The Art of Adaptability

To adapt or not to adapt? That is the question.

The gift of Adaptability

Some years back, I wanted to write a whole book on Adaptability. In that book, I would have interviews of highly adaptable people: special agents about disguising techniques, transformists who do this on stage instantly (watch Ellie and Jeki on Britain’s Got Talent !), specialists on biomimicry, who would explain why and how chameleons, octopuses, and other animals become masters of camouflage. (If you would like a phenomenal lesson on adaptability, watch the My Octopus Teacher documentary.)

I also wanted to include a chapter on con-artists, such as Frank Abagnale (catch me if you can), and Christophe Rocancourt. Indeed, one can judge the moral aspect of some of their deeds, such as scamming people, manipulating and using their influence to get what they want, before escaping. But I am more interested in the techniques and skills to adapt to change, and live a life that they truly wanted, instead of the default life they could have stayed stuck in.

I have always had to adapt, since a very early age. I was born in Thailand, and we moved to France when I was four years old. When I got to the nursery school (Ecole Maternelle), in France, I remember I struggled speaking French, and communicating with my classmates. In Thailand, I spoke Thai and English (as I went to an American pre-school). I felt I was coming from another world ; I had to adapt to the new world. Between 1 and 4 years old, I had already traveled to 3 countries with my parents, outside of Thailand. That was the start of a life of travels and exploration, and of developing the skill of adaptability.

I learned to adapt to other cultures and other ways of thinking. I was privileged to be educated in an international school in Grenoble, France, learning History and Geography in German, travelling to Germany, Spain and Morocco on school trips, and mingling with children from many different backgrounds and countries. During Business School, I was fortunate to study for a semester in Singapore, which was a good base to explore Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia during holidays. I also did an internship in Arkansas, in the U.S. during which I discovered some of the diversity of the U.S. visiting the cities all over the country: San Diego, NYC, Washington D.C, Boston, Chicago, Pensacola, New Orleans, and others.

Later on, as an international trainer, I traveled extensively to the Middle East, to deliver workshops on leadership skills and management. I worked in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, among others. I also enjoyed some time off during my travels, which allowed me to discover other cultural and natural jewels of these fascinating countries.

All these experiences allowed me to hone my adaptability skills, but also learn when not to adapt !

To adapt or not to adapt? That is the question.

Knowing when to adapt, and when not to, is a key to success and fulfillment.

Here are some of the healthy reasons one can choose to adapt:

  • Beginning of a new adventure or chapter in one’s life
  • Beginning of a relationship
  • Awareness of the need to change some of one’s behaviors
  • Temporary adaptation due to varying circumstances (see my article on transforming VUCA into an advantage)

On the other side of adaptability, there is loneliness and suffering. We do not often talk about the price to pay for being too adaptable.

A few years back, I was invited to Jordan to deliver a training to middle-managers. On the last day of the training, they invited me for lunch in the meeting room. It was a sumptuous lunch with traditional Mansaf – a dish with lamb cooked in fermented yogurt and served with rice. A custom in Jordan is to eat with one’s hands, and I was delighted to share this meal with the participants, eating with my bare hands as well. They were pleasantly surprised that a western trainer would do such a thing. When I returned a year later, to train another group of managers, They offered me the same meal. One thing had changed though: I had become vegetarian ! So when they proposed some lamb, I thanked them for their generosity, but politely declined, explaining that I had become a vegetarian and that I would not eat meat. I was well aware that declining can be perceived negatively in middle-eastern cultures, yet, I felt it was the right thing to do. It was totally fine for most of the participants, but one of them insisted, and said:

“Yes, but it’s only once!”

I pulled the biggest smile on my face, and replied:

“Sure, I’ll have a piece, and when I invite you to France, we’ll share pork sausage, do you want that?”

All the people around the table started laughing, and that was the end of the discussion.

Obviously, I allowed myself this kind of joke and humor, because we already had an excellent level of rapport thanks to our training sessions together. But that was a good example of when to stand your ground, and not try to over-adapt.

It all comes to developing healthy boundaries, and knowing when to say No.

Unhealthy reasons to adapt, better to set your boundaries then:

  • Trying to please others
  • Trying to earn other’s approval
  • Trying to fit in a group/country/organization that one does not truly resonate with

By being too adaptable, one can lose one’s sense of identity, leading to a confusion that can become psychologically harmful on the long term. If the octopus pretends being a rock for too long, it can forget it is an octopus and can actually move. If the chameleon forgets he is a chameleon, and thinks he is a branch for too long, he might forget to eat !

The purpose of adaptability is survival. For animals, it is quite clear. For humans, it could be survival, and at a more subtle level, it could be around creating improved connections with fellow humans, and with one’s environment.

Yet, when one feels safer in one’s environment, one can stop adapting as much to the environment, and start having the environment adapt to one’s True Self.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw

So, where do you feel you are over-adapting?

What is one boundary you need to clarify and build stronger?

How could you do that being empathic towards the other person/people, and yet, respecting what you really need?

What is one opportunity you are saying yes to, and yet, deep inside, you feel you would need to say No?

As a few closing thoughts, I think that underneath this search for adaptability, I have in fact always been on a quest for transformation.

How rapid can transformation be, such as Ellie and Jeki’s?

Transformation allows to respond better to what life has to offer. In the same way that wearing the right clothes can brighten up a party and make you feel comfortable, loved, and able to shine your light on others, transforming to the most adequate version of yourself can make you create and enjoy the segment of your life you find yourself in.

Which transformation are you going through right now?

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