Have you ever wondered whether others see the world the same way you do? Your family, your friends, your colleagues? I am sure you have.
There are times when this question pops up on a national or international level as well as on a personal one. For example, right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people around the world are hunkering down, buying groceries and toilet paper online, and practicing physical distancing. At the same time, other people do not seem to know or care about such measures, or perhaps they simply have different information about COVID-19 than you do. Governments have chosen different approaches to manage this pandemic based on data and information from experts.
For instance, in the United States, you might be allowed to leave your house for health-related purposes, certain outdoor recreational activities, and grocery shopping. The definition of essential businesses might differ from region to region based on local values. Meanwhile, other countries enforce complete lockdowns or are more relaxed than the United States. Consider Sweden, where shops, bars, restaurants, schools, and offices have remained open. Other than prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people, Sweden has aimed to stop the rapid spread of the pandemic through education and its belief in the responsible behavior of its citizens. Each country has paused to reflect on data, values, and risks before making its own decision, from its unique perspective, on how to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on health and prosperity.
Our Individual Decisions Also Matter
As individuals, we govern ourselves and are responsible for our own behavior and conduct. Therefore, at pivotal times such as now, during COVID-19, we might want to reflect on or choose our approach in the same way that governments do. If we combine reflection exercises, self-assessment, and a growth mindset, we can use this time as a unique opportunity to think about how we have framed the chapters of our life.
Each chapter has certainly been shaped by people we have met (family, friends, mentors), unique experiences, coincidences, and our values, needs, and wants. Suppose each chapter had an illustration that we placed in a frame to create a collage telling our story. Is there a need to reposition the illustrations within this frame? Is the frame appropriately sized or shaped to tell the whole story?
In my case, I moved from Germany to the United States in 2004. Back then, I imagined that my story would lead me back to Germany after a brief postdoctoral experience, and I certainly did not imagine living through a pandemic. After 16 years, I am still here in North America and healthy. What happened that changed the story I thought I had perfectly planned out?
Unforeseen Opportunities, Challenges, and Positive Adaptation
I moved to Florida to determine the structures of ribozymes as a postdoc at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University. I arrived with two suitcases filled with essentials, as well as photographs of the people and hallmarks of my life’s previous chapters.
By coincidence, I stumbled on an old, large, and cheap (very important for a postdoc) picture frame at one of the Florida panhandle’s ubiquitous antique shops. My story was shaped that evening when I placed each of the photographs I had brought with me in the frame. Noticeable gaps gave me a glimpse into new, exciting chapters ahead.
As opposed to the typical way of displaying pictures, I decided to install the frame with a slight tilt on the empty living room wall in my postdoc home. As a recent immigrant, I did not have a reference point in this new environment, and having something in my home that was similarly off-kilter felt right. Friends asked me over and over why I kept the frame tilted even after I became part of the local community and had clearly found a reference point. There are two answers to the question. Firstly, no life aligns perfectly with preplanned trajectories. Secondly, I enjoy that viewers tilt their heads and change their perspective to explore the content of each picture and demonstrate that they are truly interested in understanding the story.
I kept the frame during many moves up and down the East Coast, and it has been a constant in my home, even as my life circumstances changed—new job, marriage, and cities. Currently, it is part of our living area and includes many layers of new photos illustrating chapters of my life, which now includes my wife. It continues to tell its cohesive story. Remarkably, people seem to remember the tilted frame, but not necessarily the individual pictures.
COVID-19 will have an impact on how my framed story develops. I do not know the outcome yet. However, a change of perspective, adapting to new opportunities, and reframing might be necessary to continue to tell the story.
As a current graduate student or postdoc, you might find COVID-19 causing you sleepless nights. You might think about your paused experiments, a cancelled internship, a delay in crafting your publication(s), a lack of funding, or how to find a job in such a difficult time.
Problems and challenges are part of life. They occur unexpectedly, and we have to react and adapt. The American psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin noted, “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”
Instead of allowing yourself to become upset and acting on that feeling, think about how to reframe your unique situation and how acting on that new understanding might help. Reframing can be liberating and starts with resetting your expectations for the future.
Reframing and Rethinking Your Story During COVID-19
Let’s assume your beginning picture is that currently your ideal job is not in reach, but you have to earn a living. There are certainly many different approaches you can take, but I will walk you through one that reminds me of cognitive reframing theory.1
Step 1. Consider your existing chapters.
Think about your life holistically. Determine which opportunities you developed into experiences and which individuals were critical for those developments. (Note: If applicable, send them brief notes and let them know that you are thinking about them during COVID-19.) Capture the outcomes of each experience. Do you see any patterns among enjoyable experiences, remarkable outcomes, your values, and your perceived strengths? If you do, write down these strengths and values and the specific examples of how you have demonstrated them.
Step 2. If you see no obvious opportunities ahead, analyze the feasibility of your next chapter(s).
Your current circumstances might determine who and where your next employer could be.
- Browse through possible employment opportunities and determine which part of your past story would resonate with an organization and position. What would set you apart from possible competitors?
- Determine how the possible employment opportunity would help write another chapter in your story. How would this experience fit into your current storyline? What would you gain from it?
- Internalize the truth that this employment chapter would be one that is followed by others in your life story. How could the subsequent chapters look?
Step 3. Prepare for your next chapter.
Focus exclusively on the possible employment opportunities that are realistic and would contribute to a coherent narrative. Create your resume and your cover letter so that both documents include different examples of experiences and competencies that demonstrate your potential for doing the work, becoming a valuable team member, and growing professionally.
COVID-19 makes us pause. In a restless world, it gives us time to reflect on our pasts, our experiences and accomplishments, what has shaped us, our unique contexts, and all our future possibilities. We have time to develop an awareness of our individual stories. Now is the right time to frame or reframe our own unique stories so we understand them better. It is our own responsibility to communicate the reframed story in a way that helps others develop the same understanding of it.
As I finish this piece, I look at the tilted frame that has told my story so many times. Where will I place my next photograph that illustrates a new chapter? Should I get a new frame? Or is it time to straighten it?
Take care of yourself.
1. Robson Jr, James P; Troutman-Jordan, Meredith. “A Concept Analysis of Cognitive Reframing.” Journal of Theory Construction and Testing. 2014, 18(2).