Adaptability: Bending but not Breaking


Unlike our ancient ancestors, who literally had to think fast on their feet to run from predatory animals, self-preservation in the primal sense is not a fundamental concern for those living in the developed World.

However, in the year 2021, we must think on our feet wisely, not quickly - we must keep behaving in a way so as not to spread the pandemic, but we also need emotional and mental wits to make it through the world now. 

The Dao de jing says, “Rigidity is a sign of death and suppleness is a sign of life.” Let's explore that.

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 flows.

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 curve ball means that you can find a way to respond effectively. As 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 to tack with the wind. Adaptability is naturally innovative and creative.

It’s widely said that a sign of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Although this might be obvious from the standpoint of logic, the power of habit is a powerful thing that takes over our sense of control over our actions. What I mean by sense is that control is only an illusion - we think we have an extraordinary amount of it because most of us have the freedom to do what we want or need to do, but that does not mean we can actually control anything other than our choices and our reactions to the results of those choices.

What are the key signs of adaptability?

1. Adaptable people are willing to try something new and are willing to let go of preconceived ideas. 

This last year wreaked havoc and disrupted many planned events- in the sporting world it has nearly canceled everything major and minor all the way from the 2020 Olympic Games to most athletic performances and events all over the world. For some athletes, the complete change in lifestyle has forced them to not only adapt - but to question the status quo that existed in their lives before the pandemic’s abrupt changes. In a recent article in the New Yorker, Misty Copeland, the prima ballerina for the NY Ballet, discussed how she as a dancer found herself maintaining a healthier body weight; not the waif-like look that comes with the physical demands of nonstop performing. The look of traditional ballet requires women to be extremely thin and thus unnaturally hide their natural curves by becoming extremely lean. To be a be ballet dancer is an elite art, but it puts tremendous scrutiny on how the body performs and looks. Now many are challenging the notion that to be a good dancer means you must be unnecessarily thin. Not only are the dancers adapting but the whole art, but the industry of ballet is being forced to examine and shed outdated ideas of what is normal.

2. Adaptable people see opportunity where others see failure.

If something in this last year has not worked out for you or you’ve faced economic or other types of hardships, then you wouldn’t be alone. The sheer amount of small businesses, restaurants, shops and salons that have disappeared, or have had to completely reinvent themselves to survive, is staggering. You may have heard the epithet, “Adapt or die.” This is applied in nearly every facet in life - personal and business as well. When we think about companies that failed to adapt to technology, we almost forget that we once went anywhere other than Amazon for movies or books. Blockbuster, Barnes & Noble and Borders are now cautionary tales. The pandemic has literally pulled the rug from under our feet, so how can we stay upright through the bumpy ride ahead? By staying flexible.

To adapt is to grow, to change, and to change you must forego what you once believed to be right, you must classify it as wrong, and then adopt what you now believe to be the new right. If you don’t, you stagnate. This is something that not only individuals, but organizations, struggle with—habits that have defined their success in the past rather than questioning whether or not those same habits will continue defining success in the future. Chances are, they won’t.

3. Adaptable people are resourceful.

One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s “How I Built This” with Guy Raz. The podcast originally featured stories from entrepreneurs and artists on how they built their idea into a successful business. There is always something to take away from learning about the trials and tribulations of others and how they overcame obstacles. We learn so much through failures - not just our own. We can take comfort that others also faced relatable difficulties. Now NPR produces a pandemic series that focuses on resilience during difficult times. The best part of many of these stories, and what they all had in common, was the sheer ingenuity of adaptability and the resourcefulness to keep believing in their own vision. Even if you don’t own a business - they relate how their personal relationships also interplayed with their stories - we are the sum of both things: our work with our selves and our work with the world.

4. Adaptable people don’t whine, complain, or blame others about having to change.

Another classic in the art of adaptability is the book, “Who Moved my Cheese?” The short story is a parable for all business owners who must find their source of cheese (income), or quickly move on to something more reliable if the source disappears. It also demonstrates what happens when, instead of moving on, a business owner staunchly believes that the cheese will come back to them because they are simply entitled to it. Entitlement is never a positive word when it prevents us from being our own saviors, and the song of entitlement is complaining and whining that our cheese has disappeared. 

Instead of standing on the victim soapbox, talk to yourself: self-soothe your worries and anxieties. Tell yourself you are as capable as anyone, be your own fiercest protector and promoter. You cannot fall victim to external influences when you’re proactive. To adapt to something new, you must forego the old. Adaptable people don’t hold grudges or eschew blame needlessly but instead absorb, understand and move on.

Jyoti Paintel Spiritual Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2021