Flexibility… a common word that you will find on almost every job application form and resume.
Maybe a bit to much…so much that the real meaning of the word actually may have lost his meaning for many people.
If someone ask you if you are flexible, what will be your answer?
Yes, of course, I am flexible… but do you know what it actually means?
Well, this is embarrassing to say, but I know now that I didn’t. And that’s why I decided to write something about it here on my blog which may have a tremendous implication for your life if you are willing to take the time to read, understand and apply the principles that I will underline.
Let’s start at the beginning of the story…
I don’t like to brag about myself because since I am in China, I became much more humble about my personal achievements, but I have to give you the starting picture so you understand what I will describe later on.
I have never been so great at school, but after a lot of efforts and study, I succeeded to enter one of the best engineering schools in France, the Ecole Centrale of Lille.
(We have a very special education system in France, so I am calling that an « engineering school » because there is no real equivalent in other countries. It is not really university, it is more like a graduate engineering school that you can get only after some very difficult national exams).
In this engineering school, I learnt about what we call « multi-disciplinary » engineering. It’s like learning roughly about every engineering specialty, but at the same time and in the same curriculum. It includes mechanics, chemistry, computer science, automatism, electricity, electronics…and a lot more.
Then after 2 years, I made a double diploma in China in Civil Engineering through an exchange program in the best university for engineering in China, the Tsinghua University.
And after that I went to work in South Korea for a software company developing finite element software… that’s where my actual story begins ;-)
Why am I telling you that?
Because after all those years studying engineering and reading hundreds of books, I thought I knew « everything », when I actually knew nothing about the real world problems that companies are facing.
I thought that I could get the answer to any problem just by reading a book and that this answer would be definitely the right one.
The thing is that…when you are indoctrinated for years by people telling that you are the elite of the elite, at one point of the way, you start to believe it.
I am not saying that I was always wrong…because sometimes I was also right…
But my biggest problem was that I was not flexible.
When someone submitted a problem to solve to me, I thought that I always had the right way to think about it and to find a solution.
That’s maybe easier that you think for an engineer to become like that, because engineers are trained as « problem solvers ». They are trained to be analytical and a lot of them tend to believe that the world is just a big equation…a machinery that works in a special way that the engineer is able to understand better than anyone else.
I was wrong…
You see, that’s exactly the problem of someone who is not flexible:
You think that you are (almost always) doing the right way… and that others should listen to you because you can tell them how to « do things »
The consequences are that:
- People who have not developed trust in you will not necessarily agree with you, then it may cause endless dispute
- People who are more flexible than you will see you as someone obstinate who doesn’t listen and who only does thing as they want
- The inflexible person gets a lot of stress because things are not going as this person wants
Someone who is not flexible is someone who kind of want to placate his own way to do things to control his environment around to think and turn in the same way as his.
The truth is that the world is not « built in a certain way ».
There is no universal unique way to do things that work in any case and for everyone.
The way everyone has about the world in his head is just a representation of what the world look like in their head. It’s a mental model that help you to understand in some way what you detect through your senses and simplify it so you don’t freak out every time you see something new that you cannot control.
The mind likes to see things a certain way because it’s comforting to you, it’s safe to think that you know how things work and that you are not in an unknown territory.
But the problem is that when you get a lot of knowledge, you tend to think that you know more and more and at one point, you may even believe that you « know it all ».
If you have a doctorate degree in a specific field of engineering and you spent 8 years on a specific topic, it’s easy to convince yourself that you know more than 99.9% of the population about this topic…and you may…but you still don’t know « everything » (and that’s crucial).
In fact, a PhD may know his specialty very well, but that doesn’t mean that he knows other domains of engineering (or non-engineering) nearly as well. Each domain is different…
In fact, acquiring the capacity to become flexible in your way of thinking will constantly remind you how insignificant the knowledge you possess really is in comparison with the knowledge that can still be learned or discovered.
Now, I often amaze myself that every time I go deeper and deeper in a specific topic, my actual horizon naturally starts to expand and I start to see more and more things that I have no clue about….and it is so exciting!
But…what is really flexibility??
Flexibility means that you are capable to change and adapt in function of each specific situation.
And the kind of flexibility I am mainly talking about is the capacity to change your way of thinking in function of circumstances.
You see, nothing is absolute… nothing is either black or white! Everything depends on something else, everything has some parameters, some variables, some conditions that make the answer variable as a function of the input… and to continue the metaphor, there is always some grey inside the black and inside the white as well.
Chinese call that the principle of the Ying and the Yang. Every energy in the cosmos is in a constant state of balance between positive and negative energy, but inside positive, there is always negative and inside negative, there is always positive.
What I mean by that is that there is no « absolute answer » to any given problem or, more specifically: there is no absolute way to get an answer.
This is not some abstract thinking. It has been proven many times in many areas of science and every time, it has changed the world.
The biggest contribution of Einstein for example, was to declare the relativity of time.
Who would have guessed before him that even the time was relative and could change in function of some other parameters!
When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radiation, they basically stated that the mass was also not an absolute property of objects and was dependent upon the time.
Same as all that, our way of thinking as human being is relative. It depends on our education, our culture, our genes, our environment…and also so many other factors.
So… being flexible means first understanding that.
Whatever you think, whoever you are, whatever you have, there will always been different ways to tackle the same problems that you are trying to solve.
More you are flexible in your way of thinking and more you are able to think about different ways to think proactively and solve a problem.
Why is it important?
Well, first of all, it decreases the stress you may have, because you know that whatever someone tells you, it is relative too. It is his way to see things and relate to them. You know that there are probably hidden reasons that you don’t know behind a specific behavior (even if this behavior is intended to hurt you).
In one word, it immunise you against critics and other forms of attacks.
But that’s not the only benefit.
If you are flexible enough to know that there is « another way » out there, it means that you become able and open to learn about this « other way », and thus, you become more creative about solving different kind of problems.
Because if you are flexible, you know that there are several ways to get to a certain answer…and you have the power to decide which way of thinking will be more effective to solve a given problem.
There are different levels of difficulty of problems in life:
- There are simple problems, or those you can also immediately see how to solve
- There are difficult problems
- There are very difficult problems
Without a fair amount of flexibility, you will only ever be able to solve the simple ones.
Complex and very complex problems are the ones that will wreck your brain and require a higher level of flexibility for you to rethink and solve them.
Ok, That’s all for today… I thought that from time to time, sharing thoughts like this is important and is also a great way to make you aware of the higher level of thinking required to become a great engineer… or just a great human being ;-)
Let me know what you think in the comments.
Cyprien “Ranting about Flexibility” Rusu