Adaptability, or the ability to adjust to a variety of different circumstances, isn’t necessarily the sexiest of traits. But experts say it is essential to enjoying a happy, satisfying life.
“We constantly meet psychological challenges. Some of us succumb, we feel hopeless, disempowered, give up … and some meet challenges, take the knock and learn something from it,” says Guy Winch, Ph.D. a psychologist and author of “Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.” “Our ability to have life satisfaction, to be happy [and] to have good relationships really depends on our ability to adapt.”
Some people are naturally more adaptable to situations than others, Winch says. To illustrate this, he poses a scenario of three toddlers who are faced with a difficult task: One immediately gives up and starts crying, another repeats the same approach unsuccessfully, while the third tests a few different strategies until eventually succeeding.
“You can see even from a young age people’s natural proclivities in how they deal with hurdles. But, that said, everyone can learn ways to be more adaptable,” Winch says. And to learn to be adaptable, one must first understand how adaptable people approach life differently. Here are a few habits they share:
Adaptable people analyze their own coping mechanisms.
Everyone faces hurdles and setbacks, personally and professionally. But people who are adaptable get better at dealing with those tough moments throughout their lives by paying attention to their natural response, then changing it when necessary.
“You have to be aware of what your coping mechanisms are,” Winch says. “Most people just forge ahead and try the same thing over and over, rather than switch strategies.” Take, for example, a student who did well in high school, but is struggling with more rigorous college classes. An adaptable person will take a hard look at his or her learning strategies and change what’s not working. “When we encounter failure, we have to question our strategies,” he explains. “What in your preparation — in your thinking, planning and effort — went wrong?”
They know who they are…
Adaptable people understand what it is that makes them who they are — acknowledging the good and bad — then use that understanding to their advantage.
“There are personality traits that may predispose you to being particularly good at handling positive or negative moments in life,” and then there are other traits you might want to work on, says Fred Bryant, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Loyola University in Maryland. For example, an introvert who is aware that he draws strength from alone time will be sure to take a few moments for himself in big social gatherings so he doesn’t get overwhelmed. By understanding his natural inclinations and acting accordingly, one can adapt to a situation that may not come naturally, Bryant explained.
But it’s not about trying to change who you are. Instead, “if you know the hand you have, you can play to your strengths,” he says — and that can serve you well in any number of situations.
… But they also reinvent themselves.
Adaptable people understand their personalities, but they also push themselves to grow and expand. This is especially valuable in the workplace, according to Bruna Martinuzzi, founder of Clarion Enterprises, a leadership training company based in Vancouver, Canada.
“Consider that when we push the envelope, and when we intentionally put ourselves in situations that are outside our comfort zone, we grow,” she writes in her book, “The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.” “Are you trading on old knowledge? Do you need to update your skills? … We need to adapt by continually evolving and reinventing ourselves.”
Adaptable people don’t blame themselves after rejection.
“Rejection is universally painful,” says Winch. “It’s like touching a hot stove. Our self-esteem usually gets hurt as a result. What a lot of people then do is go and add insult to injury by blaming themselves, and becoming self-critical.” But all that does is make the psychological injury worse.
But adaptable people don’t do that. They acknowledge the psychological injury, sit with the pain, then reaffirm what it is that makes them unique and valuable so they can dust themselves off, Winch says. If, for example, you’ve been rejected after a job interview, try sitting down and brainstorming a quick list of 10 to 15 traits that make you a good employee. Then, write a quick, two-paragraph essay about one of those traits and why it’s an important quality to have. The next day, pick another and do the same thing.
“Rather than blaming themselves for a screwed-up interview, they’re reaffirming what it is that makes them a valuable employee,” Winch explains. “That’s an adaptable thing to do.”
They know when to speak up.
This is true in all aspects of life, but particularly in relationships. “Couples that are happier are those that can deal productively with conflict. Most of us know that, but very few of us apply it,” Winch says. All too often, partners come up with reasons to not voice their concerns to their significant others. But squelching these dissatisfactions is not an adaptable thing to do. “You want to have a relationship in which there’s a culture where you can voice it, deal with it together and improve things as a result,” Winch says. Adaptable people also know when an issue is notmeaningful enough to bring up, and simply let it go.
“Think of your relationship as a third, separate entity and the two of you as managers. Then, have a ‘management meeting’ once a month, where you talk about the company, the state of the union,” Winch suggests. By doing this regularly — even if there’s not much to say — it provides a structure for meaningful communication, which is key to being an adaptable partner in an adaptable relationship.
Adaptable people don’t wait for happiness.
When it comes to adaptability, there’s so much emphasis placed on how people cope with crises and setbacks. But true adaptability is about more than that, Bryant argues. “The assumption is that if you can cope really well, then you’re going to be happy, but that turns out to be inaccurate,” he said. “The key is for people to understand and prioritize the need for positive experience. … Part of adjustment is being able to find meaning and joy in life.”
Learning to seek out and “savor” positive experiences is a skill, and one that is under-appreciated, Bryant says. Adaptable people aren’t just good at coping with the hard stuff; they learn to actively seek out positive experiences and joy, in whatever way is best for them.