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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Fluidity in a Fast-Paced World: Embracing Flexibility for Thriving in Change

Our Pursuit of Truth

Welcome, my fellow connectors! We’ve been exploring the pursuit of truth in the past two articles (The Need for Truth in Our Crazy World and Why Truth Matters More Than Ever in Our Rapidly-Changing World). My first article, How to Find Greater Peace and Joy in Our “Crazy” World, sets the stage for the entire series.

We have all taken the “red pill” and are heading further down the rabbit hole with this series. We have just a few more dots to connect before entering some really fascinating territory. I assure you that we are going to get there, and I hope blow your minds in the next few blogs by connecting some BIG dots!

After identifying the root causes of our current dilemmas, I am going to begin forecasting what is on the horizon. Artificial intelligence is changing everything right in front of us. We need to get ready for what is ahead and bring our “A-Game” to managing the unique challenges that AI will pose for humanity. We will not get a second chance, so we need to get this right. This series is on how we must use the best of human wisdom to guide us in the age of artificial intelligence.

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” — Benjamin Franklin

A Brief Recap

First, here are a few points to catch you up in case you don’t have the time to read the previous articles or have forgotten:

·         Truth is critical as we navigate the challenges of life. By “truth,“ I mean not only factual accuracy but also the adaptive wisdom to deal with complex and ever-changing environments. It serves as a light to guide our way through the obstacles in our path that can otherwise undermine our survival, progress, and growth.

·         However, truth is quite elusive in our complicated world. We have “terraformed” or “technoformed” our world such that it would be totally unrecognizable to our evolutionary ancestors. Thus, even when we try in earnest, finding what is “true” in our intricate, nuanced, evolving world of modernity is maddeningly difficult.

·         There are very few “absolute” truths in this world. Thus, the complexities of this world do not fit neatly into dichotomies of right/wrong, good/evil, nature/nurture, liberal/conservative, etc. This is especially true regarding the intricate, evolving problems of today’s modern world (e.g., climate change, artificial intelligence, immigration reform, gun safety regulations, managing inflation).

·         Given the above, we should approach the search for truth with curiosity and humility. We should avoid deluding ourselves into certainties because the complexities of this world do not warrant them.

·         The universe is always in flux. Yet, technology is now pushing the pace of change to unprecedented speeds. As one example, look at how smartphones and social media have reshaped our lives in a decade.

·         Artificial intelligence (AI) can be considered a civilization-altering technology as well as a “change accelerant.” It is such a powerful technology that is evolving and proliferating so rapidly, it is poised to radically change everything about our world. This truth, this reality, has critical implications.

The bottom line is that our world of accelerating change necessitates that we become more flexible than ever. We cannot navigate the fast-moving complexities within our modern world unless we very skillfully leverage our flexibility. Flexibly adapting to the challenges of modernity is the only way forward. Fortunately, adaptation is in our nature, for it’s the very process through which we evolved.

Change Is Our Evolutionary Heritage

Humans, like all living creatures, have been shaped by the the evolutionary process of natural selection. That is, individuals that are best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and pass on their traits to their offspring. This mechanism of evolution has guided our biological development over millions of years. Yet, it’s not just biology that evolves. We’re also experiencing rapid shifts on multiple fronts, including technological advancements that are leading to societal transformations.

It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” — Prof. Leon C. Megginson, capturing a point from Charles Darwin’s, “The Origin of Species”

We will cover our purpose in life in greater detail in future articles, but we might say that we evolved to live, therefore we also live to evolve. Thus, consistent to the evolution that got us here, a purpose in life is to change and grow. I won’t claim change/growth are THE purpose of life, because that claim cannot be proven. Additionally, such a claim is, understandably, likely to elicit arguments. It’s much safer to claim that change/growth are a purpose of life, so let’s go with that.

In an ongoing, interactive, iterative way, the environmental demands of our ancestral environments shaped our evolutionary trajectory. In this sense, adaptation is a form of flexibility to help increase our chances of survival. We might say, in the game of life, flexibility is our ally, and rigidity is our enemy.

Thus who is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.” Lao Tzu from “The Tao Te Ching”

Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling to tightly, you are going to lose control.” from the song, “Hold On Loosely” by the band, .38 Special.

To clarify, being rigid isn’t always a bad thing. There are times when being steadfast and persistent is the best strategy. But think of this rigidity as a tool within our greater flexibility toolkit. It’s not an either/or situation. We can move between rigidity and flexibility depending upon the demands of the situation. That is, we are flexible when it is more adaptive to “go with the flow,” yet we can also change course and “hold fast” when that’s the better approach. Having established how change is in our DNA, let’s pivot to how this predisposes us to a life focused on learning and growth.

We Evolved to Grow and Learn

Building upon this foundation, let’s explore some of the biological aspects of our need to grow and learn. On the biological level, learning recruits the reward systems in the brain so that the learning is reinforced. We evolved to grow and learn to meet environmental demands effectively and thereby survive and thrive. In this sense, learning and growth have a utility — increased surviving and thriving. In general, we feel happy when we learn and grow. Happiness can be viewed as the evolutionary payoff and incentive for meeting our survival needs effectively. In this sense, happiness is both as a purpose in life and as a by-product that comes from fulfilling the evolutionary imperative to learn and grow.

When we think of “evolution” as more broadly meaning a process of learning, adapting, and growing to be more effective and efficient, we see evolution everywhere. Kids learn more advanced skills and concepts in school and this continues on through college and throughout their careers. Athletes strive to improve their skills and performances through better nutrition and training methods. They aim to win more championships and set records. Musicians and artists want to become more technically proficient, creative, and successful.

Even with most religions, we seek to grow in our faith — to be a “better” Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew. In all these cases, the underlying thread is our evolutionary drive to adapt and survive by becoming more efficient and effective.

On a personal level, we can all reflect upon various challenges and setbacks we have encountered over the years and see our own flexibility at play. Every time we have problem-solved with our romantic partners, negotiated, or compromised, we have shown flexibility. Some of our greatest growth experiences have been through the “school of hard knocks.” In a broader sense, communities and societies not only grow in number, but they evolve to better serve the needs of the people to enable the citizens to live healthier, happier lives. In this way, growth can be construed as “progress” when it improves people’s lives. Thus, our ability to navigate life’s hurdles, on both individual and societal levels, shows our inherent flexibility, which is a quality crucial for growth.

Growth, in terms of profitability, is an inherent goal within capitalism. Through a Darwinian process, businesses that grow in profitability survive and thrive whereas unprofitable businesses are eventually “weeded out” of the “business gene pool.” That said, let’s not confuse growth with “good.” Capitalism may aim for profitability, but that doesn’t always translate into morally sound outcomes or happier/healthier lives.

While capitalism can be great as an engine for growth in terms of profitability, it is easy to find examples of how profitability does not serve the greater good. For example, tobacco companies selling more cigarettes or fast food companies selling more super-sized bacon double cheeseburgers might grow in terms of profitability at the expense of consumers’ health and well-being. While capitalism might be good at making things better (e.g., better tasting and cheaper fast food), “better” is often not for the “good” (e.g., happiness and well-being). Therefore, it’s crucial to differentiate between the kinds of growth that capitalism excels at and those that truly serve the greater good. We will return to this important distinction in future articles.

Flexibility as a Key to Learning and Growth

As previously discussed, flexibility isn’t just a personal asset. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s a necessity for our learning and growth. If we can agree that learning and growth are a purpose of life, we might then ask: What’s the key to learning and growth? A reasonable answer is flexibility. Growth inherently requires flexibility and adaptation.

Flexibility provides the space in which growth is made possible. Just as a sapling cannot grow into a majestic oak tree within the confines of a small box, our personal growth is limited if we are constrained by rigidity. These constraints can come externally, but we are often constrained internally as well through inflexible ways of thinking and acting. Again, I’m not saying this is a universally accepted truth regarding life’s purpose. There are many perspectives on the purpose of our existence, but from an evolutionary and psychological standpoint, learning and growth seem to be a major driving force.

The only constant in life is change, and we should be growing in such a way that we’re always prepared to engage it.” — Epictetus (Paraphrased)

Using “No Way as Way”

Instead of interacting with the world in the rigid, dualistic way of either/or, we should approach life in a non-dualistic, flexible manner that allows the space for change and growth. As martial arts practitioner for over 30 years, I am inspired by martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee who, when describing his approach to martial arts, promoted using “no way as way.” His art of Jeet Kune Do (JKD), or way of the intercepting fist, was built upon this idea. Lee was well-aware of the seeming contradiction of creating his own martial art “style.” Yet, Lee claimed, “My style is no style.” From this perspective, any particular “way” is fundamentally restrictive and limiting, especially if it’s presented as the only way.

All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.” — Bruce Lee

Lee viewed traditional martial arts as too rigid and stifling. In fact, he referred to traditional martial arts as a “classical mess” and “organized despair,” which was blasphemous to the traditional martial artists of his time. He viewed life as dynamic and often unpredictable. Is there one attacker or multiple attackers? What is the terrain like? What clothing is one wearing? Does the fight go to the ground or does it remain upright? Does the attacker have a weapon? What kind? What is the attacker’s body type and skill set?

As you can see, an almost infinite number of variables can come into play. An inflexible approach to a combat situation could be problematic because life is not rigid. Techniques that were effective became part of JKD. Those that didn’t were discarded. JKD could evolve and expand to incorporate new ideas and techniques as they were shown to be effective. There were no limits to what could be incorporated.

As a student of philosophy and life, Lee applied concepts he learned to his life holistically but also to martial arts. The way to be a more effective martial artist, according to Lee, was to liberate oneself from any particular style or system. Thus, one was not a “kung fu” or “karate” or “judo” practitioner. Instead, one was a martial artist in a broader sense. This didn’t mean that learning techniques and practicing were unnecessary. However, a person would not restrict themselves to the idea that there is only one approach to self-defense.

According to Lee’s approach, we must be adaptive or suffer the consequences. In a self-defense situation, this could literally mean life or death. While the concept of approaching martial arts as fluid and dynamic, especially in this age of mixed martial arts, seems obvious now, it was revolutionary at the time. Plus, Lee’s iconoclastic approach garnered much criticism from the old guard. This brash young man was upsetting the status quo by criticizing hundreds of years of tradition.

Be Water, My Friend

While Bruce Lee applied “no way as way” to martial arts, he was quite the student of philosophy as well. In addition to his own insights, Lee was especially fond of Eastern philosophy, such as Taoism and Buddhism, and he was also a big fan of Alan Watts (a philosopher and speaker who interpreted Eastern philosophical and religious teachings for a Western audience). Lee realized that rigidity was contrary to life itself. Life is fluid. Thus, we should be as fluid as water as well. This puts us in greater harmony with the way the world works.

Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow. Water can crash. Be water, my friend.” — Bruce Lee’s character in the television show, Longstreet

The ideas that Bruce Lee espoused can be found everywhere. He is but another finger pointing to the moon of truth. The truth is this: Since the world is always changing, we must be flexible and adaptive to survive and thrive. We must strive to live in harmony with the way the world works. Living incongruent with the way the world works, such as being rigid when we need to be flexible, leads to suffering. Flexibility and adaptation are keys to surviving and thriving. Moreover, the more variability, unpredictability, and change that we encounter, the more flexible we must become.

The supple willow does not contend against the storm, yet it survives.” — Lao Tzu, from “The Tao Te Ching.”

Adapting Our Minds: The Lesson of “Superforecasters” and Bayesian Reasoning

From Bruce Lee’s philosophy, we can move into another crucial area that demands our flexibility: decision-making. This fluid philosophy ties in well with the work of psychologist Philip Tetlock, who has extensively studied the art and science of prediction and decision-making as part of the Good Judgment Project. Tetlock’s research centers on the idea that effective “superforecasters” — people exceptionally good at predicting future events — adopt what he calls a Bayesian approach to reasoning. This concept is about updating our beliefs when new information comes in, a concept that’s consistent with Bruce Lee’s flexible and adaptable mindset.

In sum, whether we’re dodging a punch or making a critical life decision, the underlying principle remains the same: Be open, be adaptable, and be ready to pivot when the situation demands it. We must be mindful that adaptability isn’t just about survival. It’s about flourishing in a constantly changing landscape. In short, we need to “be water” as we flow through this life’s journey.

Flex or Break: The Existential Tightrope of Modernity

Our flexibility is tested even more in the complex web of modern challenges. As we’ve explored in previous articles, the importance of truth cannot be overstated. However, in this age of relentless change, truth alone is not enough. We find ourselves on the cusp of unprecedented challenges including climate change, the proliferation of AI, and toxic levels of political polarization. While truth serves as our compass, reality is a river that is ever-changing. Thus, we must pivot and adjust to the unfolding changes and challenges before us. We must skillfully use our flexibility to pursue truth as we adapt to the demands of our dynamic environment. In this regard, flexibility isn’t merely a virtue. It’s a survival skill for the modern world.

As our modern world changes at a breakneck pace because of technological advances, especially AI, we must swiftly change as well in order to keep up. The pace of change is accelerating. We must flexibly adapt to the accelerating rate of change. This is where we are running up a problem of epic proportions. I’ll borrow from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to say that we have our own “Kobayashi Muru” — a no-win scenario. We cannot biologically adapt fast enough to keep pace with technological evolution.

My fellow connectors, I told you that I had a lot of “thought babies” — ideas and epiphanies that I was going to weave together. I’m mixing metaphors here, but we are about to go much deeper down the rabbit hole as we connect these dots. We are faced with an unprecedented challenge of trying to flexibly adapt to a world that is changing faster than our ability to do so.

Technological evolution leaves biological evolution behind in the digital dust. The inherent challenges of our modern world lead us to some inevitable, profound implications. Humanity is at an inflection point, and we need to be incredibly skillful and united to prepare for the unfolding future. There is only one way forward, and I’ll be describing this way in our upcoming articles. Please join me for these critical next parts of our journey!


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