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.