Would you accept a gamble that offers a 10% chance to win $95 and a 90% chance to lose $5?

Would you pay $5 to participate in a lottery that offers a 10% chance to win $100 and a 90% chance to win nothing?

Chances are the second proposition sounded more appealing to you. But look again, both these propositions are identical. The second version attracts more positive answers[1] because it's framed as cost whereas the first version is framed as loss and who wants to lose?

This is called "framing effects", how something is presented colors how we think about it. Similarly how we interpret the world around us and our situation in it would effect how we feel and act. In fact, there are whole branches of psychotherapy that focus on the art of viewing things differently: "positive reframing", "cognitive reframing", and "cognitive restructuring". However, what I'd like to focus on is dealing with a specific set issues, issues that have to do with creating something new in the world, building a business, and all the turmoil that brings.

When you're a startup founder it's almost like your mood is tied to your metrics. When you're company is doing well, you feel great. When you're company isn't doing so hot you're feeling bad. This in turn will effect your productivity and may set you on a vicious cycle of doom where your company isn't doing well and you don't have the energy to fix it.

So how do you escape this, deal with the stress, take action on it, and have some fun doing it. Well, we can exploit the mental bug that is "framing effects" to bring about a better state of mind. I'll introduce what I call "mental frames"[2] -- I'm not sure if that's a real technical term but it sounded good to my ears -- that has helped and continues to help me get through tough times.

Before I start I want to acknowledge that it feels kind of silly that we have to trick ourselves and tell ourselves stories in order to act the way that we want to act. This is because more and more we're discovering that we're not just one self, we're multiple ones. Multiple self devision has been proposed by scientists and philosophers. There is the momentary vs the narrating self, there is System 1 vs System 2, there is the left vs the right hemisphere, and there is the lizard brain vs the neocortex. All that goes to show that if at least one part of your self wants to get better at managing its mental states -- the one that's reading this, hi! -- then it doesn't automatically mean that all your selves are onboard for the ride. So join me on a journey to trick these bastards to do what you want.

Also, I'm not a mental health profissional, go see one if you need it.

"Life is a game" mental frame

Once a motherfucker get an understandin' on the game, and what the levels and the rules of the game is, then the world ain't no trick no more, the world is a game to be played.

-- 2Pac in "Starin' Through My Rear View"

Part of the startup game is taking risks, in fact it's almost the only game in town. If you're not taking any risks then your startup already exists and you're just copying something else. But if you are creating something new in the world there wouldn't be a week that goes by without feeling anxiety about all the risk that you're taking. Be it your career, other people's times and money, or with your product, users, etc.

The risk anxiety can paralyze you and unless you act you're just making your situation worse. One very useful mental frame to adopt in this case is "life is a game and I'm playing it". If life is a game then your there to play it. When you're playing a video game you do weigh the pros and cons of every decision you make but at the end of the day you're there to play and play you will. You'll happily jump from place to place, explore different areas, try different combinations of keys or moves, and perhaps more importantly, you're never staying still. You're always making decisions and executing, you're learning, you're failing, you're restarting and going again.

The "life is a game" mental frame puts you in a fun frame of mind. You just can't wait to see what happens next. Maybe you'll lose, maybe you'll win -- who cares! As long as it's interesting, keeps you amused, engaged, and learning.

"Time keeps moving forward" mental frame

I was a little bit of a procrastinator and I would be faced with this seemingly insurmountable task. I have final exams, I have massive amounts of work, papers -- there is no way to make it through. At that time -- and this is served me well -- I would say 'well, one way or another time keeps moving forward so even though I'm just three weeks away, whatever happens in three weeks from now I'll be on the other side'. So it seems like a wall that I can't get through but actually time is marching ahead and I will get to that point past that thing automatically and that was helpful to me.

-- Siri, Change.org, and Viv founder Adam Cheyer on the "Finding Mastery" podcast.

When you're stuck in a rut and there is nothing to do but to keep doing your job and reach some sort of deadline -- be it a product launch, scoring a deal, hiring someone, or running out of money -- there is really no rational reason to feel anxious. All you have to do is your work, do it well, and the rest is outside of your control.

In situations like this where it's very painful you have to remember that time will go by, nothing lasts forever, and that you'll eventually be on the other side. What's important now is to execute!

"Worst-case scenario" mental frame

You've probably used this one before. However, it's a cliche that gets used out of place all the time -- "order the pizza, worst-case scenario we'll eat it in the car" or somesuch thing.

But when used properly this can be very powerful. Think about a really difficult situation in your life right now, or a really hard decision you need to make, or a risky thing you need to do. Now think about the absolute worst thing that can happen as a result of that -- like literally the worst:

  1. Will someone die?
  2. Will someone get seriously injured?
  3. Will you become homeless and starve on the streets?
  4. Will you lose your house/job/car?
  5. Will you tarnish your reputation?
  6. Will you fail at the startup thing and go back a to a cushy job where they feed and do your laundry?

Etc. Barring #1, #2, and #3 I think everything else can be tolerated. Honestly for most decisions at Silicon Valley startups that may lead to ruin it's probably #5 that ends up being the worst-case scenario and you know it's not really all that bad.

A good technique to couple with the worst-case scenario mental frame is what's called "negative visualization". An age old technique invented by the Stoics in Ancient Greece that gets you to visualize or meditate on the worst that can happen and come to terms with it. When the worst actually happens you'd be at peace with it, and if it didn't happen you're elated!

"You're not your job" mental frame

"Founder of [insert sexy startup name]" is what you have on your twitter bio. It seems like this thing is intricately intertwined with your identity. But in reality you're a lot more than that. You might be a good husband/father/son. You might be a good thinker, writer, or educator. Or you might have hobbies that you're good at.

When failure strikes, you might feel that you, personally you, are a failure -- which is basically depression. When that happens remind yourself that you're much more than your job -- that you contain multitudes.

It's good to actually cultivate other interests, hobbies, or anything that you can get good at. Have people that rely on you outside of your work. Mentor someone. Learn a new skill. Find a hobby. Whatever you do try to link it to your identity.

I try to always be mentoring someone. I read, discuss, and dabble with doing philosophy. I'm currently obsessed with weight-lifting. I also like to get better at writing, public speaking, and storytelling. I love to optimize my health, I spent so much time this year improving my sleep. Going from an average 5 hours a night to 7.5 hours a night. I also improved my REM sleep, going from less than an hour to 1.5-2.5 hours.

"What did I learn" mental frame

If you're the kind of type A personality that would choose the entrepreneurial life then chances are you like self-improvement and chances are you love learning. So when failure eventually catches up with you then do yourself a favor and think about everything that you've learned from your experience. (And maybe even write about it but please don't name or start your post with "our wonderful journey")


There is a lot more to this, and I'll try to keep this as a live document. But for now, I need to get back to playing the life game because time won't wait for me, and really, what's the worst that can happen? I want you to remember though, that I'm not only my job, it's true that I learn a lot from it, but I contain multitudes!


[1] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 364). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[2] I know of "mental models" but for some reason it didn't quite fit. There is some overlap, however, where mental models is primarily about making intelligent decisions, mental frames is about managing your own psyche.