Think the current business climate is temporary, and that things will eventually get back to normal? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet! - The death of whole industries, global pandemics, the actions by one individual that affect the whole (think one terrorist with a small nuke in New York), the effects of global warming—these are just some of the issues experts say we’ll be facing, and these are only guesses. Speaking at the 2006 TED conference, creativity expert Sir Kenneth Robinson stated that “We have no idea of what’s going to happen in the future. No one has a clue about what the world will be like in even five years.” And that’s as specific and accurate a statement as we can make. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, says that we have previously lived in a country he calls Mediocristan, where cause and effect were closely connected because life was simpler and the range of possible events was small. Now, the global community lives in a place he has named Extremistan, in which we are both more interdependent, and at the mercy of “the singular, the accidental, the unseen and the unpredicted.” The only thing any of us can know for certain is that life will continue to change at a rapid pace. Organizational consultant Peter Vail calls this “permanent whitewater,” referring to a time of ongoing uncertainty and turbulence.
No one is exempt. In my work as a thinking partner, I spend a lot of time speaking to people in all walks of life, from the CEO of a joint venture in Saudi Arabia to a stay-at-home mom who now needs to enter the workforce. Whether they’re searching for a job, looking for funding for a startup, trying to stay relevant at age 60 in a large corporation, dealing with lost savings, coping with a big new job that has 100 direct reports, struggling to get donations for a nonprofit, or unemployed and afraid of losing their house, people of all ages and walks of life are scrambling to deal with the vast changes happening today—in every part of the world.
The only thing any of us can know for certain is that life will continue to change at a rapid pace.
For most of us, this uncertainty isn’t fun. Do you know of the “life stress” list that rates changes such as moving, death of a spouse, getting married, etc.? The folks who created that list in the sixties estimate that life is 44% more stressful now than it was 50 years ago, and they came up with that estimate—I admit I have no idea how—before the 2008 global meltdown. I’m not sure we even want to know the new number! So what are we to do? Keep on doing what’s worked in the past and hope for the best? Scare ourselves into immobility with doom-and-gloom scenarios? Become Pollyannas with our heads in the sand hoping for the best? As a person who spends her days helping people cope with life, I’ve become convinced that the best thing—perhaps the only thing—we can do to prepare ourselves for life in the future is to learn how to change. To learn to adapt to whatever circumstances come our way, because we can’t predict what they will be.
In other words, we need to become expert kayakers. Since we’re in permanent whitewater, we can’t see exactly where the river will take us or where the submerged rocks are, yet when we’re tossed out of the boat, we want to make sure to swim, not sink. Experienced rafters are prepared to get bounced out and recover swiftly. They expect the whitewater. They’ve learned to relate to it— and so should we.
Why do I place such emphasis here? Because the ability to adapt is, as far as I can tell, the key indicator of success in these turbulent times. It’s the capacity to be flexible and resourceful in the face of ever-changing conditions. To respond in a resilient and productive manner when change is required. Another name for it is agility. In a recent McKinsey survey, 89% of the more than 1500 executives surveyed worldwide ranked agility as very or extremely important to their business success. And 91% said it has become more important over the past five years.
According to Webster’s, agile means “the ability to move with an easy grace; having a quick, resourceful and adaptable character.” Webster’s has it a bit wrong, I’d say. I don’t think it has anything to do with character. It’s just that some of us already know how to adapt easily. The rest of us need to learn quickly. Otherwise we’ll end up spinning our wheels, complaining, or contracting in fear when faced with change.
Aikido masters say that to be successful in life, three kinds of mastery are required: mastery with self, which means understanding our feelings and thoughts and how to regulate and direct them; mastery with others, which means being able to create shared understanding and shared action, and; mastery with change, which means having the capacity to adapt easily without losing our center—our values, talents, and sense of purpose. I’m talking here about the third.
Do you know how to change easily? I think it’s a very rare capacity, because most of us don’t understand the science of it or how to work with the way our brains are structured, to make it as painless as possible. Who among us took a class on “How to Cope with Change,” or had parents who said, “Now I’m going to teach you how to not just survive in life, but thrive no matter what happens?” In the past, changes happened more slowly, and our need to adapt was much, much less. Here’s just one example of the acceleration of change: Starting at 1 AD, it took 1500 years for the amount of information in the world to double. It’s now doubling at the rate of once every two years. No wonder we’re scrambling to keep up!
M J Ryan