The Secret of Highly Adaptive People
Why is it that, when faced with change, some people find inspiration and others only find imprisonment?
Fortunately for us, a clever psychologist named Salvatore Maddi and a curious executive named Carl Horn had the foresight to ask this question in the mid-1970s. The result is one of the most fascinating field experiments ever conducted on human adaptability.
It began in 1974 when Maddi made a startling discovery—not from one of his own studies, but from an article in Family Circle magazine. The article explained the importance of avoiding stressful circumstances because they will, quite literally, kill us. The best way to avoid that stress, the article urged, was to avoid change.
“I was shocked,” Maddi recalled.
At the time, his own studies on creative people were revealing how flashes of insight and originality are more likely to come from people who enjoy stimulating experiences and fluctuating environments. The Family Circle article “implied that, from what my research was showing, creative people are trying to commit suicide,” he said—and that just didn’t make sense.
Maddi thought there must be something different about the way the people in his studies handled change versus the way the individuals in the Family Circle article were handling it. That gave him an idea.
Maddi had already become friends with Horn while consulting for Horn’s employer, the behemoth phone monopoly then affectionately known as “Ma Bell.” Maddi, Horn, and pretty much everyone else knew that Ma Bell’s monopoly on America’s phone lines would soon be cut off—it was just a question of when. So Maddi reached out to Horn and asked what he thought about the idea of Maddi and his team studying Ma Bell’s people before, during, and after the intensely disruptive breakup. Horn loved the idea, and even offered to help fund it.
For the next 12 years, Maddi and his team at the University of Chicago used the Illinois Bell division of the phone company as their laboratory. They followed hundreds of people and monitored everything imaginable. The researchers took notes, asked questions, and read blood pressure numbers as the workers moved from one cubicle to the next; as one boss left and a new one started; as the national economy inched up and slid back down again; as new kids were born and older kids switched schools; as marriages ended and mortgages were paid; when Jimmy Carter took over from Gerald Ford, and when Carter handed the White House over to Ronald Reagan.
When the Ma Bell breakup happened, six years into his study, about half of the people being tracked were laid off while the other half stayed on. Maddi and his team continued to keep tabs on both groups for the next six years.
What they found was fascinating.
The Adaptive Third
The majority of people—whether they kept their jobs or lost their jobs—were brought to their knees by the change. There were divorces, strokes, cancers, suicides, kidney failures, heart attacks, alcoholism, drug addictions, and compulsive gambling. Ma Bell offices became disaster areas littered with the wreckage of its workforce.
But a third of the people in both groups didn’t just survive—they thrived. They didn’t have heart attacks or marital troubles or fall prey to addiction. Those who stayed on at Illinois Bell became high-ranking leaders in the changed organization. Those who were laid off became shooting stars at their new companies.
Most surprising was how ordinary the people in the adaptive third were. On paper, they looked just like everyone else. They were not more adaptive because they experienced fewer stressful experiences. They weren’t more adaptive because they had better bosses. They weren’t more adaptive because they had happier home lives. They weren’t more educated. They weren’t smarter. They didn’t have fancier titles or easier jobs. They didn’t have privileged childhoods, and they weren’t born with special genetic gifts.
What separated the adaptive third from everyone else is surprisingly simple: While everyone else tried to bounce back, the adaptive third took a step forward. They exhibited what Maddi calls “existential courage.”
When the fog of change descends on us, human brains are wired to ask the question: What does this mean? Our minds launch a full-scale search for answers to resolve our confusion. But we don’t all look in the same place.
Roxane Cohen Silver at the University of California-Irvine discovered that two out of three grieving widows, bereaved parents, and victims of terrorism, child abuse, and natural disasters, will instinctively look for meaning in the past. They try to find some explanation for their suffering. For decades, psychologists assumed that this was a universal reaction in the wake of traumatic change, and that therefore, the path to healing required finding an explanation.
But they were wrong.
In study after study over the past three decades, Silver has found that a remarkably consistent one out of three trauma victims will not search for a reason to explain why they are experiencing misfortune. And it is this one third who turn out to be the most well-adjusted—weeks, months, and years later.
When most of the employees at Illinois Bell looked around and saw nothing but thick fog in every direction, they did what most of us instinctively do when we get lost. They retraced their steps. They obsessively searched for a reason why this tragedy was happening to them. In Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba’s training guide, Resilience at Work, they explain how the struggling Illinois Bell employees were consumed with how things were in the “good ‘ol days of more precise company objectives and plans.” When the researchers asked the employees about their plans for the future, they replied with anxious mumbles and shifty stares. When they finally sputtered out a reply, their image of the future looked eerily similar to the past. They wanted to “bounce back” to a place that no longer existed.
The people in the adaptive third were different. They also asked themselves what the change meant. But rather than trying to make sense of what they had done to deserve this experience, they tried to make sense of what they could do now that it had occurred.
That might be the single greatest lesson of adaptation. Instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, adaptive people turn that timeless riddle on its head and ask what can good people do when bad things happen?