In 1859, Charles Darwin articulated the biological importance of being adaptable — but what does ‘adaptability’ mean for us today, as individuals in the modern world? If we want to understand, measure and develop this skill, we need to be clear about what we mean by ‘adaptability’.
In its broadest sense, we define adaptability as, ‘The ability to anticipate, adjust and evolve to be effective in your environment’. However, research suggests that adaptability is not a single skill.5. In fact, there are five distinct types of adaptability:
1. Learning adaptability
Scientists have shown that our brains are purpose-built to continue learning across our lifetime — we just need to keep fuelling this process.6 People who demonstrate learning adaptability are excellent at this, constantly keeping an eye on their personal and professional growth. This proactive form of adaptability helps them to stay ahead of the game and successfully tackle future change and challenges.
Although it may sometimes feel uncomfortable, learning adaptability is about stepping outside of your comfort zone. This could involve actively inviting developmental feedback and immersing yourself in situations where you’re far from the expert. Together, behaviours such as these can help you to anticipate and respond successfully to future change.
2. Reactive adaptability
Life can feel like a beautiful symphony when things go to plan. More often though, it’s like jazz — unpredictable and unscripted. When things go wrong, we have to improvise in the moment. People with high levels of reactive adaptability are better at this improvisation than others.
Although our ‘fight vs flight’ instinct will almost inevitably kick in when faced with change, setbacks and pressure, reactive adaptability is about being able to remain present and ‘in control’ in these moments. This type of adaptability helps you to continue thinking and acting rationally, instead of getting hijacked by your emotions.
3. Social adaptability
At our core, human beings are social creatures. To adapt, we need to adjust our approach based on the views, feelings and needs of others. This is what social adaptability is all about.
People who exhibit social adaptability continuously seek input from others, rather than simply trusting their own judgment. The outcome is that they’re much more likely to improve their work by drawing on the knowledge of people around them.
Social adaptability also includes seeking meaningful, two-way interactions rather than just focusing on getting a message across. This means being much more likely to understand others’ viewpoints and adjust your approach in the moment. The result will inevitably be strengthened relationships and more well-rounded viewpoints.
4. Creative adaptability
Each day, we face tough challenges, often with limited time and resources. Creative adaptability is all about coming up with the best solutions to these problems.
People who demonstrate creative adaptability don’t solely rely on tried-and-tested strategies. They’re more likely to think ‘outside the box’ and consider problems from different angles. People with high creative adaptability are also more inclined to consider the bigger picture, helping them to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated problems. All these behaviours help to identify both marginal improvements and totally original solutions to challenges.
5. Lifestyle adaptability
We all know it would be impossible to sprint a whole marathon. Slowing down to catch our breath is sometimes needed to stay at our best. People with high lifestyle adaptability are much better at understanding and applying this knowledge in their day-to-day lives. They recognise their limits and carefully monitor their work-life balance, taking the time to recharge after busy periods.
Lifestyle adaptability brings various benefits. Although it might cause you to sometimes ‘push back’ on short-term demands, it also boosts your long-term effectiveness. This type of adaptability also prepares you for dealing with pressured situations and, more generally, helps you to live a healthier, happier life in the long run.