17 Oct 2023

How to move through change with 'rugged flexibility'

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 17 October 2023

When change inevitably comes our way, stability can be found in remembering the natural pattern of 'order, disorder, reorder', says writer and human performance expert Brad Stulberg. 

"There's no getting to reorder without going through disorder. Just knowing that hopefully provides some consolation when you're in that period ... be really kind to yourself, be patient with yourself," he tells Jesse Mulligan.

American writer Brad Stulberg

American writer Brad Stulberg Photo: ©Ben Krantz Studio

Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything Is Changing - Including You

Photo: Supplied

Stulberg says he first had the idea for his new book Master of Change after browsing news stories on his wife's iPad one morning during the Covid pandemic.

"The [stories] were all in the spirit of 'when are things going to get back to normal?' … And I didn't know what at the time about that rubbed me the wrong way but something did. That led to a journey of [exploring] why we try to get back to normal.

"Where does that mindset come from? And might there be better ways to think about engaging with change, be it global change, societal change, like a pandemic, or individual changes?"

The belief that we achieve stability by staying the same is based on the scientific idea of homeostasis, Stulberg says – in Latin 'homo' means same and 'stasis' means standing – yet thinking this way makes us resistant to change.

It's more realistic and helpful to think about allostasis – the idea that healthy thriving systems actually achieve stability through a process of change.

In Master of Change, "rugged flexibility" is the central term Stulberg introduces and also a quality he recommends people work to develop to increase resilience in the face of change.

This involves identifying and holding on to your core values, "your source of ruggedness", but also cultivating adaptability.

"It doesn't matter if we're talking about individuals, organisations or even entire societies – those that are both rugged and flexible tend to persist longest and they tend to have a really gritty and graceful endurance about them throughout all sorts of change."

Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel

Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel Photo: Getty Images

Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel demonstrated "rugged flexibility" in the lead-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics by expanding and relaxing his sense of identity, Stulberg says.

When van der Poel noticed that he was underperforming and that the primary reason for that was too much fear, he realised it was coming from the "enormous burden" of existing exclusively as 'Nils van der Poel the speed skater'.

"He stepped back and he said 'You know, I'm very rugged but I'm not very flexible right now'. And he did something that at the time was unheard of for an Olympian – took a normal weekend from Friday night to Monday morning. He acted as if he was just a regular person. He went out for beer and pizza, he went bowling, he went on hikes, he got involved in his community. And it allowed him to develop these other sources of identity and other sources of meaning in his life. He says that that allowed him to go and compete from a place of love and joy versus fear and compulsion. And he was able to skate to win instead of skating not to lose."

The key to being able to "go all in" with one aspect of life may be to ensure it's not the only thing we care about and are invested in, Stulberg says.

"The first thing that you learn about investing is you want to diversify your portfolio, right. That's because if you have just one asset and that one asset changes and it changes in a negative direction, you're in big trouble. Yet we often don't diversify our sense of identity. I argue in the book that we should and I think Neil's Vanderpol is a beautiful example of that."

Stulberg finds meaning as a writer but also, he says, as a parent, husband, athlete and community member. 

"It's not that many things but it's enough that if something goes wrong in my writing – if a book flops or I hit writer's block – I can lean into those other identities for stability. When something challenging happens in those other realms, I can lean into the writing."

When sudden change inevitably appears in our lives, many people react (in a way that's emotionally hot and instinctive and quick) rather than respond (which is slower, more discerning and more deliberate), Stulberg says.

In Master of Change, he offers four Ps to remember when working towards a response rather than a reaction – PauseProcess what's happening and make a Plan before you Proceed.

"[By doing this] we turn on our prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain, and we get out of that instinctive rash mode and tend to make much better decisions."

This framework can be applied to unexpected changes in day-to-day life – such as "firing off that email that maybe you shouldn't" – or more major things such as losing a job or receiving a bad health diagnosis, Stulberg says.

"Responding instead of reacting puts us in a position to more skillfully engage with what's happening."

Learning to label your emotions with words is also very helpful in developing the capacity to respond, he says.

"If we say [for example] I'm feeling stressed, I'm feeling anxious. I'm feeling overwhelmed. I'm feeling angry, I'm feeling excited, we create some space in our situation, in ourselves. In that space, we slow things down, we give ourselves a chance to respond. And the more that we practice doing this, the easier it becomes."

When you're processing change, Stulberg says it's good to practice focusing on what you can control rather than on what you can't.

Giving your brain "a little anchor of predictability" such as a morning run or a cup of tea at a certain time each day can also be helpful.

In difficult times of change, be really kind to yourself and really patient with yourself, he says, and reach out for help if the situation feels too overwhelming to handle.

"There's no getting to reorder without going through disorder. Just knowing that hopefully provides some consolation when you're in that period.

"When we're going through really hard times there's this trick our brain plays on us where it feels like time slows down and it's going to last forever. But when we get to the other side of these experiences, and we look back on them, actually they don't seem to have taken that long. Know that you just have to show up and get through and eventually 99.99% of the time you arrive at a new reorder and you look back and you've probably grown and learned a thing or two."

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