Thriving in Uncertain Environments

On the importance of practicing adaptability.

A few years back, an athlete with whom I work was toeing the start line prior to an important race. He had put in tons of work in the prior months, executing every workout to a T. He approached his training meticulously — always hitting specific workouts at exacting paces. The entire buildup to his race was flawless; it epitomized systematic progression. The only problem? The race itself was anything but systematic — the day came with torrential downpours, humidity beyond what he’d expected, swirling winds, poor course measurements, and a lead pack of runners who paced erratically. In other words: pure chaos.

My athlete completely fell apart. Who could blame him? He was accustomed to running evenly paced workouts at the perfect time of day on tightly-gauged courses. He would have smoked the race under usual conditions. But he was ill-prepared for unusual ones.

Ever since this experience, I’ve thrown more chaos into the way that I coach, both on the road, and off. It’s a shift to resilience thinking, a framework that, as you’ll see, is valuable across nearly all disciplines.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Resilience Thinking

Methodical planning works wonderfully under predictable and controllable conditions. But rarely are we operating in such conditions. More often than not we’re operating in complex and unstable environments, where immeasurable variables can, and do, interact and change in unimaginable ways. If we — and “we” could be an athlete, a company, or a politician — can’t adapt, then we’re bound to struggle (at best) or downright fail (at worst).

An important and often overlooked issue of modern times is that as we become more reliant on technology and data to help us scheme and plan, we become less capable of going off script. When we are extremely methodical, we’ll be better most of the time but risk catastrophic failure some of the time. In other words, we become very strong and robust but not at all resilient.

We need to make sure that in parallel to laying down extensive plans, we are also laying down the ability to adapt.

In their book Resilience Thinking, Brian Walker and David Salt define resilience as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.” They go on to write that, “The more you optimize the elements of a complex system, the more you diminish its resilience. The drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the system more prone to disturbances.”

Increasingly, we are living in a world that seems wonderful when everything is going as planned but wholly uncomfortable when it’s not.

Becoming More Adaptable

None of this is to say that we should completely discard systems and planning. However, we need to make sure that in parallel to laying down extensive plans, we are also laying down the ability to adapt. This is a concept that applies to just about anything.

  • A company should never become so bureaucratic that it can’t respond to sudden changes in the market. Instead, it should empower employees to make quick decisions during unforeseen circumstances. (Think: American Airline’s recent fiasco!)
  • An athlete pursues excellence in her sport, but she should maintain and cultivate other interests, too. This way, if she gets injured or is otherwise forced to retire, she won’t be completely lost.
  • Anyone who relies on machines should have confidence that they could at least get by if the machines fail. This could be as simple as learning to exercise without a GPS watch and as complex as learning to fly a plane without a fully functioning dashboard.
  • A politician must be able to release from her plans in the midst of a campaign.
  • Even in deeply romantic relationships, there’s something to say for maintaining a sense of self. Rarely do two people die at the same time. Moving on is never easy, but at least it is possible if you yourself don’t completely die when your loved one does.

Strength and Flexibility

The investor and author Nassim Taleb calls this becoming “antifragile” and the economist Tim Harford writes it’s about being able to “embrace the messiness of life.” In both cases, you are strong and flexible at the same time.

Methodical planning works wonderfully under predictable and controllable conditions. But rarely are we operating in such conditions.

Another way to think about this concept is by looking to evolution. Species that endure have strong cores but are able to constantly adapt around that core: without a strong core, they become something different; without the ability to adapt, they get selected out when the environment changes. 
 
Most of us do a lot to develop our respective cores. These are the goals, routines, systems, and relationships that we expect to serve us well. And while I’m not suggesting you do away with any of that, I do think it’s worthwhile to think about how you can develop adaptability, too. At some point or another your survival — be it in a sporting competition, career, or in some cases, in life — could depend on it.


Thanks for reading.

If you found this interesting, please consider pre-ordering my new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, which dives deep into topics like the one above.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine. For daily thoughts, follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.