In a crisis, what is it that enables some people to push through and come out the other end seemingly unscathed, while others crumble in the face of extraordinary challenges?
For the prominent neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, it was the search for meaning in the experience of the Holocaust that gave him the will to survive. Frankl wrote about the horrifying experience in his celebrated book Man’s Search for Meaning and later established a school of existential therapy called logotherapy, which is the belief that a person’s underlying motivator in life is a “will to meaning,” or search for purpose–even in the worst of times. This philosophy opposed Freud’s will to pleasure principle and Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power.
But how do we seek meaning in challenging times? And how does that meaning then translate to cognitive flexibility?
Start with “why”
The search for meaning starts with the question “why.” Why am I doing this? Knowing your “why” allows you to see information from various angles and results in a resilient mind prepared to change gears and readily adjust to any condition.
Batia Wiesenfeld, a professor of management at New York University’s Stern School of Business, says that forcing yourself to answer “Why am I doing this?” three times allows you to discover meaning in your life and brings you closer to your overarching goal.
For instance, let’s say you’re teaching a workshop. Ask yourself, Why am I teaching this workshop? If your answer is to get paid, then ask yourself, Why do I want higher pay? If the answer is so you can have a better life, then force yourself to answer the third “why”: Why do I want a better life? The answer here could be because you want to be happy. But is teaching the workshop going to lead you to happiness? Knowing the answers to your three whys forces you to examine your actions and decide how to use your time wisely to reach your goal of happiness.
“It’s such a simple routine to work into the way you manage or operate at work or life, and it’s amazing how many outcomes result from that little change, of just forcing yourself to explain ‘why’ to yourself and to others,” Wiesenfeld says. “You just do that and all of a sudden you’re thinking differently and you’re much more resilient because of it, much more flexible because of it.”
Wiesenfeld, who studies how people adapt to challenges in organizational life, explains that recognizing your true overarching goal gives your actions meaning, and “people who are thinking in terms of meaning are more cognitively flexible and adapt better.”
Case in point is the well-known 2001 study that found that hospital cleaning staff members who were happiest and most effective at their jobs were the ones who discovered meaning in otherwise thankless tasks. What the researchers discovered is that workers who saw their work as a calling aligned with patient care and health were the ones who found deeper meaning and satisfaction. These workers, for example, made sure to notice and clean ceilings in hospital rooms–spaces that no one else noticed except patients who have to look up all day.
The research tells us something important about meaning: Seeking it requires one to look for solutions more broadly in what’s called distant search, resulting in the ability to look out farther through a wider lens to see a bigger picture.
Jennifer Garvey Berger, author of Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, wrote in Fast Company in 2015 that being able to “consider the bigger picture” during times of chaos is key to one’s adaptability:
“Our inclination is to pull things apart and solve the little bits one at a time. In complexity, the system is moving too fast and has too many interrelated parts for us to use this more comfortable approach with success for long. Instead, when things are really moving fast, it’s time to look at the interactions. It’s like watching a game of ice hockey: If you follow the puck with your eyes, you’ll be lost. If you zoom out and look at the patterns of the players on the ice, you’ll see the game.”
The modern workplace affects adaptability in big ways
In the last decades, organizations are increasingly becoming more global, complex, and demanding of workers’ time. As a result of people having to work from anywhere at anytime is that workers in the modern era have a big-picture, abstract way of thinking about overall ideas.
Wiesenfeld and Jean-Nicolas Reyt, assistant professor of organizational behavior from McGill University, found this to be the case in their research published in the Academy of Management Journal, which looked at how the prevalence of technologies–laptops, smartphones, tablets, wearables–affects work demands and norms and requires greater role integration for workers.
In the always-on, always-connected work environment, it’s difficult to keep role boundaries separate and distinct, because boundaries are permeable and even blurred as we move fluidly from one role to another. Even the way many of us use our smartphones for both business and personal affairs is evidence that boundaries are overlapping and combining. The research findings suggest that it’s these role integration behaviors that shape higher construal levels and lead to more abstract thinking.
The downsides of too much adapting
The cognitive power of adapting to all levels of uncertainty is no doubt the human race’s survival of the fittest of a sort. If you can’t adapt, can’t see situations in versatile ways, can’t find meaning in the most dreary circumstances, you might not survive.
But, if you’re always adapting, how does this affect your commitment levels? Think about it in organizational terms. If an organization is always flexible, always changing gears, always thinking about trends in the market and what competitors are doing, could this lead to a lack of direction and commitment? What are the downsides to always adapting and never committing?
Tim Harford, an economist and journalist, wrote in his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, that the modern economy makes it harder to effectively plan and commit because “whether we like it or not, trial and error is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world.”
“We’re often told that we have to totally commit to something,” Harford tells Fast Company. “Whenever we start something risky and scary, we don’t want to entertain the possibility that it might fail. Whatever it is–a marriage, a job, a new business venture. We just imagine this is definitely going to work.”
“This might work” vs. “This is going to work.”
However, Harford says it’s “probably a much better state of mind” to say “this might work” versus asserting “this is going to work.”
“If [‘this might work’] is what you have in your mind when you start, you’ll be much more alert to take in signals, new information, tweak it, adjust it, adapt, or maybe just stop,” he explains.
In these risk-taking situations, Harford suggests thinking about your actions as experiments that generate information rather than definitive decisions, which will make it easier to move forward, adapt, and adjust.
As to the downsides of always adapting and never committing, Harford points to research that shows if you’re always keeping your options open, you’re constantly second guessing yourself and that makes you unhappy. Research also shows that the moment we commit to something, we start being happier with whatever we decided on.
However, Harford also suggests that this downside is only relevant when there is no new information coming in. But if you’re in a scenario where you’re still learning new things, it benefits you to stay open to options. And adapting, adding randomness and a bit of chaos, in uncertain situations is what Harford believes makes us better.
“I’m aware that when you push yourself out of your comfort zone–a new kind of project, a new kind of activity–you are likely to, in the end, look back and go ‘I’m glad I did that, even if at the time, it feels very uncomfortable,'” he says.
At the organizational level, Wiesenfeld says there needs to be a balance between adapting and committing because “when it comes to actually executing, when you have to get stuff done, then being more specific, being more detailed, being more focused on the here and now is essential.”
In short, the visionary, abstract thinking–the adaptive, big picture mindset–isn’t so beneficial when you need to get things done. In these situations, you need committed, concrete thinkers.
The bottom line is, committing–and concrete thinking–might be what’s needed in a strictly controlled environment where no new information is coming in, but change is inevitable, and in chaotic, challenging times, it’s the flexible, visionary thinker who sees the big picture and can find meaning despite the conditions, who will be able to apply learned lessons, respond to change, and stay relevant.