To Be Adaptable.


Sometimes I get hung up on idioms. Sayings like “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” irk me to no end because they’re completely asinine… if you had cake, why wouldn’t you eat it? There’s a word for people who wouldn’t, and that word is masochist. Amirite?

The idiom that’s been floating around in my brain as of late is “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I actually like this one a lot, and it turns up the corners of my mouth to imagine, let’s say, an 8-year-old dog (I’m imagining a Golden Retriever like Shadow from Homeward Bound, in case you were wondering) laying with his head on his paws as his master tries to teach him, in what the master perceives to be a revolutionary and foolproof way, to do something he’s never done before, like flush a toilet or something, and the dog’s eyebrows twitch in the way dogs’ eyebrows often twitch that looks like they’re raising an eyebrow skeptically, and he thinks to himself “That’s interesting and all, but really? I give zero shits about what you’re trying to teach me right now.” Which perfectly illustrates my opinion about the validity of this idiom: I believe you can teach an old dog new tricks, sure, but you can’t make a dog perform a new trick if it doesn’t want to.

That has been my experience, at least. As someone who has worked almost exclusively with people who are significantly older than me, I can tell you with certainty: OLD PEOPLE ARE SET IN THEIR WAYS. And as an underling in most of the work positions I’ve held, it’s been on me, the young person, to adapt to the old person’s way of doing things, even when their way of doing things is bordering counter-productivity. You can introduce more efficient ways of doing things and they can even commend you for your cleverness and your initiative and promise to implement it themselves, but in the end, they will have difficulty adapting and will often revert back to the old, familiar way of doing things.

I’ve often heard it said that employers see the adaptability of young people as an positive quality and an asset, so why is it not an asset for older people too? And at what point in your life do you cross the threshold from being adaptable to being set in your ways?

Adaptability is the cornerstone of Darwin’s theory of evolution: nothing in this life stays the same for very long, and in the face of change an animal has to keep its cool and figure out how to be smarter than nature. You either evolve to adapt to your surroundings and thus stay alive to be able to reproduce, or you die. Obviously there are less dire consequences for humans who are unable to change the way they do things, but maybe an intrinsic aversion to change is what it all boils down to. There is comfort in the familiar, in the routinous, in knowing what to expect when you add x and y. And everyone wants to be comfortable.

I guess this is more an internal dialogue than anything else. I know I’m adaptable now, but I fear a day when I’m no longer able, or willing, to try to do things someone else’s way, when I have resolutely closed my mind to doing things any other way than the way I’ve always done it, or to seeing something old and familiar in a new and strange light. Mostly, I fear being a stubborn old codger that people mutter about to each other under their breaths, saying things like “That Kendall, she’ll never change. She’s set in her ways” as they fling their thumb incredulously in my direction. I want to find a way to retain the adaptability of my youth when I reach 40, and hang onto it until I drop dead, but I’m not sure that’s even possible.

In your opinion, what’s the key to staying adaptable?


8 responses to “To Be Adaptable.

  1. Personality.

    I doubt you’ll have problems with this as you age. I’m 42, and I am set in my ways in the sense that I like what I like and I live the way I like to live. But that is not an age issue. I was always a kind of homebody and I will probably always be a kind of homebody. That’s my personality.

    But I am accepting of new ideas and new ways of doing things. I like efficiency and finding ways to create a better, faster, less resource-sucking way to work. I’m open to other’s ideas and realize that other people, who have experienced things that I have not, may have a better way of doing something. No matter how old they are. Or I am.

  2. Love the post! The key to stay adaptable is being able to view new information objectively. My personal way of accepting change is too listen/read/ or watch new ways of problem solving sit in complete silence, figure out what applies to me and how it works or doesn’t work in my day to day life.

    Although my idea is really general, it’s def made me think about a more specific answer…

  3. Keys to staying adaptable? First, I think it helps to make a mental note of your experience with older individuals who are unwilling/unable to adapt/change/learn from someone who is younger (which is what your blog is about). Second, make another mental note to not be that way when you are older. These mental notes have a way of sticking with us.

    I once made a mental note about something I would not do when I became a parent. Then, when I had my first child, I caught myself doing that very thing. But in the middle of the situation, I recalled that previous mental note. It was the first and last time I did what I vowed I wouldn’t do.

    But I’m sure there’s a vast array of ideas that can help one remain adaptable.

  4. Hi Kendall,

    I like your post.

    Did you read: “Who Moved My Cheese”?
    The essence of life is that it is the journey that matters and not the goal.
    So “follow your nose” (a Dutch expression) instead of the money.
    Don’t be scared of (episodes of) being “poor” (as they will keep you flexible!), continue to embrace life and never stop enjoying yourself!

    Good luck,

  5. Really love your reflection here. As someone who often seeks to create efficient change in others, as well as someone who likes my routines, I appreciate your concern about one day being less than adaptable. I’m sure personality is part of the equation, but making a conscious effort to always learn and be open is probably just as important. I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning – and learning often comes in the form of another person saying, “Hey, I think I might have a better way of doing that. Would you like me to show you?”

  6. Patience and an open mind!

  7. I’m not sure if I have anything profound to say but I really wanted to comment on this cause it’s something I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about myself. I think it’s possible to stay adaptable – at the very least I want to believe it for myself – but I think it’s definitely more the exception than the norm. I think there are 4 keys to staying adaptable:
    1. Awareness – Isn’t this the first step in so many things? “Know thyself.” I think a little accountability probably helps with this.
    2. Desire – You can see that things could be different, but if you don’t actually want them to BE different what difference does it make?
    3. Perseverance – I think it’s very easy for people to get comfortable. And comfortable is comfortable. Change can be hard, even if in the end it’s by far the better way to go. A little effort is required here.
    4. Humility – I guess this relates to awareness but I think an attitude of humility is important. If we think we have ownership on the “good old days” and that our way is the right way, there’s little openness there. I think to stay open one has to recognize that one may not always be right.

  8. Thomas Fullabologna

    Im worried about the same thing from time to time. Really enjoyed the post an happy I found your blog.

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