Angus MacGyver thought when he retired from the secret service, he’d put his days of danger behind him. But MacGyver was forever getting caught in life and death situations. Fortunately, MacGyver had a preternatural knack for improvising his way out of them. Since Richard Dean Anderson played MacGyver in the eponymous TV series (originally screening on ABC television between 1985 and 1992), MacGyver has become synonymous with seat-of-you-pants, DIY innovation. In each episode of the show, MacGyver gets caught in at least one life threatening situation, only to escape it, Houdini-like, by applying his knowledge and cobbling together an improbable solution using whatever happens to be lying around.
MacGyver’s indefatigable knowledge and resourcefulness became a running gag on the show. As the episodes rolled by, MacGyver revealed extraordinary insights into medicine, engineering, chemistry, physics, and a host of other disciplines beyond the ken of your average secret agent. The show’s writers would drop MacGyver into increasingly desperate situations only to have him invent ever more outlandish ways to escape them. MacGyver treated every situation with his trademark cool. While other people panicked and despaired, MacGyver would cobble together a parachute, a rocket launcher, some plastic explosive, or a jerry-rigged jet ski that would enable him to avert the crisis and save the day.
Most of the time, it was ludicrous. Still, audiences loved it. Such was the success of the show that one still hears talk of people ‘MacGyvering’ their way out difficult situations today.
Thirty years on, MacGyver is more a cultural icon than ever before. The recent announcement of a movie reboot of the show is not surprising. MacGyver personifies the agile, entrepreneurial, innovative ideal of contemporary startup culture. He represents the hacker genius we’d all like to be – the nimble, resourceful, visionary individual who is always changing and inventing things, never standing still. MacGyver is a hero for our times.
MacGyver is a hero for readers of this book – or should be, at least. Consider the attitude MacGyver displays towards change. MacGyver is never stumped by a situation. He confronts each new challenge head on and reveals it as an opportunity to apply his knowledge and skills. MacGyver doesn’t worry about what is out of his hands. He is too Stoic for that. He focuses on his resources and what he can do with them. Drawing on his full range of powers, and applying them in creative ways, MacGyver transforms crises into moments of glory. He flourishes in contexts of change. Calamitous situations bring out the best in him. Given the regularity with which MacGyver finds himself in peril, one can only assume he pursues these situations to put himself to the test.
Life Changing is a handbook for philosophical MacGyvers. Obviously, the point of this book is not to teach you how to devise unlikely gadgets to escape life or death situations. The aim is to show you how to cultivate the essential skills needed to transform the experience of change, and turning it around, to make it an adventure. With resilience, agility and vision, it is possible to ‘MacGyver’ change by revealing new opportunities in unexpected situations.
Next time you find yourself in a difficult situation without any idea how to proceed, ask: ‘What would MacGyver do?’ MacGyver would get a grip on himself, tap into his powers, and project a solution that transformed everything. MacGyver would rethink the situation and turn the moment of change into a life-changing moment of vision.
Resilience, Agility, and Vision
You won’t change a thing by sitting back in your chair and ruminating on life. Tackling change is something that you should do passionately or not at all. So get up out of your seat, have a stretch, stamp the floor or do some crunches – whatever it takes to fire you up and get you ready for action. Tell yourself: here, today, I will decide the course of life. Say it loud. Transforming the experience of change should be a life defining activity. Make it so.
Chapters one to four of this book give you a set of practical, philosophical tools you can use to deal with change in a positive way. Using stories and philosophical examples, I have tried to define a simple, reflective attitude to change that should permeate all of life, not just unexpected events – shaping your relationships, your attitude towards yourself, and your outlook on life generally. Let’s now review the journey we have taken and try to pull the key lessons together. Cutting through the complexity, I want to establish how the ideas we’ve discussed can be reduced to three personal skills: resilience, agility, and vision. Resilience, agility, and vision are the virtues we need to cultivate to flourish in times of change.
Change can happen quickly. A traffic accident. A wave of workplace redundancies. Falling in love. Separation and divorce. Changes like these can happen fast. It is easy to flinch, freak out, look away, or back off in the heat of the moment and miss the chance to take something positive from the event. There are always opportunities in change, no matter how bleak the situation may appear. To perceive these opportunities, you need to be able to squarely face the situation and ask: ‘What’s in it for me?’ You need to be a calm center in the storm, so that you can look through a gap in the clouds to glimpse a shred of blue sky on the horizon.
It takes resilience to make the most of change. The resilience in question involves equal parts courage and self-control. Life is change – this is a fact. We need existential courage to acknowledge and affirm this fact, and self-control to deal with the anxiety it creates in us. Until we find the courage to celebrate change, we will always be out of step with life, wishing that it were easier and more predictable, like the comfort zones we retreat into when we need time out. We need to heighten our sense of being alive by confronting death like an Existentialist philosopher.
Life is gift. What do you plan to make of it? Imagine that you had only twenty-four hours left to live. Perhaps you do! No one knows. Will you waste your final hours wishing you’d been dealt a better hand in life? Or will you take stock of the real opportunities you possess to live, love, and celebrate life, and put them into action?
The key to living a heroic life is to apply your full range of powers at every opportunity, especially in the face of death. Don’t wait for a mortal challenge to try this out – do it now. Seize the day and embrace your opportunities like an Existentialist philosopher.
Keep a clear head as you do it. Stoic self-control is vital. We need self-control to reign ourselves in when runaway passions like fear, anxiety, and (the one that really blindsides us) pride threaten to trip us up. Stoic self-control involves critically examining the background judgments that we commonly make about life and change and rejecting the impulsive, self-defeating, and irrational ideas that infect our point of view. All of us are plagued by anxiety, irrational expectation, and unnecessary fear. We need to work to weed out these passions from our hearts and minds to restore our natural tranquility.
Instead of worrying about things you can’t control, focus on the way you respond to change. You can’t control the world, but you can control the way you respond to it. This is how you take self-control like a Stoic philosopher.
What is the worst that could happen, after all? That you fail? That you fail in such an awesome way that your failure becomes legendary and your name is forever associated with bad plans and dismal execution? Why worry? All of that is fate and it is out of your hands. The best way to avoid it happening is to focus on keeping a clear head. If the worst comes to pass, you can deal with it then.
Existential courage and Stoic self-control are twin components of the resilience that is required to deal successfully with change. By applying these virtues together, you can cut through the noise of life and situate yourself at existential ground zero. With an eye on the moment, look for opportunities. Now muster your resources and launch yourself forth.
You need to be calm, centred, and focused on the big picture to become the author of your destiny. You need to shake free of the day-to-day rigmarole of targets, plans, and goals and get clear on the meaning of your life. What are you here to do? What is your purpose in life? Call to mind the powers that you’ve accumulated through the years and the crucial relationships you’ve forged that offer you support. Get in touch with your deepest resources and envision a future in which you could actually make use of them.
You are preparing a launch pad to blast into the future. Look up. Take in the stars. Houston, we are ready for lift off.
To prepare yourself for change, you need to diversify your powers to the nth degree. The more powers, capacities, and skills you possess, the more agile you can be in situations of change, and the easier it becomes to project innovative visions of the future.
It is easy to recall the powers that you use every day. You climb from bed, do a few stretches, and stumble to the kitchen to fix a mean espresso. You may only be half awake, but you are already using your ordinary powers to think, feel, do, and be. You commute to work and spend your day juggling projects. Whether you are fighting fires, building bridges, or jumping through hoops you are constantly applying your familiar powers to exist.
Cultivating personal agility requires you to do more than just get clear on the ordinary powers you use every day. You need to identify your superpowers – your extraordinary powers to exist. We all have a superhero costume buried somewhere under our clothes. If you are still struggling to identify your superpowers (or stuck in a phone booth, trying to tug off your shirt), take a moment to reflect on the exercises that you’ve completed in the course of this book. Consider what your responses to these exercises say about your powers, be these powers that you possess independently of others, or powers that you derive through your relationships with friends and acquaintances. Think especially about powers that come to light in situations that you didn’t think you were capable of dealing with, yet where you triumphed in heroic style.
We typically forge our superpowers under extreme conditions. Spiderman got a venomous dose of radioactivity. The Hulk was blasted by gamma rays. Batman witnessed his parents murdered before his eyes. These kinds of situations aren’t necessarily pleasant for the people involved. But if you can find a way of turning a difficult situation into a catalyst for learning and growth, a legend is born.
This is how superheroes get their start. We forge our superpowers in the furnace of change.
Change can also be an opportunity to expand and diversify our powers. The key to achieving this is to pay attention to how you are affected by new situations. Joyful affects are a sign that a situation empowers you. So look for joy. When you find yourself feeling ‘up’ in a new situation, it is a sure sign that something about the situation enhances your power to think, feel, do, or be. What is it about the situation that empowers you? How exactly does the situation expand your capacity to exist?
You should put these questions to every fleeting moment of joy in life, not just the unexpected joys that emerge in moments of change. The simplest way to diversify your powers is to approach each new situation in an experimental frame of mind, seeking out empowering experiences and using them to learn more about what you are capable of being. Instead of withdrawing into yourself or searching for the nearest exit, you should leap into the situation boots and all, your heart attuned to empowering stimuli, your mind seeking out new skills and capacities to make your own.
With a diverse set of powers on hand, we can be creative when life changes. People with a limited set of powers tend to hit a dead end when circumstances change. Simple changes become complex problems. Complex changes become out and out crises. People who have a broad and diverse set of powers, by contrast, can be playful and future-focused in situations of change. They treat change as an opportunity to test themselves and to explore new approaches to life. If nothing else, they are able to work up their existing powers by exploring different ways they could apply themselves to the problems that confront them.
An agile approach to change unlocks unexpected opportunities. Opportunities don’t fall from the heavens. We create our own opportunities by tackling life and change in an agile way.
This is how you burn brightly. This is how you light the world with your glow.
The better you are at creating opportunities, the richer and happier your life will be. People who are ready for change are ready for life. Other people keep them in their line of sight and follow their lead. They sense they are in presence of someone with the resilience and agility to thrive, whatever challenges life throws their way. They sense they are in the presence of a leader who can unlock new opportunities in change, who has the visionary power to define new paths into the future.
MacGyver is precisely this kind of leader. He is not a visionary per se, but he has a situated vision that gets him out of scrapes. It is a matter of seeing lateral possibilities in unexpected situations. A lateral possibility is an opportunity to try something radically different, something that only people who know you very well would ever expect you to do.
People who only have a limited set of powers find it hard to forge lateral possibilities. When life changes, they have a limited set of tactics to apply. Consequently, they keep on doing the same thing and making the same mistakes. If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. By contrast, if you have a well-stocked tool-kit, you are able to step back from the situation and ask: ‘What kind of problem am I dealing with here? How many different ways might I tackle it? Should I deal with it quickly and efficiently? Or might I try something creative, and apply an unexpected solution?’
What makes MacGyver an extraordinary character is that he seems to have an infinite set of tools to apply to life. His vast and diverse knowledge-based gives him a huge variety of powers to apply to the problems he faces. Imagine cultivating your personal powers to this extent, so that you were able to treat every situation from a number of angles. This is the existential upshot of personal agility. Agility is not just the ability to duck, dodge, weave, and hurdle the problems that life throws in your path. Agility is the ability to see multiple possible solutions to every problem, and multiple possible options in every situation. Agility is the power to project yourself imaginatively from the standpoint of a new situation, and look down multiple possible timelines into the future.
This is an example of situated vision. You don’t need to be MacGyver to live in this way. Anyone can cultivate a visionary experience of the future simply by trying. You just need to tie your courage to the sticking place, draw on your powers, and use your imagination. When the landscape of life changes, you need to ask: ‘How could I creatively engage this situation by drawing on my full set of powers? How might I harness them to take my life in a new direction? What are the lateral possibilities here? How might I turn this moment of change into the perfect opportunity?’
Once you’re able to tackle change in this way, you are invincible. Not only are you able to MacGyver change, you are able to affirm it. Life is change, and so in affirming change, we affirm life as well. We learn to flourish, and perhaps even to affirm the eternal return of life as a whole.
The lessons in this book have prepared you to take this visionary outlook on life and change. The ultimate adventure is to prepare the ground for a Damascus road experience. To prepare for this kind of experience, you need to get used to digging into your arsenal of powers and applying them to situations in an active, experimental way.
Make a practice of doing this every day. You need to get in the habit of using change to open up new possibilities in life, generating a spectrum of options for engaging the future. Each time you run into a new situation, try projecting an original timeline from this moment to unlock a new set of futural possibilities. Try imagining a radical alternative to your current path in life. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious. Think long-term – five, ten, twenty years into the future.
By doing this repeatedly, we are able to develop a range of possible futures. Keep the possibilities open. Take some time each day to review these possible life-options, so that they stay fresh and real in your mind. The next time the landscape of life shifts under your feet, look up and take in these alternatives. Ask yourself if one or other of them is suddenly looking realer, or more attractive, than it was before. Could it be that this moment of change is actually an opportunity for you to set out on this other path in life? What if this was the moment that your life changed?
Dwell on this idea. This is how you trigger a Damascus road experience.
You can’t just decide to have a Damascus road experience. You can’t make these experiences happen. You can cultivate these experiences, however, by multiplying the number of timelines you project into the future. The more rich and diverse your sense of possibility in life, the more chance there is you will recognize new opportunities when they emerge out of change.
Damascus road experiences occur when we find ourselves in an unexpected situation with two or more opportunities before us. On the one hand, we might push through the experience and carry on with life like before. On the other hand, we might affirm the moment of change as an opportunity to realise one or other of the lateral possibilities on the horizon. This moment of change could be a real opportunity to change the path we are on. A Damascus road experience takes place when this opportunity suddenly becomes irresistible.
How do you choose which direction to go when the path of life splits in two? Should you press ahead with the route you were travelling or should you take the road less travelled? My advice is: live from the heart. The most profound changes in life occur when you find yourself in the thick of change, looking towards to an alternative future and wanting it with all your heart. This is not just a new direction in life. It is your destiny. When you find yourself looking toward an alternative future and filled with desire for the opportunities it presents, the process of life change has already begun. You are experiencing a moment of vision.
This is an excerpt from the new, revised edition of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide (2016). This will be available on Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble by the end of March, 2016. I can’t wait for you to read it. In the meantime, please follow the Life Changing Facebook page for updates and exclusive content.