"Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change." — Stephen Hawking
I’m often invited to speak to various groups and organizations, and during the summer of 2017 I was on my way to Vermont to speak with a group when I found myself in unusually heavy traffic. After not moving for far too long I decided that there must be another way to get to where I’m going, so I got off the highway, changed course, and was finally moving again. This didn’t last long, though, before I found even more deadlock traffic, so I again looked for an alternate route, but when I tried to get back onto the highway a state trooper was blocking the entrance, so I had to yet again find another way to get to where I was going! I was starting to think that some powerful force was conspiring against me, making me even more determined that, one way or another, I was going to make it to speak with that group! I did eventually make it to where I was going, though the detours added well over an hour to the commute.
I share this frustrating story because it highlights the importance of the Magic Word Adapt. To get to where we want to go we have to know the path that’s going to get us there, but just as important as knowing our path is knowing when to abandon that path when necessary.
My longtime friend and mentor, a delightfully silly man named David Sillars, has a mantra that he learned while serving our country in the armed forces, and he taught it to me a number of years ago when we faced a challenge while volunteering as co-counselors for the Massachusetts American Legion Boys’ State Program. This mantra contains just three simple words: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
What David taught me with these three words is that I will seldom find a genuine reason to abandon whatever mission I find myself on, because whenever I run into a roadblock I simply put these three words to work for me. If the road I’m on ends up going the wrong way, I simply change course before going too far down, and if the road I want to take is blocked then I get onto another one headed in the same direction. And sometimes adapting will be a call to adventure asking us to chart a new course altogether!
If we don’t use the Magic Word Adapt, and instead insist on sticking to the “one road” mindset, then we will inevitably sabotage our progress and risk succumbing to what some suggest is the primary reason that people fail, which is failing to change as circumstances change. If I didn’t seek another way out of the traffic jam I may never have made it in time to speak with my group that day. As you move forward with your own endeavors and run into your proverbial traffic jams, your success will be determined by your ability to use the Magic Word Adapt.
Consider your current challenges. What can you do today to adapt more readily to the changing circumstances? Do you need to travel the path you’re on in a new way? Do you need to choose a different yet parallel path? Or perhaps a new direction altogether? Or maybe you just need to slow down a bit? Or maybe you need to speed up!
Jonas Cain is an educator, facilitator, and coach, working to engage, empower, and encourage leaders and the people they serve to experience joy.