Author Talks: April Rinne on finding calm and meaning in a world of flux

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti speaks with April Rinne about her new book, Flux: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, August 2021). Rinne, a global development executive and trusted adviser to businesses, financial institutions, and governments, explores perspectives on change and the ways in which adaptability lays the groundwork for success in an uncertain world. An edited version of their conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

I always have to start with the caveat of, I didn’t write the book in 2020 or about 2020 or about a pandemic. I’ve been writing the book since 2018. And the ideas behind it come from much earlier.

I often say it took about two and a half years to write but two and a half decades to make. And 2020 was simply an accelerant and catalyst for some of these ideas. But even prior to 2020, I was really concerned by what I was seeing as a futurist, as an adviser, as a human being, around our relationship to change—and the increasing pace of change.

The pace of change has never been as fast as it is today. And yet it is likely to never again be this slow. And if you pause for a minute and just let that sink in, it’s kind of exciting and it’s a little bit terrifying.

Think about the First Industrial Revolution; it took about a hundred years to really take root. That’s five generations. And we’re now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution—ten, 20 years, it’s happening fast.

What problem were you trying to solve with this book?

I had been looking previously at big-picture shifts, like climate change and automation, and getting very concerned about humans’ relationship to them. Then the pandemic hit, and it was, like, wow, this is much deeper and broader: how we relate, not just to change in general, because there are many different kinds of change.

We opt in—we love change that we [can] opt in to. We struggle with change we can’t control and that we didn’t predict, or we don’t really see it as a welcome or a good thing. And I think there’s more of that coming, not less. The future is more uncertain. It’s more unpredictable. It’s more unstable.

And so that’s where I get really excited about the message of the book, which is fundamentally uplifting: we need to reshape our relationship with change to be fit for a world in flux. We need to be prepared for this sense of constant, sometimes relentless, change, much of which we can’t control or we don’t see coming. And we need to figure out how we adapt to that, relate to that, move forward amidst that.

We need to be prepared for this sense of constant, sometimes relentless, change, much of which we can’t control or we don’t see coming. And we need to figure out how we adapt to that, relate to that, move forward amidst that.

It feels like most of us deal with change but never pay attention to it.

So there’s this question of, does it require a shock or a seismic change or a tragedy or something that just wakes you up? And do you only then realize how badly you need to change or fix things or do things differently?

The book took two and a half years to write but it was two and a half decades in the making. I think back to then, when I was in college, and both of my parents died—completely unexpectedly, completely out of the blue. It was my first brush with death, my first funeral. It was traumatic and it flipped my world upside down. But those are the two and a half decades since. Back then, I never would have imagined that I would write a book about it—or certainly not this kind of book, I guess you could say.

But I want to be really clear that in the two and half decades since, as I have looked at my own journey, but also observed, talked with, met with, researched many other people, many other organizations, many other cultures, taking a very broad landscape, a broad snapshot of this—I can say that when you have a shock that seismic, you have no choice but to wake up and face that reality. No choice but to walk through that fire. But I’m very resistant to say that that is a prerequisite, so to speak. And I often joke that doing it without tragedy is a lot more fun.

Redirecting the compass

If we start with a flux deficit, how can we better adapt to change?

These concepts of the flux mindset, a flux deficit, of what I like to call your flux baseline—what is your relationship to change? And I don’t mean to be thinking about this from the position of, like, scarcity or that it’s something bad about us. I want to be really clear. It’s a very human thing—we struggle with change. And a world in flux teaches us just how much work and improvement we have to do.

My book is not about change management. My book is about our relationship to change from the inside out and how it shapes and colors every strategy we make, every investment we make, every decision we make. But we don’t talk about it that much. And this notion of our relationship to change—most people, in my experience, have never really thought hard about it.

There’s this sense of how do you approach change on average? Do you come at it from a place of hope or fear? Do you see uncertainty as dangerous or do you tend to see it as an adventure for your curiosity? What were you taught about these things growing up?

And what’s happening now is a lot of people, I would say young people in particular, but older people too, are realizing, “Gosh, the world I was told I should expect to live in doesn’t really align with the world as I’m seeing it today.”

So the first step of that is to ask, what is your flux baseline? And there’s not a right or wrong answer. The first step is really getting to know what kinds of change you love and what kinds of change you hate. Where do you need improvement?

What does it mean to create and curate a portfolio career?

Let’s zoom out and think about flux and a flux mindset. [In my book,] I talk about the eight flux superpowers, and the ability to create and curate your portfolio career is one of the eight. It’s very focused on the future of work, the now of work, how we’re looking at our career individually as well as organizationally.

When I say “portfolio career,” I’m thinking about how we think about our careers: How do we shape them? How do we design them? How do we talk about them? What do we look for? How do we master our professional journey?

And when I say “portfolio,” think about it as an artist might. What is an artist’s portfolio? Their best works of art? The things they’re most proud of? Or an investor’s portfolio. What’s in an investor’s portfolio? A diversified set of investments designed to, A, diversify and, B, mitigate risk.

I am not looking at this through the lens of just jobs, or certainly not of quitting jobs or jumping jobs. Not at all. What goes in your portfolio is every single skill, role, responsibility, participation, membership, or leadership of anything that you’ve ever been involved in that can produce value for society. So your portfolio includes your jobs. It includes side hustles and gigs. It includes volunteering. It includes parenting. It includes things you were paid or not paid for. It includes skills you’re developing. It’s a big bucket into which a lot goes.

But thus far, again, we focus on CVs that look a certain way. And this is sort of disaggregating your CV so that all of these different skills can go into the portfolio. And you can mix and match and blend them however you wish. And the people who have really good portfolios are those who curate them best.

But then what it allows you to do is to continue layering on your career. If you’ve had one role your whole life in an organization, you can still have a portfolio.

So each and every person today, whether you’re working or not, actually has a portfolio even if you don’t realize it.

And that’s really empowering. The key, the superpower you need to develop, though, is to be able to curate it, to shape it, to see what’s in it and how it needs to be combined and recombined. Again, not just to be fit for the future of work but fit for a world in flux in which things are going to continue to change professionally but also probably personally in terms of your priorities, et cetera.

What about organizations? Can they have a flux mindset?

Yes, organizations can have a flux mindset. It’s typically part of your organizational culture. I’ve had lots of conversations recently about how a flux mindset or how your “fluxiness”—lots of fun riffs on the word—how that relates to organizational values and whether there needs to be additional value put in there, which goes beyond nimbleness and agility. It’s just this sense of fluxiness and being OK not knowing, being OK not being able to control. So much of what I’m talking about is in some ways antithetical to how we think about organizations.

One of the hallmarks of a flux mindset is the ability to hold paradox. And this ability to say, “Yes, we see these are filters through which we make decisions today.” We see how many of them are actually broken or cracked or fraying. They’re not fit for the world we live in but, as I like to say, they have a really long tail.

We’re still filtering our decisions through them. We need to be able to make that transition. And I think we’re in the early stages of transitioning to a new kind of script again at the organizational level as well. I don’t think it happens all at once and I don’t think it’s all pretty or easy or all of that, but that’s part of what I get really excited about—helping people and also, though, companies, governments, think tanks, nonprofits, any kind of organization, navigate all this.

So I wanted to put that out there. I realize it’s sort of a separate answer. But it frames a lot of this. Now, coming to the I-people, T-people, Pi-people, X-people—the whole alphabet at some point, I suppose [exhibit]. This world in flux is much better suited, not just for Pi- and X-shaped people, or that Pi-shaped and X-shaped people are better fit for a world in flux. But I think, more importantly, casting forward, we need to recognize that when the pace of change is so quick, you might be really good at doing one thing and intend to do that for the rest of your life.

We need to redefine our professional identity for a world in flux.

That’s good luck. That’s not something you necessarily are going to get to control. And there’s another superpower that we don’t need to go too far into, but, you know, so much of this is about our relationship to control and how we desperately, urgently want to be able to predict and control things—that’s human nature.

But the more we try to do that, more and more I see, the more miserable we make ourselves and the worse our decisions become over time. So back to the X- and Pi-shaped people. These are the people who are able to say, “Hmmm, it’s time for me to level up and get a new skill.” “Hmmm, I’ve been using these ten skills for many years, they’re good skills, they’re valuable. I need to mix them up in different ways.” “Hmmm, I’m looking on the horizon and I’m seeing something: a shift happened where there’s not enough people who know about topic X.” Or, “There’s a blind spot we’re going to encounter. We need to be talking to this other stakeholder set.”

There’s all kinds of ways this plays out. But Pi-shaped people and X-shaped people, when there’s depth and breadth, are much better able to see that bigger picture, see where they may grow into. And there’s a notion of lifelong learning and that we will never stop upskilling and reskilling.

But a world in flux will force us to do that. There’s no question that there will be a certain amount of nudging that we don’t get to control. But those who can be really joyful about their professional future are those who actually can proactively lean into this and say, “In order to be flux ready, future forward, I need to gain new skills. I need to go beyond my comfort zone. I need to, even if I don’t have all the answers, start peeling back the layers of the onion, make myself a little bit uncomfortable, but grow into new roles that are actually going to map better with the future.”

I think that’s something that every professional realizes, consciously or subconsciously. There’s a lot of overt anxiety. There’s also a lot of latent anxiety. “What do I do? How do I move forward?” And, rather than letting that fester, the flux mindset is asking how you turn that anxiety into action and into proactivity and into taking control.

You can’t control the future, but you can control whether you contribute to a future you’d like to see, which, I hope, includes your own professional well-being, success, contribution to society.

In some cases, it’s outright contrarian. It is antithetical. It’s funny, Raju, and you’ll appreciate this: I’m fairly conflict adverse. I don’t like to provoke arguments. I want to make people happy. I want to help everyone feel and be their best. But I’ve gotten into a lot of debates about these superpowers and I’ve never felt more joyful to actually have an honest, openhearted, open-minded debate about these things. I say run slower, society says run faster. I say portfolio career, they say career path.

What I’m not saying, though, and, just as an example: run faster versus run slower. I’m not saying, “Stop. Be lazy. Do nothing.” I’m saying run at a more sustainable pace so you can actually see what’s happening and process and focus on what really matters. I’m saying be deliberate about your career; shape it in a different way with a different framing, a different container.

Getting out of your comfort zone

How can we more readily flex our flux muscles?

I wish we could all kind of just become comfortable with that change. That’s what I’m trying to help people do.

And we’re really in this world now where there is no steady state. There is no endgame. There is just more change. And the fact is that—more the rule than the exception, moving forward—by the time you’ve managed to adapt or react or respond to one change, certainly something else will have changed.

The now normal is whatever is changing now. The next normal is whatever’s coming around the corner. And the never normal is, you know, self-explanatory.

So if we think about our mindset as a kind of muscle, like your brain muscle, we’re having to realize that we have this muscle, which, I think, not everyone does on day one. But that muscle is something we can strengthen and have to strengthen and need to strengthen.

And the way you strengthen any muscle is through daily practice. This sense of what I’m describing is not kind of one and done. It is not a quick fix. Imagine if we could do that comfortably—what a world we could live in!

We resist the change we can’t control—the change that blindsides us, the change that goes against our expectations, the change that delays our plans or disrupts them entirely. That’s the kind of change we need to develop this [flux] muscle for.

We resist the change we can’t control—the change that blindsides us, the change that goes against our expectations, the change that delays our plans or disrupts them entirely. That’s the kind of change we need to develop this [flux] muscle for.

That’s the kind of change that there is more of, not less of, moving forward. And that’s the kind of change that I get really excited about. From that perspective, we’re living in this amazing time in which a lot of people didn’t get an opportunity, so to speak, like we have today to actually level up and to buckle up and to, you know, lean into this flux.

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