Imagine standing in the street looking at where your house used to be. All that remains is a burnt out husk still smelling of smoke and ash. The weight of this loss settles on your shoulders as you think about what else went up in flames. Cherished momentos accumulated over the years, all gone; just gone.
A tradgedy. A tradgedy that happens over 1,000 times a year in the U.S. A tradgedy that happened to filmmaker David Hoffman. When his home burnt down not only did he lose personal and family possessions. David lost his movie archive, an accumulation of material not only from his own long career but others related to film making in general. Among this list were: negatives, books, photographs, film and photographic equipment, and 175 films. Lots of irreplaceable items. A considerable loss.
Such a loss would be daunting for any of us. It certainly brought David Hoffman up short. “I just looked at it, I didn’t know what to do” he said. “This was bad man” This experience certainly gave him pause, but it didn’t weigh him down, he kept moving forwards. “Epiphany hit me, something hit me” Mr. Hoffman said “You gotta make something good out of something bad” At this point he started to consider if he was only just the things he owned and to reflect on how he always preferred to live in the present. He then began to see beauty in the charred remains of his treasured possessions. Inspired David proceeded to photograph these “bits and pieces” The result was a wonderful series of photographs that reframed debris as beauty; ruination transformed into Art.
Why am I sharing this story? To me this tale illustrates how someone who can attain a flexible frame of mind is better able to cope with unexpected and possibly novel challenges. Psychologists refer to this as Psychological Flexibility. Wikipedia’s definition of this is: “a personalty trait that describes the extent to which a person can cope with changes in circumstances and think about problems and tasks in novel and creative ways” Or as I like to put it: The frame of mind that makes it easier to deal with change and obstacles; to roll with the punches, to be open to new ideas, information, or perspectives. Destruction turned into art certainly fits this category.
Here’s a less dramatic and more down example. Something more every day, one that might be easier to get your head around. A friend of mine was at the airport waiting for his flight one day. While he and others waited, the airline changed their departure to another gate; Three Times. As you might imagine this was very frustrating and tiring for everyone. Except for my friend. Choosing not to be daunted by this experience he began trading raspberries with with a little kid next to him. Kid “phttttttt!!!” My friend “ffrrrrtp” Kid again “thrrrpttt!” This exchange not only delighted the two of them, but people around them started smiling and even laughing. This noisemaking duo had decided that the delayed flight wasn’t so much of a frustration as an opportunity to play.
I will be the first to admit that there are those who seem to come by this talent naturally. What about the rest of us though? Are we destined to flounder when life throws us a curve ball? Do we have to wander in darkness and depair when the wheel of fortune doesn’t land in our favor?
No; at least not as often. We can learn how to be more mentally flexible. It’s a skill just like learning a language or perfecting your golf swing. A combination of intention and practice. Like most things that are worth doing, time and patience are necessary.
How then do we practice Psychological Flexibility?
The best way to learn how to handle change and come up with new ideas and perspectives . . is to change things up on purpose . . as a practice. 😀 Then when life hands you lemons you will be in a much better position to make them into lemon meringue pie; and then smash it into life’s very surprised face!! We need to intentionally step out of the box, step out of our comfort zone. We need to challenge ourselves, to be adventurous. Do something new, go someplace new, learn something new, do a regular task in a new way. This might include such things as: Grabbing some food or ingredients you’ve never tried from the grocery store, perhaps you could visit a museum you’ve never been to, you could learn a new language(which by the way has several benefits), maybe taking a scenic route home from work could be your thing. There are many possibilities for changing it up in your daily life. This alone would be helpful, especially if it’s intentional and consistent. In addition to these I recommend trying any or all of the following: Improv, Open-mindedness, and Play
Improv. Improvisational Theater or Improv for short seems to me to be tailor made to teach people Psychological Flexibility. In addition to being a way of stepping out of your comfort zone in a safe and supportive atmosphere; taking an Improv class has a number of other benefits. For my purposes here there are four advantages I want to focus on: Loosening up mentally, practicing&experiencing flexible thinking, practicing divergent thinking and embracing intuion, and learning about and experiencing acceptance and commitment. Improv classes develop these four skills; skills that will help you to “think around the corners” when Murphy and his law pays you a visit. Good practice for stepping out of the box. Try and find a class in your neighborhood or at least look online for other resources.
Open-mindedness “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change” Albert Einstein. Like learning Improv, the practice of Open-mindedness has benefits in addition to learning how to be more mentally flexible. Businessman and community leaders alike attribute their success in part to having an open mind. Or as Miriam-Webster puts it: Receptive to arguments or ideas. Such advantages include: Better decision making skills, creating more options, and gaining more optimism.
Here are some resorces that not only help you practice this skill, but tell you more about it.
Play. I am certainly not the first person to explain why play is good for us, how it can improve productivity and creativity for example. There as many different ways to play as there are people playing. To increase your ability to be flexible however some activities are better than others. We need to engage with those that foster light heartedness, imagination, curiosity, looseness, and exploration. These help bring forth those childlike capacities we all have. Those qualities we’ve buried with shoulds, conformities, and pragmatic setiousness. There are five flavors of play that I want us to consider: Puzzles, games, make believe, and crafts and other hands on ventures.
Puzzles. Puzzles such as riddles, rebuses, and other brain teasers engage divergent thinking and confront our assumptions. This is great practice for thinking outside the box.
Games. Party games like Going to the Moon, Fruit Basket Upset, or Madlibs are good. There are also school yard activities like Hopscotch, What Time is it Mr. Wolf, or Kick the Can. Or you can play kids games like Operation, Mousetrap, or Rockem Sockem Robots. All of these promote light heartedness and a sense of looseness.
Make Believe. Imagination is a valuable ability. Something most of have lost as we become responsible adults. One way to enhance our imagination is to play make believe. A way to do this is to play with toys or you could even repurpose house items; salt shakers can be space ships, shoes transforming to dogs etc. A different form of make believe; especially if the above is a bit of a stretch are playing R.P.G.s. Table-top roleplaying games like G.U.R.P.S., Pathfinder, or the classic Dungeons&Dragons. If fantasy isn’t your thing, there are other genre’s: Traveller for scifi, Call of Cthulu for horror, and Top Secret for Espionage. Not only will these expand your imagination and willingness to experiment; they can develop problem solving skills in a light hearted environment.
Hands On Ventures. First off you can engage in what I like to call “Silly Art Projects”. This includes such things as, making slime, constructing sock puppets or balloon animals, folding paper “fortune cookies”, making paper airplanes, or do some finger painting. Or you can play with objects: Playdoh, blowing bubbles, building with Legos or Tinker Toys etc. These will help you explore your creativity in a loose and light hearted way. Especially encouraging you to be more involved with the process and less on the end result.
Stories. Sharing stories with each other is something we as humans do, have done, and will continue to do. We don’t always realize that we do, and often it’s neither conscious or intentional. Stories expose us to different perspectives, different paradigms. This is true wether you are listening or telling. There are different ways you can embrace storytelling. Check out and see if there any storytelling organizations in your area. You can also check with your librarian or do a search at Meetup.com. Perhaps there is a Statewide or National organization you can become part of. Further, don’t just stick with listening; try telling some stories. If not in public just to a few of your friends and family. To help with learning how to do this you can look to see if there are any classes nearby or online, or see if there’s a ToastMasters group near you. Further you can find numerous resources on the internet.
A different way to involve yourself with stories is to play one of the following storytelling games: Once Upon a Time by Atlas Games, Rory’s Story Cubes by Gamewright, or Storyline: Fairytales by Asmodee Games. Any of these will be good practice for creating and telling stories in a fun and relaxed setting. As well as exercising your imagination.
Engage in any or all of the above practices. Not only will doing so help you to be more mentally flexible but you’ll gain more creativity, confidence & optimism, and improve your decision making and problem solving skills. You’ll feel more equal to your life because you know you’ll have the skills to deal whatever challenges come your way. You’ll be better able to turn problems into opportunties.
Play On!! 😀