5 Steps to Strengthen Your Adaptability Muscle
This is the second and final part of the topic of learning how to become adaptable. In the previous part, we discussed what adaptability means and why we struggle to build it, especially during times when we need it the most. You can read it here.
Here’s a quick recap.
Adaptability is the ability to learn how to become flexible and efficient and apply that knowledge across situations. It’s an important meta-skill that often gets activated when our mind spots changes in situations and patterns.
For instance, if your car refuses to start in the morning, you take an Uber to work. If your friend gets upset during a conversation, you adjust your tone and words, or you change the subject. If you’re stagnating in your career, you learn new skills that will help you progress.
However, if the conditions that make adapting important feel like a threat, the mind shuts down. It sticks to patterns or solutions that worked the last time instead of searching for new ways to overcome the challenge. This is known as the adaptability paradox.
Like all meta-skills, adaptability can be nurtured. It’s a muscle that gets strengthened with the right exercise and mental diet. And once you learn it, you automatically apply it to every aspect of your life.
How to Build Your Adaptability Muscle
Before we discuss how you can become more adaptable, let’s take a look at what adaptability is not.
Adaptability is not reacting impulsively to what happens in the moment. In fact, we do too much of the latter, which has compromised our Adaptability Quotient (AQ). 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.”
Adaptability is not the same as resilience. Resilience means to “bounce back” from adversity while adaptability means to “bounce forward” into new realms. The two might feed into each other, but they’re not one and the same.
Adaptability is not a trait you build once and forget. Like your physical muscles, it atrophies with lack of use or exercise.
Here are five steps that will help you sharpen your AQ and build a better quality of life:
1. Invest in Self-Care
In our forever-busy lives, we’re always multitasking and hustling. We even help friends or family members who might be struggling with anxiety or burnout. But the person we should take care of the most — ourselves — comes last.
Eventually, we get exhausted and succumb to the scarcity mindset. We think about what we don’t have or what we could lose. For such a mind, the very thought of adapting is almost impossible. It fusses over problems and challenges and turns blind to opportunities.
Taking care of yourself is not selfish. In fact, it lets give your best to your work and relationships. You recover from exhaustion, take stock of what you’re doing, and achieve better results in less time.
One of the simplest self-care techniques is to take tiny breaks throughout your day. Such a step reduces stress and improves learning. A study of violin prodigies revealed that the students who took significant breaks — including naps between sessions — were the quickest to master the instrument, even faster than those who played for hours on end.
Breaks don’t just include naps. They also include meditation, exercise, reflection, nutrition, indulging in hobbies, or just calling a friend and having a conversation. You can browse social media, but in moderation—its toxicity does nothing to make you feel better.
2. Define your Purpose
Winston Churchill said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” He was actually talking about a purpose.
You can’t take every turn on the road and hope to reach your destination. Likewise, you can’t react to every situation and achieve your goal. If you ‘go with the flow’ all the time, you’ll end up as a prisoner of events.
A purpose shows you the path that will help you reach your goal. Even if you diverge, you find ways to return to it. You tweak the actions that are not paying off instead of switching to easier things that mess up your results in the long term.
Lay down a clear purpose that will make you happy, not one that’s based on others’ definition of happiness. Examples could include being healthy, making wealth by doing what you love, and being a great family person.
Your purpose helps you focus. It helps you make better decisions and adapt to situations. As a result, you improve your productivity in that you can get more from what you do.
3. View the world through curiosity
Adaptability stems from the ability to learn which, in turn, stems from curiosity. Sadly, people place too much emphasis on certainty and too little on curiosity.
Without the latter, the mind continues seeing things the way it always has because it learns nothing new. In a world that’s changing at an unprecedented pace, this is a recipe for disaster.
Our default view of the world might protect us in the moment, but it impacts our ability to respond to new situations that arise almost daily. And people often figure this out after the damage is beyond repair.
Imbibing curiosity in your life is not a difficult task. It involves two simple steps:
- Stop saying “This is how it’s always done.”
- Start asking “Why” and “What If” questions.
Ask yourself these questions about what you observe in your personal life and surroundings. This way, you don’t need to worry about others shooting your thoughts down by calling them silly. Once you get comfortable with the practice, you can apply it to larger areas like your relationships, career, and side hustles.
Certainty makes us rigid, curiosity opens our eyes to possibilities. The only experts today are the ones who are lifelong learners.
4. Build a diverse network
A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. To stretch your mind, you have to make it step outside its current environment, or the comfort zone.
The quickest and most effective way to do this is to learn from people who are already doing what you want to do. Connect with them on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media platforms. Engage in meaningful conversations. They’ll help you if you get stuck, teach you the skills you need in order to succeed, and expose you to new opportunities.
Books are another excellent source to expand your thinking, especially the ones that have stood the test of time. (You can read summaries of the books that have impacted my life here.)
When you keep learning, your mind turns into a sponge. You absorb everything, retain what works for you, and build strategies to approach your goals.
5. Make it safe to learn
Jennifer Jones proposed an insightful formula to check how adaptable you are. According to her, adaptability is the sum of your purpose, inquisitiveness (or curiosity), and resilience, divided by the level of threat.
You cannot learn in an environment where you feel threatened. If you’re afraid of appearing foolish or losing what you have, or if the outcomes of failure are high, you will revert to old behaviors and habits that landed you in trouble in the first place.
For instance, look at the investor who loses a lot of money in the stock market. He buys more premium reports and analyses. But when he has to buy stocks, he sticks to his old philosophies. This is because he feels comfortable with them in the face of the threat of losing more money.
The overweight person who needs to lose weight to avoid terminal illness buys an expensive gym membership. But he sticks to his old eating habits because the fear of failure doesn’t let his mind step outside its comfort zone.
A better approach is to learn in a safe environment where the stakes are low. The investor can keep learning while he’s making money. A person can build a fitness routine even when his weight seems under control.
Instead of being really good at something, become really good at learning how to do new things. You’ll be able to spot red flags and take action before it’s too late. That’s what adaptability is all about.
Most of our failures are because we cannot let go of old behaviors. We stick to what worked in the past instead of exploring what will work now, even when the challenges are unlike anything we’ve faced in the past.
In a constantly changing world, only those who adapt can thrive.
Adaptability is not a fixed trait. With deliberate practice, it can be honed and sharpened. Five steps to build it are:
- Take care of yourself. This helps you think clearly, invest more resources in what you do, and get better results for your effort.
- Define your purpose. This helps you stay on the path, do more of what works, and remove what doesn’t.
- Be curious. View the world through curious eyes instead of fixating on the status quo.
- Build a diverse network. There’s no better way to learn than learning from the pros. Do this by connecting with people who are already doing what you want to and by reading books.
- Make it safe to learn. Learn even when you don’t need to. When you learn in a safe environment, it’s easier to apply those lessons to your life.
You cannot predict what tomorrow will bring. But when you know how to adapt, you can be better prepared for those challenges. You can adjust the sails in the direction of the wind. And you can experience the true beauty of life rather than getting bogged down by it.
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