Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

Flexible Thinking: Why You Should Never Say Never

Apple computer

There was a time when I was very black and white in my thinking.

I knew what was right, and what was wrong.

What I liked and what I didn’t like.

What I would do, and what I would never do.

I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a flexible thinker.

But experience – and years of studying philosophy and psychology – has shown me that it’s worth being careful with the word never, as your life can change in a heartbeat.

You’re not the same person you were 10 years ago. Hopefully those experiences have helped you develop and grow. The choices you make today might not be the same choices you would have made then.

“What do you mean by this?!”, I hear outraged principled individuals say.

A small, fairly inconsequential, example.

Someone close to me was adamant for years that they didn’t want to use a particular type of computer. You know the brand – they’re shiny and have a little fruit symbol on them. In discussions with various proponents she stood repeatedly firm.

Two years later, she’s waiting for her first Mac Air to be delivered, while she plays with her new iPhone.

In my own life, if you’d told me that I’d ever go freelance as a consultant, let alone become an entrepreneur and set up my own online business, I’d probably have said: “I’d never do that.”

My personality is risk-averse, I like a steady, reliable pay cheque, and I thought I was pretty conventional in terms of embracing the 9-5.

But when my life circumstances changed so did my thinking around ‘never’ being freelance. And after that went well, I explored new options and realised there were a whole load of ways I could be an entrepreneur I wasn’t even aware of.

I moved from “I could never do that” to “I’m doing that!”.

And I was as surprised as anyone.

Why saying ‘never’ can damage your future

If our minds are closed rather than open, and if we’re black and white, inflexible, in our approach to the world around us, we might say ‘I would/could never…’ a lot.

And the more times we say it about something, the more frequently we repeat it to ourselves and those around us, the harder it is to climb down from this statement later.

To admit that actually, we’d quite like to do that after all.

Pride is one of the 7 deadly sins. In fact, it used to be considered the most serious by the Christian church.

From the church’s perspective, it sucks, because when we’re proud, we think we’re better than other people. We’re vain about our own opinions and viewpoints.

So if we’ve stated something – with emphasis, for a long time – we’re likely to be much too proud to show everyone that we’ve changed our mind.

To admit that we might have been wrong. Or even, to be vulnerable – to show that we might not know everything.

The benefits of being grey

No, I’m not talking about fifty shades here, but rather, moving away from black and white positions. Becoming a flexible thinker.

Of course you should have opinions. Ideally based on some evidence and facts. But you should also be open to changing your mind about these opinions.

In this fast changing world, flexible thinking is being looked for by companies more and more often.

Flexible thinking can also help us to problem-solve more effectively. The more flexible our thinking, the more we can find new or different ways to do things, approach issues from another perspective, or combine information in different ways.

When do you say never? 

“I would never do that.”

“I could never do that.”

These two statements are different in intent. The first has a moral basis, the second is about capability.

But both are heavily based on fear.

Fear that you’ll do something wrong.

Fear that you’ll try and fail.

I’m a vegetarian, and have been for over 20 years, for moral reasons. It’s extremely hard for me to imagine I would ever eat meat. However, when I play with it in my mind, there are conceivably times when I might. For example, if I was pregnant, and the survival of not only me, but my baby, depended on eating meat, and I could eat meat that had been happily and organically farmed, and killed without suffering. And there wasn’t access to other sources of nutrients that would provide what we needed.

So it’s a pretty unlikely scenario. But it’s conceivable. So I don’t say “I would never eat meat” even though it’s extremely unlikely that I ever would. And this kind of thought exercise keeps my thinking flexible, and my mind open. And it also means I am less likely (I’m not a saint, I can’t say I would never do this ;-) ) to judge others for their choices that I disagree with.

5 Ways to Develop Flexible Thinking

1) I’ve found travel an excellent way to develop a more open mind. Not only have I done things I might previously have said (at least in my head) “I’d never…”

2) A friend of mine suggests the technique of reading the 1-star reviews of a book you love on Amazon, and the 5-star reviews of books you hate. I have to say, I’ve only managed that a few times…I’ll admit it drives me a little crazy.

3) My favourite way to develop my flexible thinking is to discuss and debate issues. I have a (naughty) tendency to take the opposing view when talking to someone passionate about an issue, especially on an issue where I’m fairly neutral. It doesn’t always win me friends…they don’t call that position ‘devil’s advocate’ for nothing!

4) Another great way of developing flexible thinking around moral issues, and to hear other points of view, is to listen to the excellent and thought provoking Moral Maze on  the BBC.

5) Or you could do some twisty thought experiments like me and my vegetarian example above. Next time you’re stuck in traffic, think about an issue that triggers you. Something you would say “I would never” or “I could never” about.

Murder, eating meat, religion, buying a Mac. Anything where you have a polarised opinion.

Can you conceivably imagine an example where you might?

Then… never say never…


When do you tend to say never? Where are you a more, or less, flexible thinker?  Have you ever had to change position from something you said you’d ‘never’ do?
Let me know in the comments below.

8 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Anette Pollner January 13, 2015, 8:24 am

    I said I would never date conservative men. And then I did. It was a great experience (as long as we staid away from politics…). I wish I had not said ‘never’ for such a long time.

    • Ellen January 13, 2015, 7:13 pm

      Thanks Anette for sharing that experience. We can definitely close ourselves off from people when we put them – and ourselves – into boxes. Well done on going against your ‘never’!

  • Debra Rawson~Kubrick January 13, 2015, 3:47 pm

    I have chronic inoperable lower back pain as well as degenerative arthritis in my joints of neck, hands, wrists, arms and legs. I have emotional pain due to my mother killing my father and then herself. I lost my job 3 years ago and I am on Social Security Disability through the Government.

    I am told by my adult children that I am negative all the time. I say, “no, that won’t work, you don’t know how I feel,” . I always disagree. I need help getting stuck out of poor me. I sought out your page on the internet two days ago.

    I also went on tiny Buddha for help. I am willing to choose to change my life. I just turned 56 on January 10th.

    Maybe you can help. Thanks and have a nice day.

    • Ellen January 13, 2015, 7:24 pm

      Dear Debra,

      Thank you for sharing your very difficult situation. Emotional and physical pain are both incredibly difficult to live with, and it can be very hard to keep your head above water in that situation.

      But you’re right to recognise the ‘poor me’ ‘game’. I call it a game as that’s one of the behavioural patterns identified in Transactional Analysis, which I find a helpful and interesting model – have you come across the book ‘Born to Win’ by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward? You might find it useful.

      If you have the time and resources to see a professional psychologist or counsellor, especially one who specialises in chronic pain, then this is one way to help you to get ‘unstuck’.

      But you can also certainly do it yourself if you’re willing to challenge your way of looking at the world. Mindfulness, for example, can be helpful with both emotional and physical pain (it’s one of the few techniques that helps people with chronic pain ‘rewire’ their brains). If you google ‘Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness’ this will bring up free resources as well as books and audios.

      It’s not an easy journey that you’ve set off on, but Tiny Buddha is a great site, and I also love, a very compassionate site with lots of good suggestions. I look forward to seeing you back here too, and I hope that some of my articles and ideas can help you in your progress.

      Wishing you the best of luck with your courageous choice to change your life – truly, never say never.

      Ellen x

  • El D March 8, 2015, 11:24 am

    A close friend once said to me, “It’s the strong person, not the weak one, who is able to apologise.” That has stayed with me and made it easier to apologise. Very interesting and helpful post, Ellen.

    • Ellen March 8, 2015, 3:17 pm

      Thanks for sharing that El. Really good to hear about people’s personal experience with change. So glad you found it helpful :-)

  • lynne June 3, 2015, 4:27 am

    Hi a very informative and helpful post. I totally agree that being flexible in everything we do, specially with our thinking, will help us go a long way in achieving our goals. Thanks for sharing. Great Read!
    lynne recently posted…Want to Catapult Your Success? Do These 2 ThingsMy Profile

    • Ellen June 6, 2015, 4:42 am

      Thanks very much for your comment Lynne, and thanks for reading. Flexibility can be a real challenge, but it can definitely make life easier in the long run :-)

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