For decades, individuals and organizations aimed to optimize their agency for the highest productivity levels possible. Superior organization and disruptive innovation were the front-runners of any success. And it all makes sense.
Both concepts greatly contribute to being different, better, faster, more efficient, or can lead to adding more value, solving problems that were not yet solved or solving them better, and so on. Empires were built on superior organization, disruptive innovation and enterprising.
Nevertheless, the contemporary environment is becoming so complex, turbulent and fast-changing that a third element needs to be added to the superior organization and disruptive innovation of superior entities.
Startup world, as the part of the business world that’s most exposed to the unstable environment, is already adding this new third element – with agile and lean techniques. The sooner you add this third element to your life or the organization you’re running, the better off you’ll be.
I’m talking about flexibility of course, and in this article I will focus on how to develop and keep flexibility in personal life as the ultimate competitive advantage. If you aren’t flexible by nature, this article is a must read. Think about what happened to the dinosaurs only because they weren’t flexible enough.
What does flexibility even mean?
If we want to understand what being flexible really means, let’s first ask ourselves how not being flexible looks like, let’s analyze the opposite. In fact, it’s really easy to notice when you or anybody else is inflexible.
You’re usually doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results, but there are none. So you whine, bitch and complain, but don’t do the only thing that would really help – change your actions. Being inflexible means that you stubbornly persist at something that doesn’t work at all.
Staying flexible on the other hand means nothing but easily being able to dis-invest your resources (ego, beliefs, values, time, energy and money) from one thing and start investing into another that has bigger potential or works better. Being flexible means you have no problem to stop doing one thing, and start doing another.
Being flexible signifies the ability to stop doing an activity that doesn’t work (anymore) and finding a new better way to do something or a completely new opportunity or path that leads to the same goal.
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water, my friend.” Bruce Lee
Let’s look at some practical examples. If you’re a flexible person you have no problem (an example):
- Changing from one diet that doesn’t work anymore to a new one (from vegan to paleo)
- Doing a completely different type of exercise after you injure yourself (from weightlifting to yoga)
- Reprogramming yourself to have a more positive approach towards life (going from constantly frowning to constantly smiling)
- Learning how to respond more wisely in tough situations (responding calmly instead of losing your temper)
- Developing a new set of competences and your talents (the ones that are currently in a much higher demand compared to what your job is at the moment)
- Switching to beliefs that are more appropriate in contemporary times (from acting out of dominance to acting out of prestige)
- Changing a job, the place where you live or the team of people you work with
- Learning a new language or adjusting to cultural differences if you change your environment
- Accepting weather as it is and not complaining about it
- Using new devices and technology
- And so on
I’m very inflexible by nature, so I have to work hard on keeping my mind flexible. That’s why I can also write about it, because I know the difference in the approach and the quality of life if you can keep things flexible or not.
Here’s the story of the last time in my life when I had to remind myself to stay flexible. I spent my summer vacation in Sri Lanka. I had a great time there with my girlfriend, but only after I decided to stay flexible. I couldn’t follow my carb-cycling and intermittent fasting there.
I had the goal that I will read at least three books during my holiday, but I read none, since there were so many other things to do and see. I had a plan to write a few article drafts and I wrote zero, since I didn’t have any energy left after travelling for the whole day.
Bitching, complaining and punishing myself because I wasn’t able to follow my goals there could have easily destroyed my holidays. But only if I stayed inflexible, like many times before.
This time, I decided to stay fully flexible and to maximize other things on my vision list and other opportunities presented by the new temporary environment – I enjoyed the local food and tasted completely new dishes. I embraced and learned about the new culture. I met many interesting new people. I did many exciting activities like safari, diving with sharks, rock climbing, going on a pilgrimage, and so on.
I decided to enjoy my vacation, even if I didn’t read a single page, write a single word, and even if I gained a pound or two and ate too many carbs. That’s what I did and I had a phenomenal time. The day after I got home, I started to following my original commitments again.
It’s a very simple and plastic example, but that’s the way of how you should approach to life in general – in the most flexible way possible. And if you’re a flexible person by nature that may seem funny to you, but yes, if you’re inflexible, rigid, then you have almost zero capacity to adjust to new circumstances. That’s why you go extinct.
Now let’s look at a few approaches that will help you stay flexible.
Have many options and alternative paths
If you want to stay flexible, you need many options and alternative paths. Only if you have many alternatives can you switch to following new goals or can easily decide to either persevere or pivot when you encounter a roadblock on the path towards your goal.
Having many options is what brings real safety today, having many options is what keeps you away from being stuck in life. But you must be strong enough to need get burdened by the tyranny of choice.
There are a few general ways of keeping many options in your personal life:
- Be a person of value. Develop competences that have a high demand and low supply. Acquire people skills and know how to provide value in key relationships. Maximize your sexual market value and other types of values. The better version of yourself you become, more options you will have.
- Be innovative and curious. If you’re interested in many things, if you’re comfortable with many different alternatives of how to potentially design your life, if you’re always prepared to innovate your way out of hard situations, there is always a step you can take forward, there is always a way to maximize your quality of life, based on factors that you control and the ones you don’t. Always stay curious, always stay hungry, always stay foolish.
- Avoid the onetis mentality. The number one killer of flexibility is the onetis mentality. The onetis mentality means being obsessed with one single thing – one girl or boy, one job, one car, one investment etc. If there is something that represents all to you and everything else is nothing, it’s only a question of time when you will be miserable and stuck.
In practice, that means you have many items on your vision list and you prioritize them based on your current needs and desires, up-to-date paradigms in your environment, new opportunities you’re exposed to, and so on. You constantly adjust your life strategy based on the feedback you’re getting from the environment.
But be careful, with many choices you can easily catch yourself into the trap of the tyranny of choice. You can get overwhelmed by all the possible options and encounter decision fatigue.
For that to not happen, you have to combine both concepts, keep alternative paths open, but simplify your life in current settings to the point that you aren’t hindered by constantly thinking about the other options you have.
In practice, that means that you know what plan B, C … Z could be, but you don’t overthink it and you act as if they don’t exist at all while you’re following your plan A. When you get stuck, you decide to either persevere or pivot.
When to persist and when to move on is often one of the hardest decisions you have to make. That’s why being flexible isn’t easy.
Don’t have any fixed ideas
If you want to stay flexible, you shouldn’t have any fixed ideas about how things should be, how they will happen and what will be the exact path that will lead you towards your goal.
You should definitely have a life vision, strong mission, superior strategy, but you must be prepared to adjust them at any second based on the instant feedback you get – from yourself (body, mind, emotions, spirit) or your environment (trends, relationships etc.).
Make a small step forward, analyze the feedback and adjust immediately.
Things never go as planned. You set your strategy based on many untested assumptions. The environment is changing so fast, and people are completely unpredictable.So having fixed ideas about how something will happen and when it should happen is nothing but a recipe for misery. Remember, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face by reality.
No matter if you want to get fit, rich or married, accept the following very basic facts of planning and going after your goals:
- You will never get to your goal in exactly the same way as you think you will
- There will always be an unexpected problems on the path towards your goal
- Everything will take much longer than expected
- The cost for everything is usually much higher than planned (in effort, money or any other resource)
- Your ego will get hurt when you realize how many wrong assumptions you had, but that’s how you learn
If you learn to accept these simple yet harsh facts of life, you will save yourself many grey hairs. You aren’t the only one who has to deal with that kind of harsh reality, everybody does.
Nevertheless, the ones who learn to play the cards of life better under these circumstances are the ones who thrive, especially because they’re staying flexible and aren’t overly optimistic.
Keep your mind agile
It’s very beneficial to have no fixed ideas, but it’s also quite hard to accomplish. There are many exercises that can help you keep your mind flexible. Here are a few of them:
- Ask yourself how your life would look like if you believed the opposite, or what would be the result if you would do the opposite? Practice defending the opposite view than you have.
- Always try new things. Learn new skills, use new routes on your commute home, constantly meet new people, travel, be open to new life experiences.
- Daily brainstorm new ideas, at least 50 of them. Don’t be critical at all when you brainstorm, just make sure you list as many ideas as possible. Keep your mind open.
- Practice cognitive reframing, meaning that you put the same situation into a different context and you try to find the context that works best for you to move forward.
- Change your environment to encourage new thoughts. You can go for a walk or a run. You can get a cup of coffee or go work in a coffee shop. Many times, changing the environment leads to new creative thoughts.
- Imagine life being just a dream, where you can be easily flexible.
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” ― Albert Einstein
Don’t have a problem with being wrong
Your strategy and all of your actions are based more or less on your assumptions; and many of your assumptions are wrong. Now read this carefully: wrong assumptions are the mother of all fuckups.
That’s why you’re always wrong before you are right; or in other words, you can make good decisions solely based on real-life experience, but you gain real-life experience based on bad decisions.
So don’t mind being wrong. Expect to be wrong. Expect to fail. Be able to fail and move on to the next experiment in a second. That’s real flexibility. I tried x, it doesn’t work, so let’s try y. And you keep trying until you find one variation that works.
That’s also how nature operates. Nature doesn’t make a better version of an organism with every offspring. Nature encourages as many different variations as possible and then lets the best variations survive and thrive.
“I have not failed. I've just found 10000 ways that won't work.” – Thomas A. Edison
Having no problem failing, being wrong or changing their mind is an important characteristic of many successful people. It’s not easy to develop such a characteristic, but it brings you an enormous competitive advantage.
It’s a personality characteristic that helped Tomas Edison go through 10,000 failed experiments and persist until he found a way for a lightbulb to work. Steve Jobs had the same mentality, here is a segment from an interview with him that emphasizes exactly that:
I’m one of this people that… I don’t really care about being right. I just care about success. You will find lots of people who will tell you I had a very strong opinion and they presented evidence to the contrary and five minutes later I completely changed my mind.
Because I’m like that. I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing. Steve Jobs
Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Don’t put your ego in front of learning something new. Don’t put your ego in front of success. Don’t be too ego invested in anything. Instead stay flexible and look for solutions that work and bring success into your life and make you happy.
Search before you execute
The best way to stay flexible is to consciously decide to put yourself in the search mode before you really commit to anything. You consciously decide to be in a phase where you will fail, test your assumptions and learn.
You decide with full awareness that you won’t get yourself ego invested or committed, but just put your assumptions to the test.
So in the search mode, you shouldn’t have any expectations, you shouldn’t make any commitments and you shouldn’t do any hard work. In the search phase, you just try, experiment, observe, reflect and learn about yourself and the world.
The most important thing in this phase is to have no fixed ideas and no expectations at all. The key thing is to not get ego invested too much. Commitments lead to heavy energy investments, and you shouldn’t be investing before you know what you’re truly investing into and whether the investment really fits your character.
Hard work should always also be smart work, but you can’t work smartly if you don’t have the right map and coordinates.
Your only job in the search mode is to test the assumptions you wrote down, correct them, and try different things in order to find out what suits you best – your personal fit. This phase is only for learning about yourself and the world. N
o goals. No measurement of progress. Just learning and playing. And staying 100 % flexible. Because the more you invest yourself, the more inflexible you become.
The sunk costs mentality makes you inflexible
Sunk costs are all the costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. The sunk costs fallacy encourages loss aversion, meaning that you have an irrational tendency to follow through with an activity even if it’s not meeting your expectations, only because you’ve already invested some resources into it.
To simplify, when you start investing into something, you find that you have a strong tendency to keep going, even if the investment doesn’t make rational sense.
The sunk costs fallacy makes you inflexible. The sunk costs fallacy encourages you to make even more bad decisions. That’s why you have to be aware of this cognitive bias very well and manage it properly. The less you’re influenced by the sunk cost fallacy, the more flexible you can stay.
Let’s look at a few examples of when the sunk costs make you very inflexible:
- You bought a ticket to see a movie in cinema, but now the movie is boring. What do you do?
- You ordered and paid for too much food, should you eat it or not, even if you aren’t hungry?
- You bought an expensive MOOC that you find useless and there is no money-back guarantee. Should you watch it until the end or not?
- You already invested so much into a relationship, so does it even make sense to switch to a new relationship and start everything from scratch?
- You already invested x EUR into your project, house or anything else, and now much more money is needed, but if you already invested so much, why not invest a little more?
What is the best way to turn this into an advantage?
On your way toward your goals, you will encounter small roadblocks as well as complete dead-ends. You can usually go around the small roadblocks with small adjustments.
Dead-ends, on the other hand, require bigger changes in strategy and action plan. Big obstacles usually make you emotionally upset and thus that more inflexible.
When you meet greater obstacles on your way, you can easily start feeling sorry for yourself and put yourself in a position of a victim, thinking how everybody is against you. Of course that doesn’t bring you any good, only additional negative energy and delays in achieving the finish line.
Every time you receive a setback, immediately ask yourself how you can turn this into your advantage.
Therefore, there is one question that can help you a lot in staying flexible in your thinking when you encounter big problems. It’s a simple question based on optimal thinking – what’s the best way to turn this situation to my advantage?
There is always a way how you can do that, if you’re flexible. You can always reframe it, regroup your resources, refocus, adjust, pivot or change settings in any other way. Just don’t get stuck in your mind.
Optimize your life for flexibility in every possible way
Staying flexible will help you not get stuck in difficult life situations and find a way towards your life vision and goals no matter how different the path is from your initial plan.
In addition to that, flexibility will save you many gray hairs and emotional pain. But remember, if you aren’t flexible by nature, you have to constantly practice it.
At first, being flexible may feel alien to you, like you’re betraying your values, beliefs and principles, but it’s not about that – it’s about finding a way that works.
You definitely have to make sure that when you’re looking for alternative paths, you keep your moral standards and integrity high. Nevertheless, you’re looking for long-term wins. But there is no sense in persisting at things that don’t work, only because you already invested so much in them or because you’re simply stubborn. Be flexible instead.
It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself. – Megginson’s interpretation of the central idea outlined in Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”
Here are a few other ideas how you can make sure to keep your life as flexible as possible:
- Drop any 5-year plans about anything
- List all potential pivots you can do if you encounter a big obstacle
- Be tolerant and open-minded so you can work or be friends with all kinds of different people
- Have no problem moving to a country or a town with more opportunities if necessary
- Be a minimalist and own as little as possible so that you are mobile and can easily move around
- Don’t be overly attached to anything, because nothing lasts forever
- Rent or share, don’t own things
- Keep your digital life and work in the cloud
- Manage your energy, not your time
- Keep your body flexible with stretching, much like you have to keep your mind flexible
In the future, flexibility will be an even more important personality characteristic than it already is today. In a complex, volatile and unpredictable environment, only the most flexible will survive.
Luckily, flexibility is nothing but a skill you can learn. Once you learn to stay flexible, nothing can stop you in life, because you always find the next smart move to make. Be super organized, constantly innovate and stay flexible.