Last week, my family and I spent a week in London to celebrate my mom’s and sister’s birthdays. (Okay, the birthdays were more of an excuse – we just wanted to see each other and explore somewhere exciting.) The whole week, there were eight of us coordinating plans, picking out activities, trying to agree on a restaurant…and it went so smoothly. Everyone was surprisingly flexible, and it was wonderful.

I’ve been on enough group vacations to know how special that is. On other trips, whether with family, friends, or colleagues, it isn’t always so easy. So this past week, I’ve been thinking about the virtue of flexibility, and how underrated it really is.

I brought it up to Lauren in the office the other day, as I often do with things on my mind.

“How important is flexibility, do you think?” I asked her. “People don’t really talk about it that often, but it’s pretty critical, right?”

“My dad always said that flexibility is the key to survival,” she said, without missing a beat. Her father is an airline pilot who regularly flies between the U.S. and China, so I figure he knows a thing or two about getting from point A to point B.

“Wow. Really?” I said. “The key?”

“Yeah. He’s always dealing with things like turbulence, having to change the route, navigate storms, land somewhere different than he expected. Things are always popping up that he has to deal with.”

Sounds like life, I thought.  

“So if he weren’t flexible enough to take each one in stride, well, I don’t know,” she said. “He probably wouldn’t be flying planes.”

Well, that makes perfect sense, although I might have expected an airline pilot to say focus or courage was the key to survival. But the more I think about it, the more I see that flexibility might really be the secret to living well, living long, and getting where you’re going.

Naturally, as my mind tends to, I started thinking about the two aspects of flexibility: physical and lifestyle. First, to be physically flexible means you have greater range of motion, lower risk of injury, and more freedom of movement. If you’re flexible in life, you’re more adaptable, able to move more fluidly through crises or challenges, and you have more freedom to, well, move. You have a lower risk of stress, because you can roll with the punches. To paraphrase Confucius, “The reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”

The older we get, the more rigid our bodies becomes. If we don’t practice flexibility, we lose our range of motion, so we’re more limited in our pursuits – whether that’s learning to waterski, or simply going up a set of stairs. We’re more like to “snap,” or stress out, or otherwise sacrifice our well-being.

The same principle applies to lifestyle flexibility. If we let ourselves get rigid, we lose out on the opportunity to expand our minds, to experience new things, to stretch our boundaries, if you will. We lose our youthfulness.

So what does it mean to practice flexibility in life? How can we be more flexible?

In an article in Psychology TodayDr. Alice Boyes writes that flexible thinking comes in many forms. Here are a few examples:

  • Perspective taking. This means looking at a situation from someone else’s point of view, and understanding that yours is not the only one. This one’s especially important in a conflict or argument, and it can help you reach out instead of alienate people.
  • Balancing optimism and pessimism, or weighing both the ups and downsides, instead of focusing on one of those. Flexible thinkers know that there are advantages and disadvantages to almost any outcome, and choose the most helpful piece to focus on.
  • Allowing for uncertainty. If you don’t hear back from someone, don’t assume the worst. A flexible thinker understands that there are dozens of potential reasons for this. Also, allowing for uncertainty means not marrying yourself to a particular outcome. If things don’t go the way you want them to, you can still remain open, instead of dwelling on your loss. What happens next may be a pleasant surprise.

Physically, too, you can increase your flexibility. And don’t go telling me you don’t stretch because you’re not flexible. That’s why you stretch – to get more flexible. Start slow and go gentle. You don’t want to hurt yourself by overstretching, or by stretching without warming up first. Studies show that just a few minutes of stretching a day can significantly increase your flexibility over time – so be patient, and be consistent!

As with all mindset tools, practicing flexibility is a choice, whether or not it comes naturally to you.

What is an area of your life where you’re really good at being flexibility? How does that feel?

Flexibility is one of my favorite mind-body exercises, because it’s such a clear parallel. So while you’re answering these questions, stand up and stretch your hamstrings or your shoulders, and feel that openness in your muscles. (For some guidance on this, check out my latest Moti Minute!)

What’s an area of your life where you could use more flexibility? Where you’re pretty rigid or stubborn?

How can you stretch into that space, and allow for whatever might come?

What’s possible when you step into a place of open, flexible thinking?