Developing your Adaptability Ability: Mental Flexibility

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Mental flexibility in the Adaptability Quotient framework promoted by is a learnable skill.  It’s something that you can develop and grow in over time.  The simplest way of thinking about mental flexibility is that it’s your ability to hold apparently contradictory or paradoxical ideas in tension.

Beyond the Horns of the Dilemma

This may not appeal to those with classical Greek education, where the expectation is that everything can be separated into either one thing or the other.  But for those who are more familiar with Eastern and Hebraic traditions, ‘both and’, holding things in tension are much stronger cultural norms.  Believing that you can do good and make money, these are not opposites, one which excludes the other, they are things that you need to hold in tension.  You can, if you hold them in tension in a sophisticated way, do both.  In fact, by seeking to do both you can make both more successful.  This has been the big lesson of the corporate social responsibility, social impact movement.  Better business, more successful business, rewarding business for shareholders, acknowledges that there are other stakeholders.

Breaking out of Routine

But mental flexibility also needs to be developed actively by the way you practice things.  How often do you change your habits, just to open up the mental flexibility?  Do you go a slightly different way to work?  Do you read a different newspaper?  Do you go to a different holiday place?  Do you meet new people outside your regular social circle?  Are you prepared to look at things beyond your social media feed that reinforces your existing views, and step out to discover new opinions in that vast internet of ideas that you haven’t yet come across.

Too often, as we get older, we get locked into a mindset that has been determined and reinforced by our own experiences, our own social circle, our own political affiliation and the habits that we’ve formed.  This undermines our ability to think differently, to think creatively and to respond to new ideas.  Mental flexibility is all about the opportunity to see things differently.  It could be as simple as moving from non-vegetarian, to having a vegetarian meal, once a week.  It could be something as radical as adopting a whole new paradigm for how you see the world.  It might be that this is all about engaging with new controversial ideas.  Or it could be that you’re going to try something that you’ve never tried before.

I’ve never seen Star Wars

I’ve Never Seen Star Wars is a comedy chat show broadcast by the BBC in which a celebrity gets to try something for the very first time.  For Stephen Fry it was his first boxing bout and having an ear pierced.

As an individual, I don’t really like lots of strenuous physical activity but, for some reason, I had this huge desire to go kite surfing.  I did do it: I went on a kite surfing course.  I had a whole new experience of being carried up into the sky by the wind over the sea.  This opened new possibilities for me (and cracked one of my ribs!).  If I just stayed with my normal range of physical activities, I would never have opened my mind to these new possibilities.

Challenge your Mental Flexibility

Boris Johnson is a great example of mental flexibility.  He wrote two articles within the same week about Brexit.  One cogently and coherently presented the Remain arguments.  The second powerfully and persuasively argued the Leave case.

Think of how you could start to strengthen your mental flexibility today, so that you are more able to respond to the challenges of ongoing change.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.