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How Turkey Day Flexibility Can Lead to Success in Life

11/20/2012 11:51 am ET | Updated Jan 20, 2013

As much as we look forward to sharing the bounty at our holiday tables with friends and family each year, some parts of the long weekend can be a little trying. Many of us are dealing with cars and crowds on the most-traveled day of the year. Comfortable routines are scattered as we deal with family needs and wishes that can't possibly all be met. Pets are kenneled or dragged into unfamiliar situations. You might even be with folks where certain topics of conversation are avoided just to keep peace at the table. For these few days, rarely does anyone get to do exactly what he or she wants.

A case in point is the year I was hosting Thanksgiving with my partner, who is a vegetarian-except-for-an-occasional-fish. And, I know this might seem downright un-American or earn me the Thanksgiving Day equivalent of the Grinch award, but there isn't a thing I like about turkey except perhaps the stuffing. So, since we happened to be celebrating in the tropics, we audaciously suggested a main dish of mahi-mahi instead of turkey. Well, the family mutinied. As chefs for the day, we rallied (or caved) and cooked and carved a fine bird. We also served, without family objection, my favorite tropical salad (mango and avocado), along with our family's traditional favorites. And, as we always do, we enjoyed catching up with each other, feasting, laughing and being, yes, thankful for the day.

Why Flexibility Matters
You don't always get what you want, but if you are flexible, you might discover opportunities that you might have otherwise missed, and you will definitely reduce your stress. During the holidays, you are bound to be thrown a few curves, even if it is just delays on the parkway. So if you are able to look at it as building a life skill instead of inconvenience, you may be able to put on a happy face while making compromises, dealing with unexpected events or coping with upset routines. The ability to be flexible -- whether for a weekend or in the broader tableau of life -- can result in a cornucopia of benefits.

Flexibility, Family-Style
When families get together, there are bound to be situations requiring compromise. From who gets to sit where in the car to when and where the gathering will be held, things need to get worked out. Some people are able to go with the flow easily, and the unexpected guests or change in timing are met with welcoming grace. Others have a difficult time relinquishing the "original plan" or the way they think it should be.

As you can tell, I think flexibility is a helpful skill to master, especially at Thanksgiving. I don't mean you have to give in to everything everyone else wants, but if you (and your family members) keep a simple principle in mind, it will make life easier. The simple principle is this: You care about these people. You want them to feel cared for, loved and respected. In a non-manipulative, mature, respectful relationship, there are times when saying yes to something, even if it puts you out a bit, is important (so, you make the turkey). There are times when compromise is good, because your priority is the person you are compromising with and not necessarily the idea you are compromising on.

In the Workplace, Flexibility Can Pay Off, Too
When I worked for a large corporation, our performance reviews always rated flexibility as a valued trait. It makes sense. Corporations -- and small businesses, as well -- have to move fast to remain competitive. A nimble and flexible employee can adjust quickly to changing priorities. This article from the Glassdoor blog lists the eight traits that employers really want, and echoes my personal experience. Adaptability and flexibility are keys to success.

In the recently-released book, The End of Men, author Hanna Rosin makes a case for why for in the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce has tipped toward women. She looks at many issues including the role of marriage, education, and the economy. But in a descriptive paragraph she states "Plastic Woman has during the last century performed superhuman feats of flexibility." Men, meanwhile, she says have remained as inflexible as "cardboard." One can argue, and many have, that this is an overgeneralization. However, the value of flexibility for creating success in a career, with or without children, is not to be ignored. It seems that, whatever the gender, the person who is open to opportunities and doesn't have a fixed and unbending idea of who they are and what they "should be" will win out.

Flexibility on the Road of Life
Back to those delays on the parkway -- and any other delays or unavoidable situations you may encounter. If you are inclined to get aggravated in situations like these, take a deep breath. You might do yourself (and your health) a favor by realizing that you can't change the situation. You may not be able to shift your car into higher gear, but you can shift your attitude into one of acceptance. It will keep your stress levels and blood pressure down. Plan for inconveniences and look at them as opportunities. Does a delay provide time to catch up on news? Time for listening to or reading a book you've been meaning to get to? This might sound absurdly simple, but if you think you might encounter delays, leave earlier! I've watched friends twist themselves all inside out because "now we're going to be late" when all they had to do was allow an extra hour -- an extra hour that could have been considered a gift instead of a stressful delay. As they say, "life happens." Flexibility is a skill that helps you manage life better.

Exercises (You Can Do on Your Own) to Practice Flexibility

Like your hamstrings, your life approach won't become more flexible unless you stretch it now and then. Here are three exercises that will help you loosen up!

Take a Kid's Approach
Kids' wide-eyed approach to life is contagious. Most of them have not yet learned fear of failure and are not afraid to look silly. Be like them. Just go for it. Try a new dance move. Play a sport you aren't good at. Take a class to learn a new skill. If you need help, go find a kid to encourage you. Get out of your comfort zone.

Make a Wrong Turn
Find a different way home from work one day and see something new. Or just take a wrong turn and see where it leads. Discover a new route and be open to seeing what's around you.

Reverse the Routine
If your morning routine is predictable as instant oatmeal, then mix it up. It may be cozy in that routine, but this is just practice. You can go back to it tomorrow. Add a few extras that can even be treats (like five minutes for just listening to music, or a quick walk before breakfast). Just make it different -- walk the dog before breakfast instead of after breakfast. Your dog will be confused too, but you'll all be OK and you will have kicked your flexibility ability up a notch.

One last thought to flex your ideas about status quo... A willow bends to the wind and doesn't break. Its flexibility is its strength.

For more by Jennifer Maffett, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.