Adaptability to Cope vs. Adaptability to Thrive

The boss gifts you with a major project 3 days before you’re scheduled to go on vacation, you’re blindsided by a health or financial crisis, or you suddenly find yourself in the role of caretaker for a parent.

Ready or not, life has a way of testing our ability to handle change.  

Most of us like to think of ourselves as being reasonably open and able to deal with change, but it’s worth the occasional reminder that there is a difference between being flexible and genuine adaptability.

For example, chances are you’re probably pretty flexible when it comes to making small adjustments in your day-to-day life; the restaurant is out of the item you order, so you pick something else on the menu.

The local bookstore doesn’t have the novel you want in stock so they special order it for you, there’s a street crew working on the road you normally use for work commutes, so you take a detour, etc.

Flexibility is about accommodating short-term modifications.

But occasionally we find ourselves facing situations that require a whole different level of skills and behaviors to manage; major changes at work, recovery from an injury, conflict in an important relationship or failure to achieve an important goal.

Adaptability is the capacity to readily adjust oneself to different conditions and long-term change.

The greater the disruption the more you will benefit from the ability to adapt in a way that will make the most positive impact on the quality of your life.

But like most things in life there are extremes, and the unfortunate reality is that practicing the dark side of adaptability is all too common.

Adaptability to Cope

It is both a blessing and a curse that we humans have the inherent capacity to become used to conditions of almost any kind.

Over time even the most toxic work environments, and miserable living conditions can begin to feel both normal and natural.

This is the dark side of adaptability.

Millions of people have effectively learned to adapt to a variety of dysfunctional relationships — sometimes so thoroughly that they don’t even know they are in them.

Living without healthy personal boundaries becomes so commonplace that to even consider change elicits feelings of guilt and shame.

We avoid setting goals and pursuing dreams for fear of disappointment, and spend large portions of our lives collecting paychecks in unfulfilling jobs.

In the process we tell ourselves that are actions are justified, either because we have no (acceptable) choice, or because it’s the best we can hope for.

You can get used to almost anything in life, but that doesn’t mean you should.

You’ve lived in survival mode long enough, now it’s time to thrive. The habits and behaviors you relied on to cope will no longer serve you when it’s time to create a stronger more resilient life.


Adaptability to Thrive

Genuine adaptability is considered to be a key component of resilience and a profound process because it challenges you to have a growth-oriented mindset, master your emotions, make peace with fear and uncertainty, and if not embrace, at least learn to manage change.

When you can do this, you’ll be in a far better situation to see solutions that will help you to experience a smoother transition, find opportunities for growth and enjoy a greater sense of satisfaction with the outcome.

Let’s take a closer look at a few key characteristics of those with growth-oriented adaptability.

Actively Seek Opportunities for Growth

They are curious, resourceful and always on the lookout for improvement because they understand that even minor tweaks can turn ordinary results into extraordinary.

They shun quick-fixes or one-size-fits-all solutions for what they are; the difference between surviving and thriving in life.

Realistically Optimistic

An optimistic outlook is consistently identified as playing a pivotal role during major transitions or when facing a crisis, and as a desirable trait among the highly resilient.

But it’s important to understand that there is a vital difference between believing you will achieve your desired outcome, and believing you will achieve it easily.

A realistic optimist believes that positive thinking matters, but that they will succeed through effort, careful planning, persistence and choosing the right strategies.

More importantly, they redefine failure as a temporary detour so that when one plan hits a speed bump, it simply means a new strategy or direction is required.

Willing to Experiment

This is one of my all-time favorite strategies, but to better illustrate it I’m going to ask you to use your imagination.

Picture a scientist trying to solve a problem. She conducts an experiment that doesn’t achieve the result she was seeking, but she doesn’t consider it a failure.

She figures out what didn’t work, makes a few adjustments and gives it another try. This process may be repeated dozens, if not hundreds of times, but with each trial, the scientist increases her knowledge and gets closer to finding the solution she seeks.

The point is that in order to tap into the power of experimentation you need to shift your thinking from all or nothing to be willing to explore different approaches to problem-solving.

What matters the most in this process is how you deal with the consequences of each effort.

If you can learn from your mistakes, experiment with alternative solutions, and share newfound knowledge, then you’ll not only have strengthened your adaptability skills you’ll have gained some of the most valuable lessons of your life.

Accept Accountability

Accountability is so much more than admitting that you’ve made a mistake; it’s understanding that you are responsible for your attitude, actions, communication, and relationships and it’s never more challenging or important than when you’re going through a difficult transition period in your life.

True accountability fosters honesty, commitment, compassion, integrity, and it builds deeper, more fulfilling relationships.

The moment you no longer experience fear or obstacles in your life then you had better get on your hands and knees and pray for some. Because the only people who don’t experience fear and obstacles are those who are buried 6 feet underground!

~Norman Vincent Peale


Face Your Fears

Let’s be honest, each time you find yourself blindsided by unexpected change, attempt something you have never done before or have to make a difficult decision you can expect to experience fear, the only question is how much it will affect you and long it will last.

While it may not always feel like it, the answers to those questions are entirely up to you.

What if instead of avoiding the source of your fear(s) you lean into them?

Better yet, what if instead of going just far enough to make your fears manageable, you were to turn them into a personal challenge to stretch yourself?

What might you discover about who you are and what you are truly capable of?

Yes, this means taking risks, and there will be discomfort and some uncertainty, but if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we seldom do anything to the absolute best of our ability, we do it only to the extent of our willingness.

The good news is that each time you stand up for yourself you’ll grow a little stronger.

Every time you choose to confront instead of avoiding your fears, take a courageous stand or accept responsibility, you’ll grow a little more competent, a little more confident and a little more resilient to life’s challenges.

Where to Begin

The best way to increase your capacity to thrive in the face of change in a healthy, growth-oriented way is to develop the habit of stretching yourself in small ways every single day.

You can start with small things like questioning your perspective about things, saying ‘yes’ to something you might normally say ‘no’ to automatically, or identifying an area where you’ve fallen into a rut and shake things up are relatively low-stakes situations that can then help you to move towards bigger and bigger challenges.

For example, if the thought of setting personal boundaries scares you silly, that’s a great goal to work toward! Start small, practice, and practice some more.

The key is to be consistent.

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