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Thriving In Uncertain Environments

April 26, 2017


A few years back, an athlete (even if you're not, read on) with whom we work was toeing the start line prior to an important race. He had put in tons of work in the prior months, executing every workout to a T. He approached his training meticulously—always hitting specific workouts at specific paces. The entire buildup to his race was flawless; it epitomized systematic progression. The only problem? The race itself was anything but systematic. Race day came with torrential downpours, humidity beyond what he’d expected, swirling winds, poor course measurements, and a lead pack of runners who paced erratically.  In other words: pure chaos.


Our athlete completely fell apart. And who could blame him? He was accustomed to running evenly paced workouts at the perfect time of day on tightly-gauged courses. He would have smoked the race under usual conditions. But he was ill-prepared for unusual ones.


Ever since this experience, we’ve both thrown more chaos into the way that we coach (both on the road, and off). It's a shift to resilience thinking. 


Resilience Thinking


Methodical and regimented planning works wonderfully under predictable and controllable conditions. But rarely are we operating in such circumstances. More often than not, we’re operating in complex and unstable environments where immeasurable variables can, and do, interact and change in unimaginable ways. If we—and “we” could be an athlete, a company, or a politician—can’t adapt, then we’re bound to struggle (at best) or downright fall apart (at worst).


An important and often overlooked issue of modern times is that as we become more reliant on technology and data to help us scheme and plan, we become less capable of going off script. When we are extremely methodical, we’ll be better most of the time but risk catastrophic failure some of the time. In other words, we become very strong and robust but not at all resilient.


The researchers Brian Walker and David Salt define resilience as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.” They go on to write that, “The more you optimize the elements of a complex system, the more you diminish its resilience. The drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the system more prone to disturbances.”


Increasingly, we are living in a world that is wonderful when everything is going as we’d planned, but wholly uncomfortable when it’s not. This seems to be true on both individual and societal levels.


Becoming More Adaptable


None of this is to say that we should completely discard systems and planning. However, we need to make sure that in parallel to laying down extensive plans, we are also laying down the ability to adapt. This is a concept that applies to just about anything.


  • A company should never become so bureaucratic that it can’t respond to sudden changes in the market. Instead, it should empower employees to make quick decisions during unforeseen circumstances. (Think: American Airlines recent fiasco!) 

  • As an athlete pursues excellence in her sport, she should maintain and cultivate other interests, too. This way, if she gets injured or is otherwise forced to retire, she won’t be completely lost.

  • Anyone who relies on machines should have confidence that they could at least get by if the machines fail. This could be as simple as learning to exercise without a GPS watch and as complex as learning to fly a plane without a fully functioning dashboard.

  • A politician must be able to release from her plans in the midst of a campaign.

  • Even in deeply romantic relationships, there’s something to say for maintaining a sense of self. Rarely do two people die at the same time. Moving on is never easy, but at least it is possible if you yourself don’t completely die when your loved one does.


The investor and author Nassim Taleb refers to this as becoming “antifragile” and the economist Tim Harford says it’s about being able to “embrace the messiness of life.” In both cases, you are strong and flexible at the same time.
Another way to think about this concept is by looking to evolution. Species that endure have strong cores but are able to constantly adapt around that core: without a strong core, they become something different; without the ability to adapt, they get selected out when the environment changes.  
Most of us do a lot to develop our respective cores. These are the goals, routines, systems, and relationships that we expect to serve us well always. And while we’re not suggesting you do away with any of that, we do think it’s worthwhile to think about what you can do to develop adaptability as well. At some point or another your survival—be it in a sporting competition, career, or in some cases, in life—will depend on it.



If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more and support our work, please consider buying our new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. It's available Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and everywhere else books are sold.

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