Survival of the Most Adaptable

I don’t know who first said, “When one door closes, open a window,” but whoever it was had a great perspective on life.

Adaptable people play life the way pros play tennis—always a step ahead, bouncing on their toes for the next play. They’ve got their eye on the ball expectantly, gauging how fast it’s coming, and they’re ready, thinking ahead on their moves. It takes concentration and targeted focus, but they are in the Zone, alert and waiting for what’s to come. Even when a tennis pro is caught off guard, a lifetime of training holds some moves in reserve. Surprises don’t throw them off their game.

Life may not be a tennis match, but it is all about change—and surprises. Overcoming obstacles, finding solutions, handling the unexpected and making the best of circumstances are all skills that tend to separate thrivers from survivors. It comes down to adaptability, the skill of shifting with the winds, finding a path over changing terrain, and managing change without being overwhelmed or derailed when plans go awry.

“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans,” the saying goes. Talk to an ambitious twenty-something, and he or she will tell you with certainty every step they plan to take over the next ten years. Ask a fifty year-old how he or she arrived at their current place in life, and you’ll hear a story of unexpected opportunities and obstacles, plans that changed, things that didn’t turn out as anticipated. Happy people have a natural gift for bending with the wind, while rigid people often allow the unexpected to make them angry, frustrated and bitter.

Here’s the good news: Adaptability can be learned, and practicing flexible responses can help you get better when life throws a curve ball.

At the heart of adaptability is a decision to accept change rather than fight it. Change is part of life, and part of nature, so fighting it is a no-win effort, but some people spend their lives trying to hold back the tide and end up exhausted. Instead, why not open yourself to change?  Enjoy the excitement that comes from change, and the feeling of being more alive. Cultivating adaptability means being open to thinking freely and changing your mind as you discover new information. Creativity thrives on adaptability (and vice versa).

The people I know who have embraced adaptability have told me about amazing opportunities that came their way because they were open to what change brought them. For some, it meant finding a better job, pushing themselves out of a stale comfort zone to enjoy personal growth, or learning new skills. There’s a wonderful confidence that comes from discovering that you can handle uncertainty better than you thought. That confidence strengthens you the next time the unexpected happens, because you have experience with uncertainty. You are adaptable.

Adaptability comes more naturally to some people than to others. Some folks are natural acrobats when it comes to landing on their feet after life knocks them for a loop. Adaptability is just in their DNA, and they make it look effortless. On the other extreme are people—usually perfectionists—who get so caught up in how life “should” work that unexpected outcomes or sudden changes in plans make them angry and uncomfortable.  Often, these people lose precious reaction time denying that change is happening, or stewing about its unfairness.

Most people are somewhere in the middle. They like the safety of routine, and they may enjoy planning ahead, so when something upsets the apple cart, they feel sad, confused and overwhelmed. Those feelings are normal, especially when what’s been derailed involves something important like your career or relationships.  Although change may knock them off their game for a little while, positive thinkers look for new opportunities and start finding benefits to the new situation that they might not have previously noticed.

Many of us get stuck in a rut. We have a routine, almost like an athlete reacts by muscle memory, based on repetition and past experiences. That’s fine until there’s a bump in the road, and then we need the creativity of a dancer to navigate uncertain terrain. Successful people arm themselves with a plan (and a back-up plan). They focus on what they want, but in the background, they’re constantly scanning the horizon, gathering information, determining whether or not they need to adjust course.

“Be prepared” might be the Scout motto, but it’s pretty good for the rest of us as well. It’s not paranoid to expect the unexpected (so long as you don’t always assume that the unexpected will be catastrophic).   One way to build your adaptability muscles is to read biographies of successful people. Unless someone is self-delusional, he or she will acknowledge the role that serendipity—luck—played in their success. This isn’t the Las Vegas version of “luck”, trying to cheat the odds. It’s more like being prepared so that when an opportunity presents itself, you’re ready to seize the moment.

Another way to prepare for the unexpected is to make it a point to learn new things all the time. Take a class, try a new exercise, volunteer for a new assignment, do something different. Expect doors to open. If you’re hoping to find a better job, make sure you have a resume that’s up-to-date and as good as it can be, so that when you hear about an opportunity, you are ready to take advantage of it. Go out of your way to meet new people, go new places and shake up your routine. Make it a game to look for something good whenever you hit a roadblock. Pretty soon, adaptability becomes habit.

Adaptability means expecting that change will happen and recognizing that nothing lasts forever. Instead of being sad about change, savor every moment, and open yourself to finding something that may be just as sweet—or even sweeter!

“And the trouble is, if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more.” ― Erica Jong

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