First published in Thrive Global on 27 August 2019 https://thriveglobal.com/stories/flexible-thinking-is-a-lot-like-driving-in-naples/
The gap between theory and practice
The day I turned 17, I went to the local police station to get my drivers licence. For me, a drivers licence was a rite of passage and one I was keen to get. It took three attempts to pass my driving test, but it wasn’t till I moved to Italy almost immediately after getting my licence, that I really learned how to drive. There is a world of difference between theory and practice, after all. Having earned my driving “stripes” in Italy, driving in downtown Rome and at speed on the autostrada, I have always felt extremely confident in a car. So my line of thinking has always been, if I can drive in Rome, I can drive anywhere in the world! My cousin warned Naples is different.
Driving in Naples, you need your wits about you; you need to be flexible. On a recent trip to Naples, armed with my international drivers permit, I experienced a whole new level of chaos in traffic and in staying flexible in my thinking. An international drivers permit prepares you for nothing; anyone with a current drivers licence and the appropriate fee can get one. It’s a good way to get yourself killed or at least involved in an accident. Chances are YOU are going to be the one causing the accident as well. This is especially the case if you are expecting the road rules to be respected. Adhering strictly to the rules and regulations (fixed mindset) won’t fly here. Often, it doesn’t fly in life or business either. You need to be adaptable (growth mindset); it’s one of the keys to success.
There is a rhythm to it
In Naples, anything goes in traffic. The motto here is “Be prepared for anything and everything”. Busses pass within inches of cars and iconic Vespas weave in and out of traffic. They think nothing of crossing over double lines and a pedestrian crossing are merely a suggestion of where you might cross the road. And STOP signs, well they don’t mean stop at all.
On the whole traffic lights are respected, however. To the unaccustomed foreigner, Neapolitan traffic looks like unadulterated chaos. If you look more closely, there is a rhythm to it all. People know when to push the boundaries and know when to give. The traffic is fluid, and it is a system of mutual concessions and compromises. As a result, there are surprisingly few accidents. The more I experienced the traffic, the more apparent the metaphor for flexible thinking became.
FLEXIBILITY Not every situation is covered by the training manual.
It turns out, our thinking and our innate intelligence are the most flexible when we are born. Think of how children love learning and how they tackle anything undeterred. Infinite possibilities exist as does endless ways of dealing with anything that arises. Human beings are ‘wired up’ on the fly, and we learn through modelling behaviour. We learn through experience and create mental models, attach labels to what we perceive and behave accordingly. We retain flexibility in our thinking provided we can process any negative experiences as they occur. If that doesn’t happen, however, our thinking becomes stuck, and we develop distress patterns. The more stuck our thinking becomes, the more rigid we become in our approach, which hampers our ability to adapt. Further, being rigid means that our resilience is lessened and our stress levels increase.
A right way and a wrong way?
Perception aligns with attitude. We start to make up stories about how things are or how they should be. The only problem is that it isn’t reflective of reality. Black and white thinking means life can only occur in predictable patterns. Again, think orderly traffic obeying all the rules contrasted with driving in Naples. It would be easy to argue that traffic should be orderly. There is a right way and a wrong way. If there is a particular way, it “must” be then your ability to cope and deal with what comes your way is at best severely limited. To get the best possible outcome, you need all of your attention. To do that surrender to what is and go with the flow. In traffic and life, the same applies: Learn to dance with the chaos.