Be Like Water Part 1
On Adaptability: A Core Virtue of the Modern World
Adaptability has always been one of nature’s most powerful tools. Lifeforms that were most equipped to handle their environment carried on their genes. The environment was something that organisms just had to deal with. But with humans, things changed. Suddenly an organism could change its environment at will. As humans, we increased our ability to modify the environment with the Agricultural, Industrial, and Digital Revolutions.
Technology has enabled each person to influence their environment, causing it to change at a faster rate. Each change also creates a more complex environment. The environment becomes difficult to comprehend in the present and to plan for in the future. As the world becomes more unpredictable, we need to learn to react gracefully with increasing urgency. Each basic need hinges more and more on your ability to adapt.
Think you can reach the top of Maslow’s pyramid without adaptability? Fuhgeddaboutit!
Adaptability is a great sounding buzzword, but what is an example of something that embodies this concept?
Bruce Lee found the perfect metaphor:
Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot.
Water does not worry about what comes next, it just flows to the next state without protest. Be like water, and you too will effortlessly adapt to your environment, allowing you to fulfill your needs.
So how can you become more like water? Mastering The Six Pillars of Adaptability will keep you light on your feet during the shifting demands of the modern world.
Each pillar supports your ability to adapt. These skills belong to one of two domains: the external world or your internal world. In this post we will explore the first four pillars of adaptability which relate to changes in the external environment.
Pillar 1: Learning
The first pillar of adaptability, learning, is the most important skill you can develop. All other skills are derived from your ability to learn. Your learning skills act like a bottleneck for all other skills.
The Learning Bottleneck: Your ability to develop new skills is constrained by your ability to learn
You can pour out new skills only as fast as your learning skills allow. And if you are like water it is difficult to take on new forms when constrained by a bottleneck. It takes longer to reach your next state when learning skills slow you down. The easiest and fastest way to learn is to choose a topic you are curious about. Only you know what makes you curious. You are energized by the things that light a fire in you. Inversely, anything that bores you saps you of your energy.
Pay attention to what excites you and you are rewarded with the energy to learn, allowing you to rapidly gain skills and knowledge that can be leveraged to navigate this ever changing world. You just have to be bold enough to pursue your specific interests.
Pillar 2: Creativity
As you follow different interests, you can benefit from leveraging the second pillar of adaptability: creativity. Using water as a symbol of adaptability, creativity is like water’s cohesive properties. Without those properties, water falls apart into a pile of useless molecules. It cannot take on other forms because it cannot connect with itself. Without creativity, you become that useless guy who knows a bunch of fun facts but cannot connect the dots to offer any practical insights.
Creativity depends on your ability to connect with yourself. It is the connection of knowledge from one realm to another. Everyone has a unique set of experiences and interests, resulting in a unique set of knowledge. Your unique set of knowledge allows you to see things that others miss.
In an increasingly complex world, ideas frequently transcend specific sets of expertise. A little bit of knowledge from one field can be applied to a seemingly unrelated field. For example, Gregor Mendel discovered the impact of genes through a botany hobby. He became curious about the desirable traits of his pea plants, so Mendel played with cross-breeding for various traits. He observed the results and developed Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance, which laid the foundation to the modern understanding of genetics. Maintain curiosity about your hobbies like Mendel. Who knows, it could lead to profound insights about another topic.
Many hear the word creativity and assume it requires a special person. Creativity needs knowledge from unique places, not an extraordinary person. It is not an innate talent. Your creative capacity increases every time you learn something new.
The most creative are the ones willing to unapologetically explore topics which they are genuinely curious about. Creatives like Mendel toy with their knowledge because they are driven by a childlike curiosity. A playful view of their knowledge results in a slow digestion of information from multiple angles. Then like magic, their brains connect the dots while they are in a relaxed state. This is in contrast to the know-it-all who learns to boast his intellect. He doesn’t let ideas marinate in his head sufficiently because his memorization is driven by external approval. A tragic waste of potential with no practical knowledge.
Pillar 3: Unlearning
As the world continues to shift in random directions, you must also develop your unlearning skills. The goalposts shift quickly and to stay nimble, you must keep up. This involves the third pillar of adaptability: unlearning obsolete skills, methodologies, and paradigms.
Unlearning is like a filtration system for your water. Sure you can have unfiltered water, but you risk harming those it contacts. To hedge your risks, it is wise to filter your beliefs from time to time.
Think of the caveman that was married to the idea of dragging along his belongings through the dirt. He quickly fell behind the genius that decided to use the bizarre new “wheel”. Similarly, if you cannot unlearn less effective views, you will fall behind. This applies to all facets of your life. For example, if you are convinced that your aggressive method of communicating works best despite evidence that most find you insufferable, most will view you as a loser.
Self-confidence goes a long way, but it must hang in balance with humility. Humility is imperative for unlearning. Without humility, there is no consideration that you may be wrong. And the whole point of unlearning is removing habits, skills, and ideas that do not work. Many feel a sense of shame when they are wrong, but the recognition and removal of what doesn't work is the greatest form of competence.
As ideas bounce around at a faster rate, ethics shift rapidly too. You may have had a belief 5, 10, or 20 years ago that was acceptable or even celebrated. But trends change. And what was once heralded can become demonized. Future generations will almost assuredly look back at some of your current beliefs and practices with disgust. If you want to continue enjoying connection with others in the modern environment, you must be willing to either:
1) Untangle some of your existing beliefs by unlearning
2) Be nimble with your words to avoid unnecessary conflict
Option 1 is a useful tool in our unpredictable environment. But changing your core beliefs because some people around you disagree is cowardly. Your core beliefs should stem from your understanding of life, not someone else's. The key distinction for unlearning is it must stem from your own recognition that a belief is not working. But for those core beliefs which you recognize as truth while others disagree? Consider Option 2, the fourth pillar of adaptability.
Pillar 4: Empathy
To some, confrontation is the default when something conflicts with one of their fundamental beliefs. Environments where respectful discussion is encouraged are a great place for confronting ideas. But frequently your environment does not care to hear about your core beliefs. Deep down, very few people care to hear your opinion if it contradicts with their core beliefs.
Politics and religion are a few examples of topics that hinge on core beliefs. They can be enlightening to discuss with a group of reasonable friends and family, but openly speaking your mind on such topics often brings unnecessary division and negativity.
Since the modern environment is complex and unpredictable, it is difficult to know the impact of a discussion surrounding core beliefs. To hedge your risks, consider assuming such a discussion will bring about division. The fourth pillar of adaptability - empathy - is a powerful default in such an unpredictable environment.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes. It requires an understanding of where someone is coming from and what they would like to hear from you. We know that people are averse to opposing views through confirmation bias and social media experiments.
If you know one of your coworkers holds a fundamental belief that contradicts yours, it is not in anyone's best interest to discuss this topic. He doesn't care to hear an opinion that contradicts a core belief of his. And so you should respect his wishes, even if he brings up the topic himself. Unless this person has demonstrated the curiosity and humility to openly question his core beliefs, an expression of a strong opinion is not an invitation to debate. Rather, it is more likely a reach for validation.
All of this requires a high degree of empathy as it is very easy to discuss a topic with which you feel strongly. And it's even easier to object when somebody says something that contradicts your fundamental beliefs. Before you speak on a polarizing topic, take a split second to consider how those around you might feel about what you have to say. Your audience probably doesn't care to hear it. Using this form of empathy is a great way to stay nimble in the modern environment.
If you want to be like water, you must embrace empathy. This pillar is like water’s adhesive properties. It allows water to connect with its environment. Without adhesion, water cannot adapt to its surroundings. You too will struggle to adapt to your surroundings if you disconnect yourself from those around you.
As the world becomes more complex, we must dedicate more energy to improving our adaptability in order to satisfy our wants and needs. In this post, we discussed the four pillars of adaptability that directly pertain to our external environment.
Learning is the act of acquiring new knowledge, skills, and habits. The best way to improve your learning skills is by involving yourself in topics and activities that genuinely interest you. Improving your learning skills widens your bottleneck so you can flow to the next state easier.
Creativity is the act of making connections between existing domains of knowledge. The easiest way to grow your creativity is to be bold enough to learn about each genuine interest of yours. Becoming more creative allows you to connect the dots between existing beds of knowledge like water’s ability to connect with itself.
Unlearning is the act of removing knowledge, skills, and habits that do not serve you and those around you well. It requires both humility and self-awareness to admit that something you previously learned is not effective. Unlearning acts as a filter to provide a fresh stream of abilities.
Empathy involves being conscientious of others’ wants and needs. One universal need is connection with others. Restraining yourself from engaging in divisive discussion is a great default to avoid unnecessarily disrupting this need in yourself and your colleagues. Incorporating empathy allows you to seamlessly connect with your surroundings like water.
When you improve these four skills, you are like fresh, clean water. You effortlessly go with the flow and shift with your surroundings. And those surrounding you will find you to be quite palatable.
Knowing that we cannot plan for every absurdity in life:
What can you do today to make an unpredictable tomorrow easier?
Read Part 2 to continue exploring adaptability:
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