Adaptive Thinking: The Mental Mechanics of High-Performers

Nick Wignall
Feb 12 · 8 min read

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, US Navy fighter pilots started losing ground to their North Vietnamese counterparts.

During the previous few years, US fighter pilots had been shooting down about two North Vietnamese aircraft for every one they lost, a 2:1 ratio. But by the first few months of 1968, the ratio had dropped to 1:1.

This was the impetus for the creation of the famous Top Gun school that took the best US Navy fighter pilots, trained them to fly and fight like enemy fighter pilots, and used them as instructors for new Navy fighter pilots.

The results of the Top Gun training program were impressive: By the early 1970s, US Navy fighter pilots were shooting down just over 12 enemy aircraft for every one they lost, a dramatically improved 12:1 ratio.

Critically, the success of the Top Gun training program lay in its rigorous application of the principles of Deliberate Practice, especially, a specific approach to the mental aspects of high-performance called Adaptive Thinking.

How Adaptive Thinking Leads to High Performance

According to psychologist and expertise researcher Anders Ericsson, Adaptive Thinking involves the ability to “recognize unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one.”

As you might expect, this ability is critical for high-stakes performance like fighter pilots in a dogfight.

While most people with adequate levels of skill and competency can usually perform well in routine circumstances, it’s the ability to perform at a high level under unpredictable or stressful circumstance that often sets apart truly expert performers.

Think of the neurosurgeon who can adapt on the fly to an unexpected brain bleed in the middle of a procedure or the trial lawyer who can deftly modify their argument and strategy in the face of unexpected evidence or testimony.

The ability to perform well at the highest levels requires the ability not only to think well but to think flexibly and quickly — in other words, to think adaptively.

Interestingly, some clever research into how high-performing professionals work has identified 3 primary components or ingredients of Adaptive Thinking:

  1. Effective planning
  2. Careful monitoring of progress
  3. The ability to flexibly shift thinking and behavior to accommodate circumstantial changes

In the rest of this article, we’ll look at how you can use 3 specific exercises to improve Adaptive Thinking and bolster your performance in any area.

How to Improve Your Adaptive Thinking

Adaptive Thinking isn’t just for fighter pilots and neurosurgeons. Anyone can learn to harness the power of Adaptive Thinking to improve their performance in any domain that matters to them.

Whether you want to become more proficient in playing guitar, closing a sale, investing in startups, or communicating with your spouse, exercising your Adaptive Thinking abilities will help you go from merely okay or adequate to excelling.

Each of these exercises is based on one of the three ingredients of Adaptive Thinking — Planning, Monitoring, and Cognitive Flexibility. If you can practice them consistently, you’ll be well on your way to dramatically improved performance.

1. Establish a Negative Visualization Routine

Visualization and guided imagery exercises have long been an essential component to training regimens of top-performers, especially athletes.

The basic practice is to imagine and rehearse your desired performance in as much detail as possible before you actually attempt it, being especially careful to bring in as many sensory details as possible.

One of the primary benefits of positive visualization practices is that they solidify and clarify your mental representations of your desired skill. Having a more detailed and crisp mental picture of what your performance should be like helps you to notice when you’re deviating from it and make adjustments faster.

And while these positive visualization exercises are undoubtedly powerful, there may also be a place for Negative Visualization — visualizing potential obstacles or setback that might arise during a performance.

A Negative Visualization Routine has two parts:

  1. Generate a list of potential obstacles or unanticipated setbacks that could occur during the performance.
  2. Practice visualizing and rehearsing the performance in your mind, and during each practice session, work in one of the obstacles, being sure to visualize how you might feel in response to it and what action you would ideally take.

Suppose you’re visualizing yourself giving an important presentation. While you certainly want to have a clear idea of your ideal performance, it’s also beneficial to have anticipated potential curveballs like unusual questions, challenging remarks, technical difficulties, etc. Not only will this help you remain calm and focused should one of these curveballs or obstacles arise, but you’ll also have practice implementing a solution.

If you want to implement a Negative Visualization routine, start by getting in the habit of doing a negative visualization exercise before lower-stakes performances.

For example, if the goal is to establish a Negative Visualization routine to boost performance during sales meetings with potential clients, start by establishing the routine before weekly meetings with your supervisor or manager.

Learn More: For more general guidance on Visualization and Guided Imagery, this brief PDF guide gives a good introduction.

2. Use Deep Work Sprints to Improve Your Capacity for Full Focus

The second ingredient of Adaptive Thinking is the ability to carefully monitor your progress during a performance or practice leading up to one. This skill partly depends on developing good mental representations of the desired performance, as we discussed above in #1. But perhaps the most critical part of monitoring your performance is the ability to focus with full attention.

Because high-performance tasks are so cognitively demanding, there’s little mental bandwidth to spare, which is another way of saying your performance is especially vulnerable to distraction. Without exceptional abilities to focus and concentrate for sustained periods of time, it’s almost impossible to simultaneously perform the task and monitor your performance.

The best way to cultivate this ability for intense, sustained focus is Deep Work.

Deep Work is an idea developed by Cal Newport and is defined as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.”

The key phrase is push your cognitive capacities to their limit. In order to truly improve your ability to focus, you must work at a high enough level that your attentional abilities are genuinely challenged and forced to grow and adapt to a higher level of achievement.

In order to do this, I recommend beginning with what I call Deep Work Sprints, short exercises in Deep Work done consistently.

As an example of using Deep Work Sprints to improve your ability to sustain high levels of focus, consider the example from the previous section about improving your ability to speak in public and present.

In order to do this effectively, you must be able to bring your full powers of focus to bear. So practice giving small parts of a presentation with maximum attention for short periods of time.

You might, for instance, take a series of two or three slides from your presentation and try to keep your whole focus on your ability to transition smoothly between them. It’s crucial to pick a relatively brief activity because at first your ability to focus will not be well-developed.

Repeat this “sprint” until it’s no longer challenging to hold your focus for that long. Then choose another section of the presentation that’s a bit longer and practice Deep Work Sprints with it.

In this way, you can build up your ability to sustain high levels of focus and concentration, which will be invaluable for your ability to effectively monitor your own performance and make adjustments as needed.

Learn More: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Worldby Cal Newport

3. Exercise Your Divergent Thinking Muscle

The third and final ingredient or skill in Adaptive Thinking is the ability flexibly shift your thinking and behavior to accommodate unexpected changes in your environment.

Unfortunately, most of us struggle to do this because it’s not the way we’ve been trained to think.

Throughout decades of school and job training, most of us are taught how to think in a specific way called Convergent Thinking. This means taking a single problem and working out which of many possible solutions is the correct one:

  • Summarizing To Kill a Mockingbird in a book report
  • Solving a differential equation in Calculus
  • Pitching a new client on your SaaS product and landing the sale

All of these are examples of thinking that’s directed toward a singular answer or outcomes. And while this skill is certainly important, we all too often forget about its twin, Divergent Thinking.

Divergent Thinking is the mental muscle that is thought to underly creativity. It involves generating multiple solutions or possibilities based on a single data point or idea:

  • Sketching out ideas for how to structure an essay or book
  • Inventing a new device to improve blood flow in and reduce plaque in blood vessels
  • Composing a new song

Of course, we all use Divergent Thinking to some extent But for most of us, it’s the far less well-developed skill.

But it’s precisely the mental muscle we need in order to quickly adapt to unexpected changes during a high-performance activity, which is the hallmark of Adaptive Thinking:

  • How do you respond during a sales pitch when a potential client brings up a problem you hadn’t considered?
  • What play does a quarterback audible to when the opposing defense completely changes its set?
  • How does the main thrust of a trial lawyer’s closing argument change given an unexpected piece of evidence?

In order to develop our Divergent Thinking muscle, there are several exercises and routines that I’ve found helpful:

  1. The Many Uses Exercise. This simple task involves generating out-side-the-box uses for ordinary objects in a time-sensitive situation.
  2. 10 New Ideas. Based on James Altucher’s How to Become an Idea Machine, this exercise has your get into the habit of generating new ideas on a daily basis.
  3. Daily Headlines. A fascinating exercise to simultaneous flex both Divergent and Convergent Thinking abilities.
  4. Articles on Trial. This technique involves building the habit of arguing with articles you read online and generating alternative lines of argumentation or counter-argumentation.
  5. Automatic to alternative Thoughts. This exercise is specifically useful for building flexibility in the way we think and talk to ourselves, that is, learning to change our Self-Talk.

To learn more about how to implement each of these exercises and cultivate your Divergent Thinking abilities, check out this article:

Divergent Thinking: The Mental Muscle Behind Consistent Creativity


Summary and Conclusion

Adaptive Thinking is the ability to “recognize unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one” and is an essential ingredient in the ability to perform at high levels of mastery.

There are three separate components or ingredients to Adaptive Thinking that can be individually cultivated:

  1. Effective planning
  2. Careful monitoring of performance
  3. The ability to flexibly shift thinking and behavior to accommodate circumstantial changes

You can improve your ability to perform at the highest levels of any activity by explicitly training Adaptive Thinking. And perhaps the best way to do this is to target each of its subcomponents with tailored exercises, three of which mentioned in this article are:

  1. Negative Visualization
  2. Deep Work Sprints
  3. Divergent Thinking

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Nick Wignall

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Clinical Psychologist and author interested in practical psychology for rigorous personal growth. https://nickwignall.com

The Startup

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