My friend Helena shared another brilliant blog idea – except this time she left the writing up to me. While her analysis may have been vastly different than the one you’re about to read, I find the topic very fitting for my current state of life (and hope to hear more of her take on the subject, as well). Thanks again, Helena!
Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change, newly published by theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow, has been recently mentioned in Psychology Today, on public radio, and in many science-minded magazines and publications. (Mlodinow has been on the NYT best seller list and recently published this article in the NYT on ADHD.) Mlodinow is currently touring, giving interviews regarding his and science’s conclusion: creativity and progress arise from an elastic mind. A mind unhindered by logic.
Algorithms for problem solving are implemented everywhere. Google uses them to recommend your next search or purchase; traffic lights are designed by them to alleviate congestion; online Internet sites match your soul mate using them; even a simple recipe mathematically leads you to a desired outcome of dinner. An algorithm is the equation of problem solving. Logic in problem solving is a necessary means to an end, but it’s not always the only or best means.
All too often we rely on our innate logic to guide our path. Experience and culture tells us some results work while others end up failures, so we steer ourselves towards what we believe will be a success. We convince ourselves out of elastic thinking. Mlodinow argues this is our biggest challenge toward progression.
Neophilia: characterized by a strong affinity for novelty
Change is hard though. While life is a constant state of modification: we mature, get sick, move around, marry, sometimes have kids, change jobs, sometimes divorce, loved ones die, we lose jobs, start new lives, become grandparents, learn new hobbies or skillsets – our behaviors are often set and predictable. We wake up, have coffee or eat breakfast, workout, shower, go to work or school the same way every day, run the same errands, food shop for the same food, go to the same yearly appointments, and see our friends and family on a pretty reliable schedule. Even our mindsets are developed pretty early in life (once a fight the power vegetarian, always a fight the power vegetarian). We develop our patterns early in life and usually stick with them as creatures of habit. As Mlodinow puts it, “We each develop our point of view on common issues during our first few decades of life or our first years in a job. We form a framework to apply those ideas when we’re called upon to draw conclusions in those realms. For some, those paradigms never evolve, but for the fortunate they do.”
Real progression is based on Mlodinow’s concept of elastic thinking.“For example: the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction; the capability to rise above conventional mind-sets and to reframe the questions we ask; the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms; the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas; and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure.”
Openness to paradigm change has become what Helena and Mlodinow feel an essential life skill. As Helena coined it in her email to me, “building a resilient self,” which got me thinking. Sometimes life forces change upon you. I’m a creature of habit. I prefer routine, surround myself with close friends and family, and don’t often venture into the unknown. Neophelia at heart. But life has consistently jarred my comfort level – seemingly random courses of events that completely changed my progression in life. My innate is to be comfortable, but reality forced upon me a resilient self. A constant state of unknown and uncomfortable situations where I had to go with my gut and figure it out as it happened. Had my innate won out I’d still be teaching elementary education in Fairfield, Connecticut. But given life’s constant state of change, and my lack of experience to rely on in most of those situations, I had to go along most often figuring it out as it unfolded, often failing miserably, but also reaping some major rewards. At this point in life, I’m still working on resiliency, but starting a business and a very public blog is definitely way outside of my comfort zone, so go elastically-minded, resilient me!
How do we develop an elastic mentality and resiliency?
“One of the abilities most important to elastic thinking is the power to relax your mind, to let your guard down,“ according to Mlodinow. Turning off the constant flood of alerts, texts, and calls (even if just for a set period of time), finding a way to limit stimulation and distraction in your environment (dimming lighting or turning off the radio while driving), or taking time to sit quietly and allow your mind’s stream of consciousness to take place all help in engaging your creative mind, your elastic mind. You allow the process of thinking outside the box and your comfort zone.
Another way to look at our mental elasticity is to consider opposing views to our own, according Mlodinow, and this is something I think most of us can learn from. In a recent interview Mlodinow said, “As a more general exercise to nurture my mental flexibility, I focus on one of my strongly held beliefs. I imagine that someone tells me that the belief is false, and try harder to be open to the possibility that I’m mistaken. I ask questions: Why do I hold that belief? Why might others have come to a different conclusion? I try to take that point of view seriously, and to recall times in the past that I was wrong about something, even though I’d been confident of being right.” This type of elastic mind feels desperately needed with our country in such a state of aggressive debate.
Rarely do I play music while I’m alone in the car. I love to let my mind wander while silently driving – it’s often when I get ideas for writing, remember the ten things I forgot to do that day, or work out something that occurred that may have brought on unpredictable emotions. Hiking alone in the woods offers me the same experience. Entire paragraphs or even full pieces of well-articulated thoughts have occurred during quiet moments. A small notepad that I carry in my purse is full of ideas and has become a better recording of my true thoughts than any diary I have ever kept (my diaries mainly contained cathartic rants and rages). At night, in the dark before I fall asleep my mind races with thoughts, ideas, and conversations I’ve had. My bedside table includes my phone, which I’ve written a gazillion notes on, and a notebook for quick ideas and reminders that I blindly scribble down in the dark. These quiet moments are when my mind is clearest and full of potential. While most of what I think is not worth sharing, or a means to any end, the quiet process of thinking helps me sort out my life and has perhaps helped me be more resilient (plus I tend become cranky if I haven’t had time to quietly process in these ways).
For me, the idea of elasticity hits home on many fronts, but most applicably with simple. pure. love. Making body care products to sell and blogging to the universe is so far outside of my comfort zone it sometimes feels like I’m watching events occur instead of making events occur. But life unfolded and I decided, “what the heck?” – so here I am. Will this personally uncharted territory be a success? I have no idea, but what I do know is that I’ve learned a tremendous amount of new information in a very little amount of time, all because I was willing to think with an elastic mind. In one way or another this has changed the course of my mindset and life experience and that’s enough for me check “yes”.
If you’ve read this far, I challenge you to build on your elastic mind. For me, that will be to continue to better understand (without judgment or anger) some of the opinions strongly vocalized by those who believe differently than I do – and on a slightly lighter note, where I imagine my future and the future of simple. pure. love. Maybe your elastic paradigm shift is as simple as trying a new restaurant or life changing as finally putting your house on the market. Maybe your shift is finding peace with something that has recently burdened you (like a never-ending winter in New England, as it hails outside my window). Or maybe just allowing yourself to imagine how things could be different, which may one day inspire you to try something new. Whatever the reason, building an elastic mind and becoming more resilient seems like a worthy experiment, so try letting your mind go and truly consider its path as you follow along.
Much love and happiness,
P.S. To truly witness an elastic mind, watch a very young child in action. 😉
P.P.S. If you’re ever in St. Louis with the kids, I highly recommend City Museum, the featured image and definitely elastically minded design.