Why Adaptability Is So Useful Yet So Hard To Practice
How do some people stay remarkably calm under pressure?
How do some people keep coming up with answers when everything appears stuck?
How do some people keep reinventing themselves regardless of their age or condition?
The answer lies in a trait called adaptability.
What is Adaptability?
It’s the ability to learn flexibly and efficiently and apply that knowledge across situations.
Adaptability is a meta-skill—a foundational trait that activates and magnifies other skills. The trait doesn’t just help you progress in your career. It impacts your relationships, goals, and even daily activities like commuting.
For instance, if we get caught in traffic, the obvious reaction would be to get angry or stressed. But an adaptable person would ask, “How can I make use of this time?” She could finish her pending work calls, answer her emails, or figure out how to solve a problem she’s currently grappling with.
When she gets home, she doesn’t have to worry about work. Her productivity increases and stress reduces. It’s a double whammy!
The Benefits of Becoming Adaptable
The world is evolving at an unprecedented pace. Each decade ends up miles ahead of the previous one.
Consider this: Previous vaccines for pandemics took up to 10 years to develop. During COVID-19, multiple vaccines were developed and even administered in a few countries within one year.
In 2010, many of us were still trying to figure out how touchscreen phones worked. In 2020, we can’t go a day without them, WhatsApp, or Facebook messenger.
It’s natural to adopt the technology and tools that improve our lives. At the same time, it’s important to adopt the behavior and habits that improve our lives.
Adaptability gives you the below superpowers:
- Control over uncertainty: You can’t know what tomorrow will bring. But you can prepare yourself better for unexpected events.
- An upward career path: You improve your earnings as well as your earnings trajectory because you keep building the skills needed to thrive in the future.
- A balanced mind: You remain calm under pressure because you trust yourself to figure a way out. As a result, you feel less stressed and can think clearly.
- Turning into a learning machine: According to research, adaptability improves your levels of learning, performance, confidence, and creative output.
- A happier life: Improved mental and physical well-being lead to higher levels of social support and overall satisfaction.
Adaptability equips you to handle uncertainty and turmoil. It empowers you to turn adversity into opportunity. And it makes you the person you want to become in the short and the long term. If you want to thrive in today’s dynamic world, it’s an essential skill.
Yet, adaptability is also a skill that gets ignored. It’s like flossing — we know it’s important, but we cannot motivate ourselves to do it. In fact, right at the time when we need to learn and change, we revert to the behaviors and habits that landed us in a soup in the first place.
This is known as the ‘adaptability paradox.’ The conditions that make adapting important can also trigger fear, making people default to familiar patterns or solutions that worked the last time.
An overweight person gets instructed by the doctor to shed kilos because his heart has become weak. He consults with dieticians, buys fitness tracking devices, and takes up a gym membership. But uncertainty over the future triggers fear in his mind, and he sticks to unhealthy eating habits.
An investor loses a lot of money in the stock market, so he subscribes to more premium reports and analyses. But while buying stocks, he sticks to his philosophies that probably worked once, even if they failed every time after that.
An employee needs to skill up because her current skills have turned obsolete. She takes up courses and gets certified in each of them. But at work, she keeps applying the obsolete skills instead of the new ones she learned.
The failure to adapt to a healthier diet means the overweight person negates any progress he makes with exercise.
The failure to adapt to a new mindset makes the stock market investor continue losing money until he goes bankrupt.
The failure to adapt to current trends and apply new skills makes the employee’s career stagnate until she gets laid off.
Why do we fail to adapt?
Adaptability is one of the key reasons for the survival and evolution of our species. During the earliest stages, Homo Sapiens were among the weakest species on the planet. But we made up for it by making tools, weapons, and money out of wood, stones, and metal. Our cities, organizations, communities, and information networks are all results of adaptation.
But over the centuries, we’ve lost this crucial skill. We assume it’s the same as reacting to what happens to us in the moment. As Jennifer Jones said in her insightful TEDX Talk:
“We’re losing the ability to adapt because we’re not taking the time and attention to prepare and develop ourselves. We’re jumping from change to change, acting on impulse, not acting on strategy.”
There are various reasons why we succumb to the adaptability paradox. But most of them can be classified into the following:
- The lack of acceptance: We expect situations to be a certain way instead of accepting them for what they are. As a result, we become averse to change.
- Overestimating our knowledge: We place more weight on what we know and too little on what we don’t know. A brain that learns nothing new keeps seeing the world the way it has always seen.
- Anticipating a threat: Each time our brain perceives a threat, it focuses on what we don’t have or what we could lose and shuts itself off to learning.
- Lack of self-care: When we feel burned out, the mind cannot focus on the right thing. Instead, it focuses on the easy thing that’s right in front, which means it fails to spot red flags until it’s too late.
- The brain’s wiring: Despite being an organ that just weighs around three pounds, the brain uses 20 percent of our body’s oxygen. That’s why it keeps looking for patterns so that it can use as little energy as possible. This often compromises our ability to spot new patterns and adapt.
The ability to adapt is the key to personal growth. It’s about preparing in advance for change rather than impulsively reacting to what’s in front of you.
Like all good things, this skill doesn’t come naturally to us, but it can be learned.
In Part 2 of this topic, I’ve discussed how you can hone this meta-skill to become a better version of yourself. You can read it here.
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