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AdaptAbility: an interview with M.J. Ryan


Interview by: Debbie Hepton

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Image: M.J. RyanM.J. Ryan is one of the creators of the New York Times bestselling Random Acts of Kindness series and the author of The Happiness Makeover (nominated for the 2005 Books for Better Living award in the Motivational category), Attitudes of Gratitude, The Power of Patience, Trusting Yourself, The Giving Heart, and 365 Health and Happiness Boosters, among other titles. Altogether, there are 1.75 million copies of her titles in print.

The former CEO and Editorial Director of Conari Press, in 2000, M.J. Ryan joined Professional Thinking Partners (PTP), an asset-focused consultancy whose expertise is in maximizing thinking and learning individually and in groups.

Dubbed "an expert in human fulfilment," she specializes in coaching high performance executives, entrepreneurs, and leadership teams around the world. A member of the International Coaching Federation, she is a contributing editor to Health and Good Housekeeping and has appeared on "The Today Show," CNN, and hundreds of radio programmes.

Articles on her work have appeared in over 1000 newspaper and magazines, including The New York Times, USA Today, Wall St. Journal, Health, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal, Town and Country, Cosmopolitan and Yoga Journal.

DH: At Professional Thinking Partners (PTP) you specialize in coaching high performance executives, entrepreneurs, and leadership teams around the world. Could you provide us with an insight into your coaching role?

M.J. Ryan:

My training taught me that when we're stuck, we're just disconnected to our own resources. My job is to help people understand the strengths, gifts and talents they have to overcome their challenges. I use my knowledge of how the brain works to foster accelerated learning and changing, whether it's changes someone wants to make – getting better at delegating for instance – or must respond to – losing a job.

DH: What is the best way to find the right coach? And how do you ensure that the relationship works well between coach and coachee?

M.J. Ryan:

There is nothing better than a recommendation from someone you trust who has had a positive experience. You can tell it is working if it is helpful to you. There should be a defined time period – three months say – and a defined outcome and evaluation indicators. Are you getting there? Does the coach fit who you are and how you think or does s/he try to fit you into a mould or programme that s/he has learned?

Many of my clients who have used other coaches tell me that the difference between me and others is that I help them understand how they think and then use that to help them rather than forcing them into a mould of my own thinking. For instance, a former coach tried to get a client of mine to adopt a rigid process in working. He has a lot of innovative thinking and so gets bored by routine so he could never follow the process. It's my job to help each person function at his or her optimum, not mine.

DH: Can you tell us about your new book AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn't Ask For?

M.J. Ryan:

We all know how hard it is to make the changes we want to see in our lives, like losing weight or getting in shape. But how do we deal with the changes that difficult times thrust upon us, like losing a job or living on less? How can we adapt when our industry suddenly becomes unrecognizable, when we're unexpectedly forced to rethink a set career path or job? Or we have to deal with an unasked for divorce or move. ADAPTABILITY shows us how to get past our fear and cope well with what is happening to us, ultimately, re-training our brain to master new challenges.

DH: What do you hope to achieve with the book?

M.J. Ryan:

The only thing any of us can know for certain is that life will continue to change at a rapid pace because the world has gotten more complex and interdependent. Organizational consultant Peter Vail calls this "permanent whitewater," referring to a time of ongoing uncertainty and turbulence. We can't see exactly where these changes are headed or where the submerged rocks are, yet when we're tossed out of the boat, we want to make sure to swim, not sink.

It's my hope to prevent the kind of suffering I went through when I was younger; dealing with a severe back injury, divorce and the failure of a company I started. I did it all wrong, I now understand from studying the science of resilience and learning the hard way. I want others to have the benefit of both comfort and practical advice to make the process easier, because I truly believe that learning to adapt is the greatest resource we can develop at this point in human history. 

DH: When gathering your research for AdaptAbility, what would you say were your most surprising findings?

M.J. Ryan:

Ten years ago, I was on a search to become happier in my own life and discovered that practicing gratitude was the easiest way to do it. I wrote about that in Attitudes of Gratitude. In researching resilience, the ability to bounce back from challenges, I discovered that there are five key things, and one of them is gratitude! So I have a renewed respect and passion for thankfulness as a totally free takes only seconds way to build our ability, not only to survive, but to thrive no matter what is happening.

"Monroe did something that takes courage and imagination. He asked, 'How could my bad luck be my good luck?'"

The best practice is to do it daily and to allow yourself to really feel what you are thankful for. Be as specific as possible – family won't create the magic, but thinking of your child's dimples will. Understand that this is not to deny that things may be hard but to acknowledge the good in your life as well.

DH: In your book you cite many real life examples of dealing with "unasked-for" change. Of these cases, which stands out as the most successful and why?

M.J. Ryan:

It would have to be the story of Monroe Mann, an actor, writer, musician, and filmmaker. Years ago, he decided to sign up for the U.S. Army National Guard, never dreaming that it would mean that one day he would be deployed to Iraq. Talk about unasked-for change!

"I had to break the lease on my Manhattan office, stop pre-production on a film I was gearing up to shoot, and my band broke up as well," he explained. "It was a difficult time. I was not prepared for it. Ironically, it wasn't that I was ill-prepared for combat. I was ill-prepared to leave all that I had worked so hard for behind. I was really stressed out about what the deployment would mean for my business and my career. 

"Then I took a deep breath, stepped back for a moment, and made a list of all the good things that this change would bring me and all the things I was going to do to turn this 'unasked for change' into an 'unasked for blessing'. In making the list, I realized that this deployment would make me a cooler person; it would give me great fodder for screenplays; it would entitle me to many benefits for combat veterans; and it would make me a more confident and well-travelled person.

"In the end, the deployment resulted in a number of great successes: I wrote and published a new book while I was there; I shot 75 hours of footage that I am editing into the world's first comedy documentary about the war in Iraq; and I even was nominated for a bronze star for my efforts training the 4th Iraqi Army. Not bad results from a combat zone!"

Monroe did something that takes courage and imagination. He asked, "How could my bad luck be my good luck?" You don't do this on the day you get the bad news because you need to experience your feelings about what's happening. But at some point, if you are willing to truly take on the question, you can turn the situation into something not just endurable, but perhaps transformational.

DH: You talk about the "Top Ten Change Sinkholes". Can you expand on one or two of these sinkholes and how they can be avoided?

M.J. Ryan:

Sinkholes are what I call dangerous attitudes or behaviours that keep us stuck. One of the most common is focusing on the problem, rather than the solution. We bond with our friends through complaining about the situation – isn't it horrible, I can't believe it's happening – and feel better, not realizing that the more we focus on what's wrong, the less we will be able to turn the situation around.

We also get stuck in the problem because society rewards analytic thinking. We believe that identifying the cause is the answer: Why is this happening to me? That's perhaps a starting point, although as a therapist friend once said to me, understanding "why" is the booby prize. What are you going to do about where you are? What kind of solutions can you find? What help do you need to expand your thinking to move forward?

DH: Can you explain what you mean by "Domains of Competence"?

M.J. Ryan:

We each have ways of thinking, persistent ways of approaching problems that we've cultivated throughout our lives. Domains of Competence describe these four broad categories of thinking. Once you hear what they are, it's pretty easy for you to intuit which your mind typically uses. Research by Hermann International of a sample of over half a million people has found that 60 per cent of us have two of these four, 30 per cent have three, 6 per cent have one and only 4 per cent all four. They are:

  1. Analytic: concerned with data, facts, numbers, and being "logical" and rational. With money: concerned with ways to count. With time: concerned with the present.

  2. Procedural: concerned with processes, operationalizing, logistics, and tactics. With money: concerned with ways to save. With time: concerned with the past, with how things have been done previously.
  3. Relational: concerned with feelings, morale, teamwork, and helping people grow. With money: concerned with ways to help. Time isn't so important.
  4. Innovative: concerned with newness, possibilities, strategy, and "big picture."  With money: concerned with ways to spend to do exciting new things. With time: concerned with the future.

Notice your strongest domain(s). Which are your concerns in any given situation? Are you like Ruth; energized by change, bored by numbers and routine, highly innovative and have no use for "people problems"? She's one of the 6 per cent of the population strong in just one domain. In her case, the Innovative one. Or are you more like Dan, great at numbers and following routines and highly uncomfortable with feelings and newness (Analytic and Procedural)? There is no right or wrong. Just notice what's true for you.

"The capacity to learn is truly our greatest asset in the unknown because no matter what the future holds in store for us, we're holding the key to successful adaptation."

The more you understand what Domains you use – and those you don't – you will understand where you need support during change. For instance, I don't have any Innovative thinking so I need people to help me come up with new ideas or I'm stranded. Once I've got the ideas, I use my combination of strengths in the other Domains to move forward.

DH: You end the book with 20 quick tips for surviving change you didn't ask for. Can you expand on three of these tips?

M.J. Ryan:

  1. What if you don't believe you have the confidence or talent to find a solution? Pretend you do. Turns out that "fake it till you make it" has validity in brain science – the thoughts we hold and actions you take really do create new pathways in your brain. "As we act, so we become," as Sharon Begley puts it in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

  2. Find things to laugh about. Research shows that people who thrive during change work their funny bones. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "Thrivers' happiness is not dependent on external factors or life circumstances alone. It derives from their chosen state of consciousness and ability to cheer themselves up when things are looking down." Laughter has been shown to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and improve breathing as well as mood. Best of all is when we can laugh at ourselves for not being perfect or when we hit some road block in the direction we wanted to go. It helps us stay lighthearted and resourceful.
  3. Breathe slowly and deeply. Shallow breathing is a sign that you are in fight or flight, which comes from your primitive brain and so you're not in touch with all of your resources to handle this change. A few conscious slow and deep breaths, especially if you also relax your muscles as much as possible, tells the part of your brain responsible for fight or flight that you're not in danger and so it calms down. Then you're able to think more clearly, widely and deeply. To test if you're breathing deeply, put one hand on your chest, the other on your belly. Take a breath in and out. Are both hands moving? If only the top one is, see if you can get the bottom one going as well.

DH: What denotes a successful "Change Master"?

M.J. Ryan:

The process of adapting to change goes like this: 1. Accept the change; 2. Expand your thinking about your options; 3. Get into action to create the new; 4. reflect on what you did so you can use it again. What differentiates the Change Masters I know from other folks, is how quickly they can go through the process – "ok, that's over, now what?" They expect to bounce back and are able to see the opportunities that change presents. This gives them an advantage because we're not only called on to change a lot these days, but to do it quickly. Fortunately, once you become conscious of how the process of adaptation works, you too can face future changes with greater confidence and swiftness rather than getting hung up on the rocks of denial, anger, or helplessness.

DH: According to Sylvia Lafair, psychologist and author, "our instinctive reaction in times of stress is to fall back into behaviours we developed in childhood." How far do you agree?

M.J. Ryan:

Absolutely – if we remain unconscious. Habit is very strong because the brain cells that fire together wire together, so by adulthood we have deep pathways to doing it the way we've always done. But our brains can grow new pathways our whole lives, so if we choose to change and are willing to keep practicing over and over, we can change our response. I know because I've done it and taught hundreds of people to as well.

DH: Why is it important to become a "life-long learner"? How is this best achieved?

M.J. Ryan:

My mother has been telling me she's too old to change since she was 45; she's now 85. In a way, she had the privilege of that position because she hasn't had to support herself. Those of us out there making a living know how much the world is changing and how we must change to keep up, no matter what our age. In his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, management consultant Peter F. Drucker claims that we're moving into an entrepreneurial society in which people must continue to learn new things their entire lifetimes and must "take responsibility for their learning, their own self-development, and their own careers."

What kinds of skills and education will you and I need? Since we don't even know what will happen tomorrow, how can we possible prepare for two decades from now? Or four? We can't. That's why one key component of being a Change Master is to become a lifelong learner, which will give us greater capacity to cope with whatever comes our way. According to Stanford psychology professor Carole Dweck, here are the key attitudes:

  • Belief that you can learn
  • Trust that your efforts to learn will pay off
  • Willingness to persist
  • Seeing mistakes and feedback as learning opportunities
  • Finding inspiration from the success of others

DH: What do you see as the major challenges for change agents and leaders in the future?

M.J. Ryan:

I have no idea except that change will continue at an accelerated pace, if only in response to global warming, which is why I think the ability to change and learn is what we all need to cultivate. The capacity to learn is truly our greatest asset in the unknown because no matter what the future holds in store for us, we're holding the key to successful adaptation. We can't know all of what we need to know because we don't know what that is yet. But we can trust that we'll be able to learn it when we need to.

DH: Is there anything else that you would like to add before we end the interview?  Are there any key issues we haven't covered that you think we should?

M.J. Ryan:

Just that this is no time to isolate. The danger is getting stuck in blame, shame or believing we should go it alone. When we're going through a challenge, the question is not do you need support, but what kind of support do you need? Tangible – a place to live, a job? Emotional – someone to listen to your feelings? Or help in expanding your thinking and problem solving? If readers want to reach me for more support, you can find me through my website:

September 2009.

You can order AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn't Ask For from

AdaptAbility: an interview with M.J. Ryan