AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn't Ask For

AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn't Ask For

by M.J. Ryan

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Learn the secrets to taking any change in stride.

“Change is hard,” we say, and it is even harder when change is thrust upon us. In today’s tough times, we may be forced to reinvent our career or downsize our lives; at any point in life, we may lose a love or a dream. Our first reaction to change we didn’t ask for may beSee more details below


Learn the secrets to taking any change in stride.

“Change is hard,” we say, and it is even harder when change is thrust upon us. In today’s tough times, we may be forced to reinvent our career or downsize our lives; at any point in life, we may lose a love or a dream. Our first reaction to change we didn’t ask for may be to rail against fate. But what if we could see past today’s turmoil and spot the opportunities that lie within unasked-for change? That is the promise of AdaptAbility, bestselling author and executive coach M. J. Ryan’s paradigm-shifting new book on not merely surviving but thriving when change is required.

Why is it so hard to accept change? Paradoxically, it is for the very reason that our brains usually work so well; we are designed to learn something and make it automatic. The problem is that when circumstances change, our “efficient” brains keep trying to do things the same old way. In AdaptAbility, Ryan provides strategies to retrain your brain and optimize your response to change, step by step: by first accepting the new reality, then expanding your options, and finally, taking effective action. She offers cutting-edge tools for becoming calmer, less fearful, and more flexible, creative, and resourceful in your thinking. Best of all, as your “adapt-ability” increases, so does your confidence that you will be able to face whatever life sends your way and find new ways to flourish.

M. J. Ryan, internationally recognized as a leading change expert, is one of the creators of the New York Times bestselling Random Acts of Kindness series and the author of This Year I Will . . . , The Happiness Makeover, The Power of Patience, Trusting Yourself, and Attitudes of Gratitude, among other books. A member of Professional Thinking Partners, she specializes in coaching individuals and teams around the world. She has appeared on the Today show and CNN, and is a contributing editor to Good Housekeeping and Health. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter. Visit her website at

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Praise for AdaptAbility

“You are always more resilient than you think. In her motivational and optimistic book, M. J. Ryan shows you how to face the unexpected and use what you've learned to be happier in life, in love and at work.”
–Nell Merlino, leader of Make Mine a Million $ Business and author of Stepping Out of Line

“The change you don’t ask for has a way of smacking you between the eyes. M. J. Ryan’s AdaptAbility teaches us how we can get through the pain more quickly and extract greater meaning from the nonnegotiable events of life.”
–Ellyn Spragins, author of What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self

“If you’re struggling and think that one more book can’t possibly make a difference, think again. M. J. Ryan has the rare gift of breaking things down into clear pieces that can be tackled.”
–Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I: Welcome to  “Permanent White Water”

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. —Charles Darwin

These are challenging times. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re confronting some change you never asked for—perhaps a loss of job. Or some dream. Maybe you have to learn to work in new ways or find a new place to live. I’m sorry if it’s difficult. I’m hoping that within these pages you’ll find the support and the practices you need to successfully ride the wave of this change, whatever it may be.

Take comfort that you’re not alone. In my work as a “thinking partner,” I spend a lot of time speaking to people in all walks of life, from the CEO of a joint venture in Saudi Arabia to a stay-at-home mom who needs to enter the workforce. From where I sit, whether they are searching for a job, looking for funding for a startup, trying to stay relevant at age sixty in a large corporation, dealing with lost savings, coping with a big new job that has one hundred direct reports, struggling to get donations for a nonprofit, or fearing losing their home due to unemployment, people of all ages and walks of life are scrambling to deal with vast changes happening today in every part of the world.

Take the publishing industry, where I’ve spent thirty years, first as an editor of a weekly newspaper, then as an editor of monthly magazines, a book publisher, and now, for the past seven years, an author. None of the companies I worked for are still in existence. Neither are the distributors. One of my dear friends, a top writer at the Washington Post, just took a buyout because the newspaper can’t afford to pay top talent—even the most prestigious papers are drowning in red ink. How we create, distribute, market, and promote media products is completely different from even a few years ago. Where it is all heading we truly have no idea. Phil Bronstein, former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, declared recently, “Anybody who professes to be able to tell you what things will be like in ten years is on some kind of drug.”

And that’s only one corner of the evolving big picture. In 2006, creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, speaking at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) stated, “We have no idea of what’s going to happen in the future. No one has a clue about what the world will be like in even five years.”

The only thing any of us can know for certain is that life will continue to change at a rapid pace because the world has gotten more complex and interdependent. Organizational consultant Peter Vail calls this “permanent whitewater,” referring to a time of ongoing uncertainty and turbulence. We can’t see exactly where these changes are headed or where the submerged rocks are, yet when we’re tossed out of the boat, we want to make sure to swim, not sink. Experienced rafters know they’re going to get dumped out at some point. The difference between them and the rest of us is that they’re prepared to get bounced out and to recover swiftly. They expect the whitewater. And so should we.

Have you ever encountered that “life stress” list that rates changes such as moving, death of a spouse, getting married, etc.? The folks who created that list in the ’sixties estimate that life is 44 percent more stressful now than it was fifty years ago, and they came up with that estimate—I have no idea how—before the 2008 global meltdown. I’m not sure we even want to know the new number!

We find ourselves in uncharted waters. How do you cope with the falloff in business of your tiling company due to the implosion of the housing industry, as an acquaintance was telling me about yesterday? Or what should my twenty-three-year-old client do about not being able to drive to work because she can’t afford the gas because she gets paid a pittance at her wonderful social services job? What should my husband’s fifty-five-year-old friend do now that his job has been rendered obsolete because people aren’t buying CDs anymore thanks to the proliferation of downloadable music? What should a sixty-year-old friend of mine do about being upside down in her house? What should a dentist I know do about the huge debt he’s carrying from paying for rehab for his son? Which is the more stable situation—the job that my client has had for fifteen years with a company that has just been sold to a conglomerate and is experiencing a shrinking profit margin, or the opportunity with a start-up with seemingly greater risks and rewards?

When people present me with such dilemmas, I don’t pretend to know the answers. I’m not a crystal ball reader. Nor do I understand every industry trend. Or how a given company should be positioning itself. What I do know a lot about and what I can help you to do, too, is to develop the necessary mind-sets and actions to adapt well to whatever changes come your way. Knowing that you need to change, or even wanting to change, isn’t enough. Without rewiring your thinking and knowing what actions to take, all you get is wish and want and, often, stuckness. I want to help you actually develop the ability to adapt, to get up to speed with the attitudes and skills required to make the changes that life and work require.

Why do I place such emphasis here? Because the ability to adapt is, as far as I can tell, the key indicator of success in these turbulent times. It’s the capacity to be flexible and resourceful in the face of ever-changing conditions. To respond in a resilient and productive manner when change is required. Another name for it is agility. In a recent McKinsey survey, 89 percent of the more than 1,500 executives surveyed worldwide ranked agility as very or extremely important to their business success. And 91 percent said it has become more important over the past five years.

According to Webster’s, agile means “the ability to move with an easy grace; having a quick, resourceful and adaptable character.” Webster’s has it a bit wrong, I’d say. I don’t think it has anything to do with character. It’s just that some of us already know how to adapt easily. The rest of us need to learn—quickly. Otherwise you’ll end up spinning your wheels, complaining, or contracting in fear when faced with change.

Aikido masters say that to be successful in life, three kinds of mastery are required: mastery with self, which means understanding our feelings and thoughts and how to regulate and direct them; mastery with others, which means being able to create shared understanding and shared action; and mastery with change, which means having the capacity to adapt easily without losing our center—our values, talents, and sense of purpose. This book is focused on the third, although mastery with change requires a certain amount of mastery with self as well. It is my hope that as you go through the changes life brings your way, aided by what you learn here, you become a Change Master, an expert at riding the monster waves of change.

This mastery begins with understanding the process of AdaptAbility. We do this process naturally when a change is small. Say you’re planning to go out to dinner tonight with a friend and she calls at the last minute and cancels. You think to yourself, Well that’s out (accept), what else could I do this evening (expand)? Then you go do it (take action).

It’s when changes are big, painful, confusing, and/or disruptive of your hopes and dreams, that it’s hard to see there is a process at work. Being aware of the process can help us avoid getting stuck along the way, suffering needlessly and using up precious time. For we’re not just being asked to adapt these days, but to do it speedily. What differentiates the Change Masters I know from other folks is how quickly they can go through the process—okay, that’s over, now what? They expect to bounce back and are able to see the opportunities that change presents. Fortunately, once you become conscious of how the process of adaptation works, you, too, can face future changes with greater confidence and swiftness rather than getting hung up on the rocks of denial, anger, or helplessness.

Want further incentive to learn AdaptAbility? Experts in mind-body medicine have shown that people who are master adapters live longer and healthier lives than others. How come? Because they counterbalance the stress hormones that wear down our bodies with positive attitudes and behaviors that release feel-good hormones, which restore balance to our cells, organs, and tissue. That’s why many health experts define health itself as adaptability. These positive attitudes and behaviors are at the heart of this book.

In order to help you learn to adapt gracefully, I begin with “Seven Truths About Change,” which teach you that change is inevitable and explain why it can be such a challenge. The rest of the book takes you through the AdaptAbility process outlined above—“Accept the Change,” “Expand Your Options,” “Take Action”—and offers the attitudes and behaviors you need in order to move successfully through each phase. The final section is called “Strengthen Your AdaptAbility,” which is a process of noticing what you’ve learned and recording it so you can use it again when needed—which of course you will because adapting to life is a ?never-?ending process.

You may be at one or another of these phases as you pick up this book. As I always say, do the practices and take the advice that seems most helpful to you. Everyone is distinct, confronting unique challenges, and in need of different support. Whatever you’re facing, I want to encourage you to use this book as a life preserver, enabling you to better understand and navigate the changes that change will require in you.

As you go through this journey, you’ll learn the following:

•our bodies’ physical and emotional reactions to change
•the mental and emotional qualities of a Change Master
•why self-care is crucial
•how to live with uncertainty and to respond in as positive and healthy a way as possible
•how to identify new opportunities
•how to use what’s happening to align even more with your talents and values

As with my previous books, this book incorporates insights from brain science, organizational and positive psychology, spirituality, and my own brand of New England pragmatism. In these pages, you’ll learn all the tools, techniques, attitudes, and behaviors I know of to be a Change Master. I’ll offer many examples from my work with Professional Thinking Partners (PTP), a firm that helps people recognize and develop their unique talents and use them to maximize individual success and collaboration with others. PTP has worked with tens of thousands of individuals in dozens of large and small companies, nonprofits, and governmental agencies around the world. You’ll meet PTP’s lead consultant Dawna Markova, PhD, who has taught me many of the approaches and techniques you’ll find here. And you’ll meet many of my clients and friends (in disguised form to protect their confidentiality unless I use their full names), people just like you, dealing with the challenges of life as it is rapidly evolving.

As we face today’s realities and try to adapt, it’s not surprising that we may need support. Who among us took a class on how to cope with change? In the past, changes happened more slowly and our need to adapt was much, much less. Here’s just one example of the acceleration of change. Starting at AD 1, it took 1,500 years for the amount of information in the world to double. It’s now doubling at the rate of once every two years. No wonder we’re scrambling to keep up!

What’s puzzling about this absence of training in AdaptAbility is that companies all know that their employees’ capacity to change is one of the key factors in business success. According to the Strategic Management Research Center, for instance, the failure rate of mergers and acquisitions is as much as 60 to 70 percent. Why? Not because it’s not a good idea to bring two organizations together to create efficiencies and synergies, but because the people in them fail to adapt to the changed circumstances. I was just speaking yesterday to a woman in a huge oil company who had been part of an effort to create a standardized process for gathering information across departments. She’d left to work on another project and discovered that, two years and millions of dollars later, the effort had failed. Why? Because employees kept using the old system they knew, rather than learn the new one.

Examples of the lack of ability to change don’t have to be that expensive or dramatic. They happen every single day right where you live and work. I would say at least half of the folks I coach on a weekly basis are looking for help adapting to new positions or circumstances where they must drive results in a different way than they have before. The behaviors that have gotten them where they are today are simply not working. And these are all folks who have jobs—those without work need even more support in learning new skills and attitudes.

Resisting change wears down our bodies, taxes our minds, and deflates our spirits. We keep doing the things that have always worked before with depressingly diminishing results. We expend precious energy looking around for someone to blame—ourselves, another person, or the world. We worry obsessively. We get stuck in the past, lost in bitterness or anger. Or we fall into denial—everything’s fine, I don’t have to do anything different. Or magical thinking—something or someone will come along to rescue me from having to change. We don’t want to leave the cozy comfort of the known and familiar for the scary wilderness of that which we’ve never experienced. And so we rail against it and stay stuck.

When the environment changes and we must therefore, too, it’s appropriate to complain—to take, in the words of Dr. Pamela Peeke, the BMW (Bitch, Moan, and Whine) out for a little spin. But soon it’s time to put it back in the driveway and get down to business. And that means developing AdaptAbility.

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What People are saying about this

Ellyn Spragins
"The change you don't ask for has a way of smacking you between the eyes. M. J. Ryan's AdaptAbility teaches us how we can get through the pain more quickly and extract greater meaning from the nonnegotiable events of life."--(Ellyn Spragins, author of What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self)
Nell Merlino
"You are always more resilient than you think. In her motivational and optimistic book, M. J. Ryan shows you how to face the unexpected and use what you've learned to be happier in life, in love and at work."--(Nell Merlino, leader of Make Mine a Million $ Business and author of Stepping Out of Line)
Laura Berman Fortgang
"If you're struggling and think that one more book can't possibly make a difference, think again. M.J. Ryan has the rare gift of breaking things down into clear pieces that can be tackled."--(Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction)

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