Learning to Adapt Is the Key to Success

Conforming may help you survive, but learning to adapt is the way to thrive in a complex, chaotic and ever-changing world.

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By Steve Tobak

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Humans evolved as social animals with "safety in numbers" as a core survival instinct. That's why cultural conformity is such a powerful force. It takes courage to go up against societal norms, challenge the status quo, and take on the majority crowd and their widely held beliefs. The threat of being isolated from the pack is a powerful deterrent.

And yet, we are perhaps the most adaptable creatures on Earth, creating communities, organizations, cities and nations that support billions of people in diverse and often harsh environments all over the globe. Our unique adaptability has enabled us to scale, diversify and innovate.

Conformity and adaptability are not opposing but complementary forces. One is not right, nor the other wrong. They exist side by side in our makeup. A healthy balance enables individuals and civilizations to survive and thrive, to maintain stability while moving forward at a reasonable pace.

At least that's the theory. In reality we struggle over whether to play it safe by following the pack or take a big risk and go it alone. We debate whether to stay the course or pivot to a new trajectory. And we agonize over whether to hold onto our core beliefs or consider different perspectives that might offer tantalizing new insights.

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While our political and business leaders shoulder a somewhat unique burden – with so many impacted by their decisions and their actions – each of us experiences this eternal struggle within ourselves. If we didn't, we would not be human and we would not be living in the real world.

In reality there is no such thing as a perfectly objective viewpoint. It's a contradiction in terms. But that never stopped anyone from hanging onto his beliefs and perceptions long after he should have seen the writing on the wall. And that never stopped anyone from holding onto decisions and strategies that are no longer effective.

I don't care how self-aware you think you are or how broad a perspective you think you have. There will come a time in your life – many times, in all likelihood – when that unwillingness to challenge your own ideals, question the path you've taken and see things in a different light will hold you back.

I've seen it time and again. I've seen it in political leaders whose ideologies create dysfunctional governments and divisive cultures. I've seen it in CEOs who can't seem to understand why their companies have seen better days. I've seen it in business leaders who cling to archaic methods in markets that have moved on. And I've seen it in myself.

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The same quality – adaptability – that allowed humans to progress from cave dwellers to builders of the modern world enables each of us to move forward and progress as individuals. In that sense, we are all leaders – if not of governments, organizations and corporations then of our own businesses, our own families and our own lives.

It takes courage to question what your associates and friends believe to be true and risk being ostracized. It takes courage to stand up and suggest what you know will be an unpopular view and risk being ridiculed. It takes courage to tell it like it is, be the bearer of bad news and risk being publicly eviscerated.

Indeed, it takes a lot of courage to diverge from the pack. But it takes even more courage to risk upsetting the fragile applecart of carefully constructed beliefs that give each of us the false illusion of safety and stability. You need to have that courage. Not only is it worth the payoff, the cost of giving into fear is too high.

Like it or not, we live in a complex and chaotic world. It's as true of microscopic molecules and organisms as it is of macroscopic organizations and civilizations. It's as true of the human mind as it is of the cosmos. If you try to hold on too tightly, all the world's wonders and riches will escape your grasp.

Conforming may help you survive, but learning to adapt is the way to thrive in an ever-changing world. The choice is yours.

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Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.

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