It feels good to be right. To know something with absolute certainty. To understand that what you know now will always be true, because this type of knowledge is timeless.
When we can barrel through life entirely sure of our own rightness, we’re far more likely to do better. This works brilliantly …
Until everything falls apart when the world changes suddenly.
I bet you can think of a few examples from your childhood.
Think back to what your maths teacher always told you about learning mental arithmetic:
‘You have to know your tables – because when you’re older, you won’t have a calculator in your pocket!’
That comment sure aged well. But we can’t really blame the maths teacher. Predicting the future with any degree of accuracy is almost impossible. There are just too many variables.
And with that, we can put our finger on the problem with the old-school ‘facts and dates’ style of learning that was (up until fairly recently) the norm for classes in high school.
It’s not so much that people learned it when they were young.
It’s that they took it as an example for their professional lives.
That means that when the facts changed … their mindset stayed the same, with predictably disastrous results.
So, let’s acknowledge that the modern workplace has many moving parts. It morphs into unexpected forms with a rapidity that would’ve astounded people of just a couple of generations ago.
Just look at how many job titles there are on Seek that have been recently coined.
Given that we’ve accepted that rapid change is a constant in the modern workplace, how can we adjust our mindset to fit this new reality?
This is where cognitive flexibility comes in. It’s a logical and highly effective means of dealing with the new normal.
So, what is it? In short, ‘cognitive flexibility enables us to think divergently, change perspective and adapt to a continuously changing environment.’[i] It’s a crucial characteristic when we’re confronted by the reality that nobody really understands what a ‘workplace’ will look like in ten years … let alone 50.
The best remedy against this isn’t to conceive of every possible workplace and plan for all of them. First, this would take you forever. Second, you’ll most likely fail to correctly predict the latest innovations barrelling towards us around that blind corner.
So instead of frantically cramming for an eventual future that you have no idea about, you’re far better off preparing your thoughts for rapid change.
This is one area where some of the most popular applications of AI have led us seriously astray.
We tend to get excited about every latest advance in something that computers can do – win at chess or build a house, for example – not realising that these tasks are simply outputs of the programs we design for them. A computer isn’t aware it’s building a house, and it wouldn’t be able to come up with new perspectives about what a house should be.
Instead, we should be getting excited about the daily challenges humans are able to meet – often without thinking about it. Consider it. Many of us flourish in a workplace environment which simply didn’t exist, say, even 20 years ago. The capacities which we have access to were, until recently, completely unheard of.
So, have we been daunted by this situation of rapid flux? Sometimes – but what really stands out is how we’ve managed to seamlessly integrate these new capacities into what we see as a ‘workday’.
There’s a darker side to this too, of course. Those who fail to adapt in a world of rapid change are doomed to obsolescence – and faster than ever before.
This habit of mental flexibility is hard to express, but it’s a bit like turning a problem over and over in your hands to see it from every angle to make sure you’ve considered all possibilities.
The best thing about cognitive flexibility is that it’s a habit, not a one-off effort. As soon as you begin to see your own mindset as a tool that can be applied to a problem from various angles, rather than a single object you can use to hammer away at everything indiscriminately, you’ve already gone a long way towards cultivating a different type of thinking – one which is fully capable of forming new realities and environments, instead of being hostage to old ones.