Resilience & Adaptability: Start Training Now

The image for this blog post has a very real purpose which will become apparent later in this article. It was taken in the ViƱales Valley of Cuba as I ran up to a bus I had just watched slide side-to-side on the road, flip over and slide down a grassy embankment. It only took a split second to snap this photo as a man gave me a break from trying to get through the windshield. I snapped the photo just in case the police had questions about my role in the situation afterward.

A few days before I had noticed the state of the road coming into this region of the country and decided to hire my own driver to take me out of the valley in a car so I could have some control of the situation if needed. I did ask him to slow down a couple of times even making up an excuse to slow down so I could take photos, which he was happy to do. You see, the road was very oily from years of car traffic. I saw this and decided that while public transportation was much cheaper, in this area of the country where the buses were driven quite fast and on this road, I wasn’t going to chance it. Suddenly, it started to rain. Not hard, more like a steady drizzle. Knowing what a thin sheet of water would do on a thick layer of tar and oil, I again asked the driver to slow down which he did. Not a minute later right in front of us I saw a bus quickly tilt to one side, then the other, then veer left, then over-correct right, flip on it’s side, slide about 100 feet on across the roadway then slide down an embankment covered with tall, wet grass and settle at the bottom of the hill. The entire incident took less than 10 seconds. I jumped out of the car knowing that two things needed to happen. First, I needed to have some kind of documentation to show that I was in no way involved in the accident, but that I arrived afterward only to help which is why I snapped a few images and subtly took a couple short videos during the process. Second I needed to find a way to help determine if people were hurt and help anyone I could to safety. Upon arriving at the scene I pulled two women out from under the bus who were only slightly cut from glass but who had been able to crawl out the bus window and slide along on the wet grass until I could pull them out (see the image and you’ll see the bloody hand of one of these exhausted women leaning on the bus). As I moved to the front I noticed the door was facing the ground and injured people were inside – and the driver had left the bus running! I tried to communicate for him to turn the bus off just in case gasoline had leaked out or the heat of the exhaust pipes might cause the tall grass to ignite but he didn’t understand me. I began kicking the windshield but knew this was going to take awhile to get through and remember thinking, “why isn’t anyone helping me” as people began to arrive. Suddenly a man showed up with a hammer and started hitting the glass. Perfect! Except he was hitting it like a nail with the flat edge of the hammer which wasn’t piercing through the glass. I was sensitive of the fact that I was in a foreign country and that he was a local so I said nothing. Besides, he was making some progress at breaking the glass so I waited a moment until he began to tire when I asked to help and began using the claw on the back to punch through the glass and then tear large gaps in it to make a huge glass flap that we could then fold back as a kind of doorway – it worked and in a few moments people were exiting the bus. This story isn’t as important to this article as was the mindset I had when encountered by this situation. First, my situational awareness allowed me to determine that the road was not entirely safe which proved to be accurate and may have kept me from being inside that bus. Second, I had to provide for my own safety and preservation while helping those in need. Lastly, I had to help in any way I could while respecting the others who had also come to the aid of those in need. To some degree, all of these things can be summed up in just a couple of words: adaptability and resilience.

Resilience is the new word trend that for people with my mindset, has always been an essential part of any well constructed lifestyle. A few years ago the go-to word for being prepared and ready for all that life may throw at us was “grit” and a few years before that it was “mental toughness.” One thing that all of these words have in common is that they are an integral part of living that gives a person peace of mind and confidence in themselves as they move through their daily lives. Collectively, this allows these people, people with resilience, to be better citizens and to contribute more fully, and more responsibly to society as a whole. Resilience experts are popping up all over the place but often, if you dig beyond the surface you’ll often find lives that are lacking in the true mental and physical preparation that contributes to a truly resilient state of being. Resilience training has become trendy for businesses and organizations but is still very much emerging as a educational lifestyle practice. Resilience isn’t just a scientific study of how people deal with conflict and stress accompanied by a data set, although this is very interesting to me as well. The really cool thing about resilience is that, to a large degree, it is a set of actions and it can be learned and developed over time, with training and practice. While this is absolutely true, like most things, it does help to have a process to follow, a curriculum if you will, that will help a person systematically, and progressively, gain resilience over time. We’re not going to develop a curriculum here, but instead talk about ways that you can improve your resilience and adaptability in your everyday life without changing much about your day except in how you think about it – this is a starting point.

Before we get too far along please allow me to make a note about a very important word that I previously mention and that is closely related, but that I argue is somewhat different from resilience although they’re often lumped into a single meaning. That word is: adaptability.

Adaptability is the ability to change, to shift, to morph or adapt to something in our environment in order to position ourselves to sustain our current state of being. Humans are perhaps the most adaptable species on the planet. We know this is true for many reasons but consider the single fact that we are the only species that can live in any environment on Earth. That’s pretty adaptable. It is important however, that we purposefully develop the talent and skill of adaptability to ensure we are able to morph, change, shift and adapt to anything that may threaten our reality. For the basic purpose of this article I want you to think of adaptability in the common terms that most of us understand; terms often associated with sport. Adaptability is essentially speed and agility. It’s true that most adaptations take time to complete. However, they often begin with small, very quick shifts or changes that continue for a longer duration. While this is a much deeper conversation; for the basic concepts in this post we’ll think of adaptability as a quick response to an initial stimulus and not really worry about ongoing stimuli as that’s a bigger conversation. This is to say that to be adaptable, humans have to be able to shift some aspect(s) of their current state to quickly meet the demands presented in their immediate present. Given this, I like to discuss the talent and skill of being adaptable in terms of agility, or being agile, and speed which is the ability to move fast. Think of a running back playing American football. He’ll get the ball and run through a hole in the line to try and score. He sees the opening and runs through it, but a defensive player comes into his view with the intention of tackling him. The running back, if agile and fast (adaptable to threat) can quickly move to change his position and cause the defender to miss. He changed his approach almost immediately which provided a window of opportunity for him to continue running with the ball. This is a simplistic example of being adaptable. So again, for the purposes of this article, we’ll think of adaptability in terms of making very specific, fast changes to cope with some stressor in our lives.

Resilience is the ability of someone or something to “bounce back” or display toughness under stress and that may be a one-time brief stress or a sustained stress. However, for the purposes of this article, we will think of resilience in a similar way as we are thinking of adaptability – through the lens of sport. For now, I want you to think of resilience as strength and endurance. Not just one of these, but both. Resilience, for now, will be the characteristic of possessing both strength and endurance in the preservation of your own wellbeing. Strength is the ability to move, lift or carry something that “loads” us down. It could be a weight as in weight lifting or it could be a tragic loss of a loved one, or maybe it’s the fear of something unknown. These are all examples of loads that life puts on us. Endurance is the ability to last, to endure, to push through and to continue moving forward despite the demand placed on us. We know that endurance runners can run a long way without stopping. Football running backs like the one we mentioned earlier, may carry the ball many times in a game, but those who have great strength and endurance can still run hard later in the game than those who do not possess great endurance. So in thinking of resilience, I want you to think of the combined forces of strength coupled with endurance.

Now that we understand, at least on a practical level, the differences between resilience and adaptability, let’s have a test of these assumptions using a non-scientific test. Hey, is a blog post, not an academic journal, cut me some slack here.

Resilience & Adaptability: Which matters most?

Answer the questions below picking “Adaptability,” “Resiliency” or “Both.”

A. You’re on a tour bus in a rural area of a foreign country and is stops suddenly. Four armed men board the bus and start making demands in a language you do not understand. They immediately kill two passengers for reasons you can’t determine and are coming toward you. What skill is most essential to your survival?

  • Adaptability
  • Resiliency
  • Both

B. You’re traveling in a foreign country and do not speak the language. Somehow you insult a person and as they scream at you an angry crowd forms around you. What skill is most essential to your survival?

  • Adaptability
  • Resiliency
  • Both

C. You’re on a 4-day tour in the rain forest and get separated from your group during a night trek on the third night. You’re completely lost without water or food. It’s 30 miles to the nearest town. What skill is most essential to your survival?

  • Adaptability
  • Resiliency
  • Both

D. You’re on a subway going through a long tunnel in a major city and an explosion occurs. Your left foot was crushed in the wreck and you feel blood filling your shoe. You can’t see in the darkness as the train has derailed inside the tunnel. What skill is most essential to your survival?

  • Adaptability
  • Resiliency
  • Both

This kind of scenario training exercise is fun to think about; but what if these things really happened? Keep in mind that these things happen all the time in various places around the world and the people in those situations, could one day be you or a loved one. What then?

So what were your answers? There are no wrong answers in this exercise because all the options are pretty good…but some answers are better than others and those are the times that having developed adaptability and resiliency skills are going to save your life. In most of these situations, and in level of priority for lifestyle development, the logical answer would be “both.” However, in one of the scenarios (B.), what you really needed was adaptability because the amount of time you had to get free of the situation was very short and didn’t really require much longevity, endurance (resilience) but rather required quick thinking and acting to get out of there and quickly to safety. You needed to make some kind of very specific shift, or change and you needed to do it in a very short period of time. Of course if the angry crowd got their hands on you and started beating you over the head with sticks you would then need a lot of resilience to make it through, but in that immediate moment what you needed was to adapt to the tension of the immediate moment and create a window of opportunity to escape from it. Conversely, in question D what you really needed was resilience. Whether you decided to wait for rescuers, or try to climb out of the wreckage, you had a lengthy process on your hands and being badly injured was going to make it that much harder to get through. What you needed to do was to find a way to stop the bleeding in your foot and to ensure you were in no further danger. That may have been tying a belt around your calf, elevating your foot and laying back in a seat until help arrived. Or you may have chosen some other option, but the length of time it was going to take, under the circumstances required you to exhibit physical and mental strength and to maintain that (endurance) until you could be helped.

Resilience & Adaptability: Daily scenario exercises

It doesn’t take a genius to see that a person who has both great resilience and great adaptability is better prepared than someone who only has one developed skill set. Train for both. I can tell you that much of the work you will do to develop a resilient and adaptable lifestyle will be mental.

One fun, and very effective way to improve your resilience and adaptability is to play this same “what if” scenario game throughout your everyday life.

  • A person honks at you in bumper-to-bumper traffic and you immediately think, “what would I do if the person got out of their car holding a gun and started walking my way?” Act quickly, this is an adaptability exercise!
  • Your spouse has been very stressed-out lately and thinks they may get laid off from their job. Early on you could begin considering, “what might I be able to do to help them get through this time while ensuring our family is well cared for?” What are the various scenarios you could consider that would give you some direction on what a next step, or immediate step, may look like? Here you will need to adapt but may need to keep changing over time as a new way of life – this is an exercise in both resilience and adaptability.
  • Your co-worker storms out of a meeting in an angry rage and you go back to your office thinking, “what would I do if this colleague came back into the office with a weapon?” Again, this is a pretty immediate threat, some fast thinking and action would be the best approach and that means you’ll have to adapt.
  • You drop your child off for a week-long wilderness summer camp and train yourself to think, “what if a natural disaster struck and the roadways into the camp are blocked for days? What would I do then?” This may require some adaptability, but will require more strength of character that will last the entire duration of the event. Here you’re going to endure a heavy and constant load of stress so resilience is what you would need most.

When you begin playing “what if” scenario exercises in your mind using real-life situations, you begin creating mental strategies and developing situational tactics that could prove useful in an emergency situation. One of the most overlooked aspects of being resilient and possessing adaptability is being prepared. Have you already considered what risks exist in your general environment? Have you asked yourself what you would do in a number of scenarios that could happen at any point during your typical daily life? These mental exercises are valuable and should become a habit to your daily life, because when something urgent does arise, you’ve already developed some level of mental preparedness to deal with the situation.

Resilience & Adaptability: My favorite exercise

Emotions are important. Emotions are what makes life wonderful, and sad, and exciting, and tragic. Emotions are part of the human condition that makes us “human.” However, in many industrialized societies, people over time remove themselves from the raw realities of nature and insulate themselves in cocoons of safety and security and often completely lose any natural animal ability to meet a threat with a formidable response. In short, we often forget that we are part of the animal kingdom and that really terrible things happen and we fail to adequately prepare to meet those challenges should they arise. I personally find this to be one of the most impactful flaws in humanity as we embed the term “civilized society” into the places we live. Humans can be civil, but these aren’t the people who are causing problems and are causing terrible things to happen. It’s the people who are not civil who strike fear into others and who prey on the unprepared to carry out their terrible deeds. So don’t be one of the unprepared. Refrain from allowing that suburban house with the white picket fence and 2.7 children to cloud your judgement into thinking that the world we live in is safe. Everything in our lives, to some degree, is at risk and we should treat it as such if we expect to ever make it through any life threatening situation should it arise.

So how do you go about developing more resilience and adaptability in your cozy daily life? Practice controlled emotional hardening and flexibility exercises. 

Start thinking about the many aspects of life, the people we know, the different things we do, our neighbors, our families, our pets and our fellow citizens. Try to consider what they would mean to you if you had no home, no money, no job, no car, no food and no shelter and you literally had to work all day every day just to find food and a safe, dry place to sleep. Make this your mental reality for this exercise. You have absolutely nothing of value.

What if you had absolutely nothing? What would these things mean to you if that were the case? Would your son’s baseball games matter that much if you hadn’t eaten in two days and you’re living on the streets? Would your friend’s baby shower really matter all that much if you had just a couple of hours to find a safe place for your family to sleep tonight? What if you needed to find the money to pay for a life saving surgery for a loved one…would the new SUV you want really be all that important? This type of evaluation helps us prioritize what truly matters, what we can control and what we cannot control and how to think about it all. Like I mentioned before, industrialized societies are lulled into feeling removed from the ravages of the animal kingdom although instance after instance tells us that nothing is more false than thinking we are safe. Yet we continue to go about life completely unable to defend ourselves should some terrible act take place. Through our own false-security we give up our most basic instincts of how to protect ourselves and rely on weak cultural norms to hope that criminals and people with bad intentions somehow don’t target us. Hardening your emotional space while developing the flexibility needed to operate in a civil society is important to being truly resilient and adaptable.

Resilience & Adaptability: Devalue everything you can’t control

I find most people’s beliefs on death to be quite strange. We’ve developed all these ceremonial actions that must take place when a person dies in order to demonstrate just how much it all means to us. If you don’t miss two days of work after someone dies you’re an insensitive person. If you don’t call or drop by every day for a week to check on a relative of someone who died you’re a terrible friend…it’s all nonsense that societies create and it has no basis in what is true and what is real. Take my approach to death and dying for example – I can’t really control this so I never let it bother me. Over the past 20+ years I’ve taught myself that if there is one truth in life it is most assuredly that we are all going to die. I argue that how, when and why we die isn’t really as important as how we live. We can’t always control how we die – but we can control how we live. Therefore, whenever someone I know dies I experience the emotional flexibility to grieve and to empathize with the living they’ve left behind, but I’ve developed the emotional hardening to ensure that my daily life goes uninterrupted by the event. It’s not disrespectful to the deceased to continue with my work day or to go to my next class; they are no longer living and while they were alive hopefully I expressed my care and affection for them and took the time to show these things to them. Of course I recommend you fulfill your society’s expected actions associated with this kind of event, but internally, if you’ve done your resilience and adaptability training, you’ve already worked through the entire scenario so many hundreds of times that it doesn’t derail you emotionally when that day finally comes. You’re still human, you can still exhibit great empathy and you can certainly grieve. My position here is not to harden your emotions to the point of denying their existence because that’s not reality, it’s in managing them so they work for your benefit instead of your misery.

One great example of my point just presented himself as a wonderful, gentle, happy, 90 pound arthritic pitbull sitting between my legs wanting some attention. I love that sweet boy, he’s so wonderful and he, along with him mom are my two closest friends. I just took about 10 minutes to hoist up onto my lap and lay back with him so I could rub his belly and make him feel loved – I could tell he needed that. Despite all the sweet moments of the present I know they’re aging. I can see it almost every day. We’ve lived together since the days they were born and they’ve never known a day of life without me. We spend every weekend running through Civil War battlefields and wading through rivers, but I know the aches and pains of life are building up as I now gratefully and lovingly have to carry the big fella down stairs so he doesn’t spend the next day in pain. To be plain, they’re getting older and they’re not going to be with me for many more years. It’s not a nice thought but I’ve already dealt with their passing. I know how I want it to happen when the time comes and I know that my largest priority is loving them and giving them a wonderful life and a comfortable, love-filled death when that reality arrives…and it will arrive. Until then, my best friends and I will live our lives together, love each moment we have together and love each other like nothing else…and then one will be gone….and then the other. And, in all likelihood, in the next couple of years we won’t be together any longer, they’ll have passed and I’ll be wherever I am doing whatever I’m doing. The reality of their passing, and mine, is absolutely going to happen, so I’ve come to terms with it, worked through it mentally a million times and have hardened my emotional space while maintaining the flexibility to remain sincere and loving about it all. It’s these kinds of preparatory exercises that will not only provide you with great resilience and adaptability throughout your life, but will also help you to get more from the relationships and moments you have with the people and things you love and enjoy.

These mental exercises will help you remain aware of what these loved ones mean to you and because of that you’ll likely give them more of your time and attention. And, when the day comes when they must leave you, you’ll have no regrets because you planned it all out in your mind and you made the most of that relationship and those around you have all benefited from your diligence in being prepared emotionally for what was certain to happen.

Over the years I’ve studied resilience and adaptability a great deal but can tell you that no number of educational sessions or one-time readings are going to do as much as creating the habit of daily, ongoing situational awareness exercises that you develop for yourself. We all know that physical fitness comes from habitual, regular exercise. Likewise, personal resilience and adaptability improve with habitual effort as well. It is important to understand that nothing is going to help you gain mastery of your emotions so that they work to add more joy to your life and less pain, than will mentally working through all the possible pain-point scenarios in life. Developing an emotional hardening plan for the time when those instances arise will absolutely work to your benefit – because they will arise.

Be diligent in your preparation, make it fun, find ways to challenge yourself to develop more adaptability and resilience by testing and challenging yourself to think differently and act differently in times of conflict or of great stress. Learn to see these as opportunities for betterment instead of simply as challenges to work through. Mastering your own perspective is one of the most beneficial things you can do to help yourself continually gain resilience and adaptability throughout your life.

All the best to you!