Bending under the Curve: How to be Flexible
One of the most important skills you can develop in order to flourish in the decades ahead is flexibility. By this, I mean the ability to change direction completely. In a rapidly changing world, it is inevitable that many of the things we pursue will go through familiar-seeming cycles of promise, reward, and diminishing returns. If we are to continue to flourish, that may mean having the flexibility to change or start over in order to keep on the right side of that cycle.
Of course, there are many reasons why being flexible to this degree is hard. I would argue we should, as a society, address all of them. Financial freedom is an obvious one — interestingly the cycle of flexibility that might be optimum for staying ahead of the game is similar in scale to the sabbatical cycle of many academic institutions — one year “off” to learn, research, rebuild and refresh for every 5–10 years “on”. Maybe we should explore making such sabbaticals financially possible for everyone in society.
But what I want to talk about here is something many of us could do as individuals to give us the best chance of using flexibility to help us continue to flourish.
Flexibility intuitively seems like a good fit for an “area beneath the curve” approach to life goals. After all, building a broad base of life skills is a great way to ensure that whichever skills need to come to the fore at any given time, we have something to build on.
But while breadth is necessary for a flexible life, it is not sufficient. Our base needs not just to be broad but springy, able to launch us with a burst of acceleration in whichever direction we choose.
For this, I want to suggest there are four key skills we should try to develop.
- Develop your creativity as a truly soft skill — creativity as the thing that enables you to pivot, to take new directions according to the terrain you face. This is not just creativity that gives you a way to generate new ideas, but creativity as a way of generating new told to help you meet whatever challenge you are confronted with. It is creativity as a 3D printer not a specific tool.
- Learn how to use your memory so that you don’t learn things in order to recall them, but in order to use them.
- This is intimately linked to developing the psychological ability to draw a line under things and move on. This is the hardest of all these skills, largely because of how we see the sunk cost of learning. If we have devoted years to green architecture, for example, how do we justify to ourselves starting over as a crop scientist? The answer is to ensure that even when you’re specialising in your current journey, you are not just dumping skills into a silo where you’ll have to leave them. If you are constantly learning for the sake of use not recall then no study is really wasted — changing direction won’t lessen your work so far because it’s no longer useful. Instead it will enhance it by bringing it to bear on fresh areas. The other thing you can do while you are pursuing a path, if you want to make it easier to change direction when needed, is to be careful always to frame the particular path you’re on as part of a bigger aim — you are, after all, maximising area under the curve. If you see developing new ways of ventilating modern offices as not just doing that, but also as contributing to a better future of work, to the fight against the climate crisis, to sustainable use of the planet’s materials — and even beyond that to “building a better world”, then changes in direction are less psychologically hard to manage — you are just changing the means you use for carrying out the same end.
- Finally, learn how to learn. And not just how to learn but how to integrate what you learn into your map of the world, and how to toggle between new information and your mental maps so that each benefits from the other in a constant feedback loop that enables you to constantly analyse and synthesize what you learn so that it becomes exponentially more effective.