Art of adaptability

The art of adaptability

In a rapidly changing environment, it is no longer about survival of the fittest or the fastest, but rather survival of the most flexible.

You may have heard the epithet, “adapt or die.” In fact, this simple saying has been used in a number of settings, from coping with life to optimising business as well as in personal relationships. The thinking behind this notion was first proffered by English naturalist Charles Darwin in his seminal work, The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Still relevant today, Darwin contended that those species which have the innate ability to adapt to a changing environment have the best chance of surviving. He observed that “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Those that can’t adapt inevitably die or even die out as a species. This serves as a warning for those who can’t or rather won’t change when the need arises.

Unlike our ancient ancestors, who literally had to think fast on their feet as they ran away from sabretooth tigers, self-preservation in the primal sense is not a fundamental concern for those living in the First World. However, in the age of anxiety and depression, mental and emotional preservation is a major consideration that occupies all humans as they try to make it in this world.

In challenging times, it is up to you to recalibrate or reconfigure life in order to regain some sense of happiness and hope.

Inordinately high levels of stress in the Western world suggest that humans are still challenged by an ever-changing, fast-paced world which can overwhelming at times. Whether dealing with a relationship break-up, job loss or illness or simply drowning under the pressures of life, how you adapt and cope is the measure of your own survival. In challenging times, it is up to you to recalibrate or reconfigure life in order to regain some sense of happiness and hope.

It’s in the genes and the jeans

Have you noticed how you naturally adapt your behaviour around certain people to accommodate their personality or position? Most likely, you learned how to do this as you grew up interpreting social and emotional cues. Children are very good at this instinctively. They seem to dodge and weave when parents are grumpy and then they know how to make a bid for a new bike when the time is just right. Sure, one can call this manipulative, and no doubt there is a bit of that, but in times of stress it can be a matter of survival for them. Kids are continually reading situations and coming up with a variety of strategies to cope, deflect or sublimate. In homes where there are parental disputes, children can even transform into UN negotiators.

In a time when parents are fixated on their children topping the class and tutoring them to within an inch of their lives in order to make the gifted and talented grade, the greatest attribute kids can possess is emotional agility. As parents, it is your job to guide and to show by example, not merely how to succeed, but rather how to manage and regroup after failure or disappointment. This can include employing mental techniques such as reframing a situation or providing perspective when things don’t go their way.

In a time when parents are fixated on their children topping the class, the greatest attribute kids can possess is emotional agility.

Traits such as adaptability or resilience are inherited traits through epigenetic evolution. Epigenetics doesn’t work in the same way as genetics, which affect such attributes as eye colour or height. It is more nuanced than that. Genetics is about gene codes, whereas epigenetics is about gene expression. How you live your life, from what you eat, how you sleep and even the exercise you do, all have a significant effect on the epigenome. So, the more you display or practise this in your everyday life, the more likely these genetic markers will get passed on.

The perceptions of the experiences you have in this life are passed on in the gene expression; this includes behaviour, attitudes and personality. Lifestyle factors such as dealing with trauma or even having a sunny disposition can be transmitted down the generational track, and by twists of fate these markers can be switched on or off. While intelligence or beauty, for instance, is part of the genetic code, a sense of humour or moodiness is part of the epigenetic expression. So you need to think about what traits you want to imbue in your children.

It’s important to note that the propensity to cheat or being a shopaholic can also play a part in that inherited expression. Practising compassion, generosity and being adaptable yourself is a good investment in your children’s and grandchildren’s future, as they may display these traits in their lived experience.

Adapting ancient wisdom

Have you ever watched a tree on a windy day? It doesn’t stand there stiff and unyielding; its perfect design means that it will bend to the will of the wind. The branches will sway as the wind whistles through the fluttering leaves. The tree provides a lovely allegory for how you should live your life, showing that it is better to move with the wind rather than fight it.

One of the major tenets of the ancient Chinese philosophy Taoism is to go with the flow. Water in a stream trickling over stones will take the path of least resistance, going with the natural current where the shape of the stone bed and gravity will determine how the water will flow.

Now in principle this seems natural and easy, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. In practice, you might find it hard to let go of things. You might even find it hard to let go of resistance itself. Resistance keeps you stuck and prevents you from moving in a positive direction. But gently transitioning to a new mindset when life throws you a curveball means that you can find a way to respond effectively. Asa in a yacht on the ocean, when the wind changes direction, a clever sailor will not fight the wind but will simply change the mainsail in order to tack with the wind. Adaptability is naturally innovative and creative.

Practising compassion, generosity and being adaptable yourself is a good investment in your children’s and grandchildren’s future, as they may display these traits in their lived experience.

When dealing with a relationship breakdown, you may hold onto the life you once had, even if that life brought unhappiness. Fear keeps humans paralysed. Being able to adapt to a new life on your own doesn’t mean you ignore feelings of fear or grief. However, it is imperative to acknowledge that your previous life was not working for you. Acceptance is at the core of adaptability. Adapting means you accept the situation for what it is, and then you can think about the changes you need to make in order to make your life work for you.

You may need to ask for help or support; you may need to think about implementing lifestyle changes as well as assessing your financial and logistical requirements. Like that yachtsman, it is about how you can reconfigure your life to suit the situation. The better you can adapt to a new way of living the closer you get to living life on your terms.

If Taoism doesn’t float your boat, then why not borrow from that other Eastern philosophy, Buddhism? Mindfulness is the ability to be in the moment: to notice and acknowledge your thoughts and what is going on for you in that moment. Just being present and not submitting to the anxiety that grips can be very liberating. The other tenet of Buddhism is acceptance, which is central to letting go of resistance. You can also invite that other lovely Buddhist tenet of equanimity, which is to face both the good and the bad with the same countenance.

But, of course, if all else fails, just breathe. Breathe in acceptance, breathe out resistance. Just breathe.

Devise, improvise, compromise

The one thing that’s certain in life is that there are no guarantees, and nothing ever goes to plan. To paraphrase the famed 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns, the best-laid plans often go awry. Indeed, they do. You wake up each morning thinking you know how that day will run, and often these days end in tears of joy or grief. In actual fact, you have no way of knowing what will unfold in the course of a day and in the course of your life, so it is helpful to subscribe to the adage, “expect the unexpected”.

It is one thing to be adaptable, but becoming adaptable is another thing altogether. Just as you can practise gratitude, you can also learn and practise adaptability. You perform exercises to strengthen or to make the body flexible, and you need to stretch the mind to make that flexible, too.

So why not try something new and observe how you manage that change? For instance, when you go to your favourite café, instead of ordering your signature cappuccino, why not opt for a soy chai latte. Just for the fun of it. You may not like it, but it is good to surprise yourself. Or try cooking salmon instead of steak at dinner.

… holding on to preconceived ideas is a form of inflexibility, so be open to flex your mind muscles in order to change your thinking.

Taking an alternative route home or doing a yoga class instead of your favourite body pump workout are all ways to mix it up. On an interpersonal level, if there is a person in your orbit who you don’t deem to be “your people”, why not instigate a chat or invite that person out for a coffee? Assess how you feel, and if the experience is not great, then that’s OK. It is all part of the learning experience. But see what you could do differently to improve the experience. It may be that you have to make little compromises in order to derive something more meaningful out of the experience. Remember, holding on to preconceived ideas is a form of inflexibility, so be open to flex your mind muscles in order to change your thinking.

Adopting adaptability

Bouncing back and finding a new way to accept and reframe the events that have served to diminish or displace you is a practised art form that is accessible to everyone. It doesn’t mean that you don’t afford yourself shock or sadness, or that feeling of complete vulnerability where you need to reach out for help, but there are ways you can restore your equilibrium and sense of control. All humans need “reboot” time when random or unexpected events hit, but you can learn to adapt by adopting the psychological tools and approaches that will assist you to get back on your feet.

It is said that it is the wise person who adapts themselves to circumstances as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it. If you can use this image when you find yourself struck with adversity, then you can find a way not only to survive but to soar.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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