How Agile Are You?

Life isn’t linear—here’s what to do when change is your only constant.

Posted Feb 08, 2018

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For decades, we’ve been told that willpower and mental strength are the secret sauce to dealing with life’s challenges. That unless you eat nails for breakfast and never let anyone see you sweat, you won’t make the cut. That keeping a stiff upper lip makes you a BOSS.

Mental strength can only take us so far. Modern day science overwhelmingly reveals that it’s not brute force or sheer willpower but the ability to maneuver through chaos that helps us stay resilient in our rapidly changing world. Agile is the new strong.

Instead of falling for old-school beliefs about what it means to be “strong,” beef up your agility, given that the only constant of today is change:

1. Get your pivot on. It isn’t being the smartest or toughest person in the room, but the ability to adjust your moves and go with the flow. Change can stretch us to uncomfortable levels, but it also helps us learn to be more flexible when new challenges come up.

2. Be a skeptimist. The pain associated with change shouldn’t be minimized. Happy talk or denying the difficult emotions during chaotic moments don’t do us any good. This is something that Harvard Psychologist Susan David emphasizes in her work, cautioning against the "tyranny of positivity." Rigid negativity doesn’t get us far either. A blend of skepticism and optimism can help us acknowledge challenges yet remain focused on looking for silver linings.

3. Look for the lessons. When we’re on a constant mission to grow and make new discoveries, we see lessons within chaos. By recognizing that learning is everything and everything is learning, we stay curious and are more apt to use experiences and knowledge as valuable tools for navigating change and complexity.

4. Don’t minimize the macro. See yourself in context. Don’t sugarcoat the chaos around you or try to gloss over the injustice and disparities across the globe. When we ignore the power-over conditions that cause us to need to be agile, we reinforce historic tides of marginalization and discrimination that disrupt human progress.

5. Get comfy with discomfort. Agile people have learned to embrace messiness. They don’t mask dark emotions, but it doesn’t mean they have to broadcast every rumination or wear their emotions on their sleeve 24-7. Northeastern University neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett demonstrates this through her extensive research on emotions and the brain, explaining that emotions are patterns that we have control over. Agile people know that the sooner they name their experiences, the sooner they can pivot towards some form of recovery, healing, problem-solving and getting help. They also know that what seems like “failure” in the moment often becomes an eventual catalyst for success.

6. Be a meta-thinker. Agile people take the time to carefully reflect on their thoughts, emotions and behaviors to avoid rash decisions and broad-brushed conclusions. Be willing to and revise and go back to the drawing board to improve your responses to change and realign your expectations with the realities you face. Be on the lookout for resources—those you have inside of you and those around you that can help you stay tethered, but not rigidly locked in place.

How will you make agile your new strong? 

References

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farner, Straus and Giroux.

David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York: Avery