Adaptability: How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For

Ryan, MJ

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week our show features Mary Jane Ryan, or MJ. She is an inspirational author and coach and is one of the creators of the New York Times best-selling Random Acts of Kindness Series, and also the author of Adaptability: How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For. Also, This Year I Will, The Happiness Makeover, Attitudes of Gratitude, The Power of Patience, Trusting Yourself, The Giving Heart, and 365 Health and Happiness Boosters, among other titles. So she is very prolific.

MJ is a life coach, columnist for health, and Contributing Editor to Good Housekeeping. She has appeared on The Today Show, CNN, and hundreds of radio shows. She is renowned as a change expert. She specializes in thinking partnerships with individuals around the world.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: There is such an array of breadth here in MJ’s work. I think the book that drew my attention to MJ was, This Year I Will, and how to finally change a habit or keep a resolution, or make a dream come true. Then when I saw her book, Adaptability, that was passed along to me by Noel Tichy and we talked about MJ’s strengths, I thought let’s just get her on the show and talk about all of these great subjects, there is so much here.

Let’s dive right in with MJ, if that’s okay with you, and let me ask you our first question here, MJ. Tell us a little bit about how you came to work in the area of coaching and well-being, and I know Relly has a big question for you and we’ll come right back to that.

MJ Ryan: Actually, I used to be a book publisher. I founded a company in Berkeley and ran it for 14 years. We did books. They were inspirational help books, psychology, business; so I was editing and publishing in this area. We happened to do this little book called Random Acts of Kindness, that I actually wrote, and it caused this phenomenon of people writing to us, an explosion, it was on the best-seller’s list, it became an entire movement, which we started a non-profit for. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, I wanted to, if I was going to publish about kindness, practice it. So when I started to practice, I realized I got happier in my life. This is actually before the positive psychology movement.

On my own, I said, well, okay that worked, what else could work? So then I started to think that people who are happier and more successful than me were also more grateful. So I thought, let me study that and practice that.

I started experimenting with myself, basically, originally. I got so interested in this that I ended up selling my company and going to work with one of my authors as a member of Professional Thinking Partners. We work with executives around the world now using a lot of these same techniques and tools that I had worked on myself with first.

Dr. Relly Nadler: MJ, that’s really fascinating. What made the difference to have you go from a publisher to an author? Many people may think, oh, I think I could write. Was it just seeing the books that come in?

MJ Ryan: Actually, we were boot-strapping our company; it was one of those typical in your house kinds of things, and one of the key expenses as a publisher is paying authors royalties. So we decided to come up with some books that I would write so therefore we didn’t have to pay me. I became an author by accident. I learned that I really liked it and that I was really good at it.

It was a fluke, it was a money saving strategy.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: MJ, in your book you talk about so many different topics and you seem to be an inspirational writer. You write about kindness, about patience, about adaptability and happiness. Were there perhaps some challenges that you came through that gave you insight into these subjects?

MJ Ryan: Well I think a couple of things. One is that I really was on a campaign to learn how to be happier in my life. When I started this I was in my late 30’s and I knew why I was miserable, but like so many of us, I didn’t know what to do to make myself happier. I just started to think, observe, and read everything that people wrote about the subject, and practice these qualities myself.

They started from things that I wanted to grow in myself. Then while I was on my own little exploration, there’s been this explosion, as we all know now, of this positive psychology which is looking at these very same factors. Looking at why is gratitude useful. What does kindness do for us and why should we cultivate it.

There was then this whole research backing to the very same things that I had discovered anecdotally and working with people. So that made it even more interesting to me. Then I got really fascinated with the brain science connection between all of this. So I’ve weaved that piece in as well.

So I have my own practice of these things that I’m trying to grow in myself, there’s the positive psychology aspects of all of the research being done as to why this works, and then the neuroscience that backs it up. So it’s just very fascinating to me both on the intellectual level and also on the emotional level.

Dr. Relly Nadler: You’ve been doing this for 30 years, that’s probably 10-15 years before the whole positive psychology movement started. One of the things that would be interesting is that you said you tried a lot of these things on your own first. What have you found as a daily practice that really helps you? Then we’ll talk about how you bring this into organizations.

MJ Ryan: So, my key practice is the practice of gratitude. Really, it’s extremely simple. You just notice what is right. You just notice what is right in your life, notice what is right about yourself, about the situation. It turns out that there is all kinds of research that shows that this is a good thing to do. It enhances your health, it makes you more connected to other human beings, it creates resilience.

When I came to write Adaptability, which is my most recent book, I ran into all this research that I had never known about before, about the power of practicing gratitude for being able to bounce back from setbacks. So from challenges, whether they are business challenges or emotional challenges, the ability to say okay, that’s true, and what else can I focus on that is right, that’s good, that is still hopeful, that is still wonderful in my life, is a key capacity of resilience.

It’s really an all-around, all-purpose, fabulous practice. It’s so simple to do.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So tell us, do you do it in the morning?

MJ Ryan: I happen to do it at the dinner table with my husband and my child and whoever else happens to be having dinner with us. You can write it down, you can do it while you are driving, you don’t have to write it; it’s just about saying okay, what’s right today? A piece of it that’s really important is to ask yourself the question also about what did you do well.

Here’s why. At Professional Thinking Partners, our orientation is what’s called an asset focus. It is really coming to understand your strengths and talents as a leader. Deeply understanding your ability that your unique combination of talent that is your capacity for excellence. When you know that then you know what you have to use to overcome your challenges. Otherwise, it’s like having a safety deposit box between your ears and not having the key to it.

When you stop and say okay, what did I do well today? Then we have the ability to use those resources in other situations. People say to me all of the time, well what do you need to be a leader and what are the qualities that you need? You need to know what kind of leader you are given your particular unique combination of gifts and talents. That’s the greatest leader—you being you.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I couldn’t agree with that more. I think most people always wanted to look at themselves and compare themselves to other people instead of looking at what they do well and what they can be grateful that they have done well.

MJ Ryan: Exactly. One of the most fascinating things to me was that many years ago I came across an article either in Fortune or Newsweek or something, about the Enron debacle, and there was an article, “Are There Any Good CEOs in The World?” They profiled four people. They were totally and completely different from one another. One was a very team oriented, hands-on, relational guy who walked around and said everybody’s name and asked how their grandmother was doing. Then we had the very tightly financially controlled guy. We had person who is fabulous at operations and then we had the visionary / innovative person.

Each one of them was being profiled for being great. What they did was they knew where their greatness was and they grew that even more. That’s where gratitude helps us focus on that.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: You have twenty quick tips for surviving change you didn’t ask for, and I’m curious if you can share some of these quick tips?

MJ Ryan. Sure. So when something happens that you didn’t ask for, whether it’s a professional challenge or personal challenge, the first thing we need to do is figure out what is actually happening. Not the stories that we have about what is happening but the data, the facts. Then we need to say, alright, so how can I best relate to this. Where people get stuck, however, is they tend to ask why. Why is this happening? A certain amount of analysis may be useful. But, in fact, if the house is burning down it’s not the time to figure out, okay, why is this house burning down. Instead just say we have to figure out how to put out the fire and where everyone is, and later on maybe we can see that it was because we left the stove on.

People tend to get stuck in the “why.” The people that adapt easily ask quickly, what can I do about this? What kind of action can I take? Looking for where you can have control in a situation is key to being a fast adapter.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Beautiful.

Dr. Relly Nadler: That’s great. MJ, what’s the next one.

MJ Ryan: Well another one, is of course, you absolutely need support. When something is going on that is challenging, you have an emotional reaction as well as a logical reaction. We really have two brains. We have the brain that is our prefrontal cortex which is the logical brain, and we have an emotional brain which is only searching, asking the question, is this threatening or rewarding?

When it perceives a threat and a change you didn’t ask for, it’s always perceived as a threat. Then it has its own life. It has its own reaction and emotional reality. That’s why we can say well logically I know this, but I’m doing this other thing. It’s because the limbic system is actually more in charge of us most of the time, then our rational brains. Particularly when it views something as a threat. It actually turns off your capacity to think rationally and to remember and it’s living on the fight or flight instinct.

Recently I came across new research that shows that what it’s scanning for, which is very relevant for what we are talking about in terms of adapting, is if it sees a threat to one of five things; 1) status, 2) certainty, 3) autonomy – am I going to be able to do what I want with my life, 4) relatedness – am I going to be kicked out of the tribes, and 5) fairness. So the acronym is SCARF.

In any situation part of your brain is looking for is this a threat to my status, certainty, to my autonomy, to relatedness, or to fairness. If it perceives a threat it turns on and you are in fight or flight.

You can listen to more of this inspiration discussion about change and gratitude, above.


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