M. J. Ryan’s new book shows how to cope in tough times.
Illustration by James Kaczman
I told my friend Sue, who is getting divorced after 20 years of marriage, that she has to read it. I also told my friend Pamela, who is struggling to downsize her family business, that she has to buy a copy.
Normally, I don’t run around recommending a self-help book to everyone I know, but M. J. Ryan’s latest, AdaptAbility, is packed with advice on—as the subtitle explains—How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For.
Ryan’s book couldn’t have arrived at a better time, given the crumbling economy and its emotional fallout. I caught up with the Walnut Creek author to give you a preview. And yes, I would recommend you get a copy because at some point in our lives, we all end up facing unanticipated change. >>>
DIablo: Your main theme is that people need to learn how to be resilient and know that they have the skills to get through a crisis. How can they do that?
M.J. Ryan: Studies show that people who are resilient share five characteristics. One, they are willing to grow. Two, they find personal meaning in what’s happened. Three, they focus on a positive future. My life may be bad now, but it will be better in the future. Four, they practice gratitude. And five, they find things to laugh about. So, to develop resilience, we need to practice doing those five things.
Life is full of change. Why have so many people lost the ability to bounce back?
I’m not sure if we’ve lost the ability—more that we haven’t been taught. Who took a course on How to Change, or had parents say, “Let me teach you how to adapt to an ever-changing environment”? Most of us are just trying to make it up as we go along. [For this book,] I wanted to study what works so we can avoid a lot of pain and trial and error.
With the economy crumbling, AdaptAbility is coming out at a perfect time. What has the response been?
That it’s the perfect time—that people need it or know many others who could use it. That makes my heart sing because my mission in life is to be useful.
You recommend being grateful every day. How does that build resiliency?
Practicing thankfulness, like all the positive emotions—hopefulness, optimism, etc.—gives us a burst of feel-good hormones that makes us feel even a little bit like life is still worth living. It counterbalances the stress hormones. It allows us to stay engaged and open to life so that we build resources to create a more positive future.
I saw you speak at the Wardrobe for Opportunity luncheon. You gave everyone in the audience a pebble to help them remember to count their blessings. Every time I see the little green pebble in my handbag, I smile. Should everyone have a pebble?
Absolutely—it’s a great way to practice gratitude. Whether you have one or not, it’s key to notice what you actually enjoy and appreciate right now, rather than make a rote list of what you “should” be thankful for. You have to go to your heart and generate the feeling of “great-fullness.” Otherwise, [practicing gratitude] just won’t work.
Major life change seems to present a good opportunity to reinvent oneself—go back to school, try out an intriguing new career path, move to a different state. What do you think?
Absolutely. It’s a chance to get even more aware of what I call the four LIVE elements: what you love to do (passions); what your inner talents are (what you’re good at); what your values are (what matters to you); and which environments bring out the best in you.
These elements are the raw materials from which we create the future. When we know what those are, they create a filtering system that helps us make choices, such as going back to school, moving, etc. That being said, this is not a time to rack up great debt being trained in a field where you may not be able to get a job with a high enough salary to pay off, so keep that in mind as well.
Finally, what should people do when they get a pink slip or other bad news? Or when they are waiting for answers they want to hear?
I have just the tool for that: the Change Emergency Kit. It lays out a step-by-step approach of what to do, what to avoid, and how to deal with immediate turmoil.