When Life's Hard Lessons Are Good Business
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change." -- Darwin
I started my own company when I was 31. By all accounts, I was a highly energetic, successful, and driven individual.
I had a five year plan. I had my monthly goals. I had contingency plans. You know what I didn’t plan for? I didn’t plan for my active and healthy 35-year-old-body to be rushed to the hospital with stroke-like symptoms. Weird, I know.
As it happens, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that has left me in a wheelchair and bed-bound for a significant chunk of the past two years. And that’s when adaptability forced its way into my life.
From this experience, I’ve learned that the single most valuable trait for a business leader is adaptability. Not confidence. Not focus. Not optimism. (Although these all come in handy, to be sure!) But adaptability. That’s how you weather the storm(s) and come out ahead.
The Contingency Plan that Failed
Now, you get to do a lot of soul searching when you’re trapped inside your head. The saying, “The only certainty is uncertainty,” really resonated with me. It dawned upon me that I was never really in control, despite all my planning. Sometimes, you get derailed and there’s nothing you can do about it.
What saved my business was my ability to adapt.
— Stephanie Lee
All the contingency planning in the world couldn’t have saved my business. Optimism didn’t keep my business going. My confidence was, er, waning (to say the least) and I couldn’t count on that either. What saved my business was my ability to adapt.
I learned how to dictate emails because my arms weren’t working, had to think about how to walk because my muscles couldn’t remember… I had to rethink how to do the simplest tasks. Unbeknownst to a very frustrated me, being forced to do things differently because of my disease––to think differently––was a gift in disguise. It turned out to be awesome for business.
My disease resulted in new physical and mental limitations that forced me to learn new ways of doing old tasks. Having to stop and think about the many ingrained actions I previously performed without thinking made me realize how habitual my mindset was. I wasn’t really thinking about why I did things, I did them out of habit.
After struggling with and relearning simple physical tasks during my day to day, I realized I could use my newfound adaptability to rethink how my company was run. The result of this shake up was a 68% increase in traffic to the site, revenue growth in the double-digits, and restructuring the workload.
The Science Behind Adaptability
Scientists call the ability for your brain to learn new things, neuroplasticity. Just like exercising develops a muscle, using your brain in new ways causes it to grow. The brain’s grey matter––the cells where processing takes place––increases in the area of the brain that’s learning a new task 1.
Technology now evolves at a breakneck speed. While you once could have an edge by focusing on being great at [insert single talent], it’s no longer an advantage to be really good at doing one particular thing . . . more importantly, you need to be really good at learning how to do new things. Not only does this cultivate adaptability—which keeps your brain warmed up for unexpected changes—you’re also growing your brain, therefore training yourself to generate more creative solutions.
Rewiring your brain doesn’t just happen by partaking in the mental challenge of a Luminosity game, but through sustained cognitive tasks 2. Making a skill permanent requires the slow steady work of forming new neural pathways. That is, making new thought processes a habit.
So, how can you consciously develop your neuroplasticity/ adaptability to advance your career?
- Become aware of your habitual patterns. The brain can think itself into ruts. Something happens, you react. A certain stimuli comes along (a call from a potential client) and the deep neural pathway that has been formed from your hundreds of sales calls results in an automatic response (you give your spiel).Exercise: Make it a habit to know certain triggers and your responses. Come up with two other alternative options to your regular response.
- Meditate. It’s the hardest easy thing to do. As business people, we’re juggling a million things and our brains are never at rest. Meditation helps improve focus and studies have found meditators have stronger gamma waves––the fastest brainwaves associated with peak concentration––than non-meditators3.
- Be an early adopter. Change is easy to dislike. It requires learning something––hey, wait a second, that’s exactly what we want! While stability is important to a business, keep your mind open to new possibilities by trying out new technologies and processes.
The Silver Lining
I didn’t expect my daily life to be derailed by chronic health issues, and I certainly didn’t it expect that it would result in a newfound adaptability I could apply to to my business to help it grow!
The good news for you, is that you don’t need a disease to help yourself see beyond the bandwidth of your own expectations––you can cultivate a sense of adaptability through a few easy steps and exercises. Small changes can lead to big progress! And why not give it a try?! Even Darwin is on your side :)
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- Take London cabbies, for instance. You’ve probably hopped into a one of London’s black cabs on a biz trip, having no idea that A) London cabbies have a larger than average hippocampus, the brain’s memory center and B) your driver has passed a grueling test called “The Knowledge” requiring them to memorize the 25,000 winding streets and thousands of landmarks in the city. ↩
- Source: Neuroplasticity. Moheb Costandi, August 2016. ↩
- Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 2004. https://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16369.full ↩