Principle #6 – Adaptability

The Art of Adaptability : How to become Antifragile

Treat yourself like a series of two-week experiments.

—Tim Ferriss


COVID-19 has been referred to as a black swan event—something that is extremely negative, rare, and almost impossible to predict.  Nassim Taleb, the famous author of The Black Swan, reminds us that we can divide the world and all that’s in it (people, things, institutions, ways of life) into three categories: the fragile, the robust, and the antifragile. We are fragile if we avoid disorder and disruption for fear of the mess they might make of our life. We are robust if we can stand up to shocks without flinching and without substantially changing who we are. And we are antifragile if shocks and disruptions make us stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge we face.


The reality is that none of us is resilient all the time. We may be very resilient in some parts of our life but struggle with others. Similarly, if we face many challenges at one time, we may temporarily run low on our capacity for Adaptability and thus resilience. Focusing on developing these behaviors helps make us and our businesses antifragile.


Peter Diamandis, the founder of Singularity University, has pointed out that “We’re living toward incredible times where the only constant is change, and the rate of change is increasing.”  Our ability to respond to constant change is the biggest differentiator for our future success and for increasing our capacity for luck. In today’s world more than ever before, strength is a matter of flexibility. That’s something of a shift from the old adage that to bend is to break or the idea that strength is a kind of superheroic imperviousness. Instead, Diamandis and others suggest that to bend is itself a way of not breaking, of withstanding pressures by fully acknowledging and even accommodating them.


The greatest models of adaptability can often be found in the natural world. We all know that Darwin was a keen observer of the role of adaptation in genetic survival and species propagation. But we can look to nature for still other models of flexibility. Bamboo, for example, is one of the most flexible and resilient plants on the planet and has been used regularly for scaffolding and

construction.  Bamboo has one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios in the world. If

bamboo stems are cut, the plant regenerates, heals, and grows again. From nature’s models, we can see some of the features or characteristics that comprise our human adaptability: the ability to withstand pressures and challenges as well as the abilities to recover from setbacks and adjust to changed circumstances.


Both Adaptability and resilience have a lot to do with changing our negative assumptions and beliefs so that we can take positive action. Resilient people tend to have several things in common:

·      They are hopeful but also realistic and are able to keep their emotions from overwhelming them.

·      They are able to think through problems and can reach out to others for support when they need it.


I was fortunate a few years ago to spend time with famed mountaineer, David Breashears. In addition to summiting most of the major mountains in the world, he filmed the IMAX movie Everest on the summit attempt that claimed the lives of twenty-three climbers in May of 1996.

During climbs, David witnessed and regularly had to cope with the result of poor decision-making under stress. He’s drawn attention to those moments when even with the most nimble and elegant of plans, climbers can become unable to adjust course. Their judgment might become clouded by raw ambition, arrogance, fear, being overly committed to a path that inhibits better judgment to turn back, or any number of other factors that keep them stuck taking actions that no longer suit changes in weather, terrain, or other obstacles that crop up along the way.


David learned from personal experience that inflexibility in those moments can quickly become life threatening. When his IMAX team was approaching the top of Everest, they ended up saving many lives by deciding to forgo their chance to summit the mountain as storm conditions threatened. As Breashears’s team descended the mountain, they passed several other teams still on their way up. By nightfall, eight people on those other teams had already perished, including Rob Hall, a world-renowned climber and friend of Breashears. Hall was leading a group of individuals who had paid a substantial fee to be guided to the top, and had invested weeks of effort to make it to the higher camps. They literally were “pot committed” – a dangerous term used in gambling, where someone becomes unable to fold their cards (walk-away from the pot of money) which is strategically the right thing to do, but they cannot given their over commitment in funds and emotion.


In business, adaptability comes down to the company’s people. Yes, adaptable and antifragile businesses must have the right people in management positions. Without good, clear guidance from leadership, even business- enhancing technologies and processes can still bring all manner of ills upon a company—from data breaches to privacy abuses, and the like. But just as important is building a company-wide culture in which employees at all levels have (1) well-developed knowledge of processes and operating systems, (2) the skills necessary to address issues with ease, and (3) a share in the vision and values that make for business consistency over time. Adaptability, in other words, must include our values, our focus and commitment, and our faith in ourselves. That’s what turns “bad luck” into growth and progress.


True Adaptability is not just about risk management or disaster preparedness. Sure, it’s absolutely the case that a business needs to identify clearly how it will respond to security breaches, IT outages, supply chain disruptions, health and safety incidents, and natural and other disasters—just as it needs to have clearly identified plans for recovering quickly from financial and other difficult-to-foresee challenges. But, in a world characterized primarily by rapid change,

companies need to develop—in all sorts of everyday circumstances—employees’ capacity to withstand change, to recover quickly from setbacks and shocks, and to adapt to new demands.


What companies must do on a daily basis is help employees accept changed realities, find meaning in hardship, think positively about setbacks, recover essential functions, and improvise when the playing field has changed.  How much your business can bend before it breaks is directly related to the individual abilities of the people who comprise it.

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