Proust x orientation: the power of framing

French blue diamond

“Le Bijou du Roi” – The Hope Diamond

It was Marcel Proust who said, “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” Reading Proust’s novella, The Lemoine Affair, I had a chance to see through his. What was billed as the story of French swindler Henry Lemoine’s scheme to dupe greedy investors into believing he had discovered the secret to manufacturing diamonds from coal, actually had quite little to do with Lemoine or diamonds at all. And, when I finished the story, utterly bored of and exhausted from the task of tracking the interconnectivity of countless monsieurs and mademoiselles place in society throughout the fragmented pastiches, I realized I hadn’t enjoyed the book precisely because I was incapable of fully seeing through Proust’s eyes. Sure, I had experienced much of his same nausea toward the frivolity of the idle rich—but, I could not truly relish in his humorous jabs the way he had when he wrote the words, and the way he undoubtedly expected his early 20th century French audience to when they read them. Thus, I was forced to conclude The Lemoine Affair truly was not about Lemoine—and given it was conceived by a writer as skilled and revered as Proust, also that it perhaps was not intended to be. Rather, it was about the nature of a society oriented such that would give rise to Lemoine’s scandal.

French society was oriented toward status. If lacking the fortune to be born into high status, your only hope at achieving it was being smart enough, entertaining enough, or clever enough that people of status would want to keep you around. The scandal was a way for someone clever like Proust to humanize these untouchables once again and bring them down to the level of the common man—even if only momentarily, to ground them in the human embarrassment of folly. He even poked fun at himself—jesting about his own suicide while parodying Goncourt—when he writes, “they brought Lucien the news…that their friend Marcel Proust had killed himself after the fall in diamond shares, a collapse that annihilated part of his fortune.” He was telling the story of society, tapping into a compelling narrative by framing it the way his audience would appreciate it most. And, the case for harnessing orientation is as much grounded in Proust’s account of the scandal as in the scandal itself. Conmen like Lemoine have always intuitively grasped this framing power, and used it to make the chimerical offer that otherwise smart people simply can’t manage to walk away from. Victor Lustig, for example, used it against the French twice—when he sold the Eiffel Tower as scrap metal. Twice.

At first, I thought America’s orientation was status too. But, you might argue that America was actually founded out of the frustrations of living in a society oriented toward status. The dynamics of the status game changed when early settlers arrive in America because there was newfound hope and promise in the idea that birth should hold little dictum over our ability to live well. As such, Americans re-defined what the essential idea of living well even meant—more freedom and the hope of improving one’s own situation. But, in a world of increasing complexity, what is the American Dream anymore? And I don’t necessarily mean that in the pessimistic gonzo way—just logistically. We have built a culture that is largely now more satisfied to ‘get theirs’ and retire to security and relative obscurity. American’s view of the American Dream has grown increasingly disparate, as maximum freedom is no longer uniformly desired—many have found that some freedom is enough. They take the amount they do have for granted and perhaps want to turn their focus to other things. Truthfully, with a comfortable life so easily accessible, the idea of freedom has fractured to such an extent that even those who would claim to value freedom have a much different conception of it than our founding fathers, who were so passionate about their aspiration for freedom they were willing to invest in its acquisition at all costs.

What now exists, I believe, is a society oriented toward story and crafting our own personal narrative. What we now desire runs the full gamut, from the hunger for power and notoriety of the wildly ambitious, to the hunger for contentedness of the slacker, and every imaginable point between these extremes. The family man. The weekend adventurer. The late night hacker. Regardless of manifestation, all of these hungers are rooted in the core desire for the ability to control our own story. Whether bumming around in the vein of Kerouac’s beatniks, being recognized in the boardroom as a competent strategist, or even just being seen by our family as a competent provider—what we want is to write a compelling narrative that demonstrates our personal values to those whose opinions and approval we care about most.

We give in quite easily to those who help us craft our desired narrative, the same way French high society gave in quite easily to Lemoine when he offered that rare opportunity to jump ahead. I think about Walter White in Breaking Bad when he is first diagnosed with cancer. If conning someone requires aligning your pitch to someone’s highest aspirations, as Lemoine did when giving people the chance to further secure their riches or become the new rich—what do you pitch a man who no longer has any? Or perhaps has none outside of making sure his family isn’t saddled with the debt of ineffective treatments whenever he dies? It turns out you don’t have to pitch him at all. A man on the verge of death, hoping only to leave his family financially secure, is so desperate to craft his narrative that he’ll come to you with the scheme. Orientation is the difference between Walter White the mild mannered high-school chemistry teacher and Walter White the mild mannered high-school chemistry teacher who also happens to dissolve enemies bodies in hydrochloric acid while en route to becoming the most celebrated meth cook from New Mexico to old Mexico in a matter of months. That’s how powerful the frustration of our aspirations is. It is what let’s us buy into the swindler despite all odds and warning signs.

Now, you might feel that all this talk has become rather Machiavellian and discomforting. It makes us uncomfortable to think that our judgment can be so easily manipulated. But, used properly, framing holds the power to produce immense good. For example, I have recently been scoping a new consulting project to come alongside three partner organizations as a sort of surrogate entrepreneur to launch a new retail business in Nairobi. Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and Unilever have teamed up to pilot SmartLife, a social enterprise business model that will allow Nairobi’s urban poor greater access to water, sanitation, and health products by delivering them at an affordable price point. As you might imagine, lack of piped water and affordable nutritional products for 1.5 million urban poor is quite a frustrating problem for families.  But, how can we build a sustainable business model that alleviates this problem? As part of my interview and scoping work, I was responsible for sifting through IDEO.org’s initial design research to make some early hypotheses on the best course of action. Framing developing world problems as some groups might (according to filmmaker Landon van Soest’s portrayal in Good Fortune), the solution is often to conduct ‘upgrading’ projects—where aid-based groups slowly transition small groups’ situation as resources allow. But, in the case of massive infrastructure problems, doing these projects in a way that respects people’s humanity quickly becomes difficult. Specifically, with some of the housing upgrading projects depicted in Kibera throughout Good Fortune, people are ‘upgraded’ without any clear communication about where they will be placed next. It is clear from the interviews that what people really want is to be communicated with respectfully and participatively by people they feel they can trust. For many of them, the Kibera is a place of relative safety and lifelong memories. And do gooders made the mistake of thinking their aspirations had anything to do with a new home at all. They don’t want to move. But they would probably be more willing to if the initiative was framed differently, and they were given some semblance of respect and a seat at the decision table (disclaimer: resident inclusion may have been omitted by Soest for the sake of his story, but since inclusion is a central theme to the story, I’d be surprised if he completely missed these inclusions. But, I am simply speaking from his perspective as portrayed in the movie–not any wiser to extraneous facts than what Good Fortune portrays).

In the case of upgrading water and health access, the common thread running throughout IDEO.org’s interviews was empowerment. Not unlike American families, IDEO.org indentified the mother of house as the one who makes all health decisions for her family, and just like mothers around the world, she is trying to maximize what she can provide for her family on a limited amount of resources. She wants to be a competent money manager for the family’s finances. She wants to be a competent provider for the children she wants to watch grow up. But, most of all, I think she wants that feeling I imagine that mom’s get when they do that magical mom thing—making a happy, healthy family out of whatever resources she has to work with. By capturing this frame, we are able to turn what might otherwise be considered just another ‘upgrading’ project into a huge opportunity to push forward in a bold new dimension for progress. We are creating a service with the goal of restoring mom’s rightful place as the hero of the house—empowering her to do more with less.

This means we’ll have to be creative with ways to create a high-touch brand while still meeting cost targets. But, one model that has been experimented with elsewhere is the idea of making moms themselves the brand ambassadors and community health advocates, formally recognizing their power to influence the family and community by employing them as micro-entrepreneurs (not unlike what Mary Kay starting doing for American women in the 70’s when the idea of true equality was gaining traction). Austin-based startup Food on the Table also captures a similar frame—making it easier on busy moms to make healthy families, by helping them, quite literally, put food on the table cheaper and easier than ever before. But, framing aspirations isn’t just about the fuzzy feelings. It is a basis for innovation capable of giving rise to breakthrough ideas. In the case of the SmartLife business in Nairobi, such a model would reduce the need for an intermediary sales channel, and increase the potential for adoption of the service to spread virally within the community quickly enough to justify minimizing paid customer acquisition channels—ultimately allowing faster and wider adoption among those on the lowest income levels. That is a far cry from what might be possible if we viewed our project simply as a creating a retail experience for poor people. That is the power of framing. Perhaps then we ought to do as Lemoine did, and discover new value by seeing with new eyes—albeit, hopefully with a product that actually exists.

Do you see orientation matters? How discovering it and aligning with it can transform products and people? Do you believe it is the difference between a novella of diamond capers and one of society? Is it evident that aspirations are the identifiers of orientation?  Do you see how the frustration of our aspirations can lead a chemistry teacher to become a meth cook? Have you ever considered your customers highest aspirations? Have you discovered how applying the conman’s knack for appealing to orientation might transform your business? Will you now frame your opportunity in such a way that you are delivering more than just a product that meets a need?

Books mentioned:

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