustain the dramatic transition. Most of us need to evolve more slowly, moving first from A to B. Then, once at B, C suddenly seems a more attainable and natural evolution.
With this concept, you don’t have to worry about how you will get from the start to the finish line. Instead, all you need to do to change a belief that might be limiting you is to focus only on getting into the next frame of mind. To accomplish a large goal, such as a big career move, focus first on achieving an activity that is most immediate and on the path towards your goal, and let the rest work itself out.
When we take this view of life, something interesting happens; new opportunities open up for us with each new evolution of ourselves. With each new state of mind, we experience things in new ways and often find new options that did not present themselves before.
That’s the beauty of the interlocking frame. It gently takes you through one understanding to the next, in a way that allows your mind to safely follow along and accept new situations and perspectives as they come. Before we know it, we’re exactly where we hoped we would be and it feels so natural it’s hard to even remember the steps on the path, until we choose to look behind us at where we have come.
This week, take a conscientious effort to employ the concept of interlocking frames towards a goal or state of mind you have been struggling to achieve. First, take stock of where you are on the path and what your finish line looks like. Then, consider what the most substantial impediment is to achieving that goal today. Next, break that obstacle into smaller pieces, and identify the ones that are most immediately in front of you. Finally, focus on achieving those small items.
Once you have, take stock of where you are again, and identify the next set of obstacles to overcome. Remember, there’s no need to figure out every step along the path in detail. You’re not trying to get from HERE to the MOON in one go. Instead tackle the items immediately in front of you, and trust that when you take that step, the next believable action will become clear.
“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” – Confucius, Chinese philosopher and politician (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.)