Adaptive Thinking – Flexibility that creates results

One historical event shaped the development of a new, innovative way of thinking. It was at the height of the Vietnam War, in 1968 when US Navy fighter pilots all of a sudden started losing ground to their North Vietnamese counterparts.

Up until that moment, US fighter pilots had been shooting down about two North Vietnamese aircraft for every one they lost, a 2:1 ratio. But by the first few months of 1968, the ratio had dropped to 1:1.

Do you remember the hype around the Top Gun movie, back in the 80s? Well, the original TG school was actually created at that exact moment of the Nam conflict.

The best US Navy fighter pilots were trained to fly and fight just like enemy fighter pilots. As a matter of fact, the US army used Vietnam pilots as instructors for their new Navy fighter pilots.

The results of the Top Gun training program were more than impressive. By 1970, US pilots were shooting down 12 enemy aircraft for every one they lost. We are talking here about the improvement of the ratio, from 1:1 to 12:1!

What led to that kind of comeback was the use of Deliberate Practice principles. More precisely, the use of a specific approach to the mental aspect of high-performance called adaptive thinking.

According to psychologist and expertise researcher Anders Ericsson,

Adaptive Thinking involves the ability to recognize unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one.

When this principle is applied to a workplace dynamic, it signifies an employee’s ability to adapt to changing work conditions.

Novel and Adaptive Thinking 

The ability to perform well at the highest levels requires the ability not only to think well but to think flexibly and quickly — in other words, to think adaptively.

To do that, all 3 primary components of adaptive thinking have to be taken into account:

  • Effective planning
  • Careful monitoring of progress
  • The ability to flexibly shift thinking and behavior to accommodate circumstantial changes

Even though it’s the last one to be cited here, the ability to shift thinking and behavior turns out to be the point of difference when it comes to adaptive thinking compared with other forms and ways to come to the best solution.

To see where you’re at currently, try to determine how you measure up against these three qualities of adaptive thinkers:

  •  Impulse Control

The best way to describe this is the so-called marshmallow test. A study conducted at Stanford University set a goal to measure delayed gratification in kids by offering them a marshmallow with the following forewarning: they could eat the marshmallow right away, or they could wait 15 minutes for another marshmallow to come up and eat both of them – doubling their sugar intake.

And that is not the end of the experiment. Some 20 years after, the scientist who worked on the researchers tracked almost all of the kids down.

Scientists used kid’s SAT results to compare the ones who gave in to the sweet power of the marshmallow with the others who demonstrated strong willpower. The results were astounding.

The second group (the one with ninja-like willpower) scored much higher on SATs and developed higher competencies than those who just couldn’t wait.

So, how is your impulse control? Do you usually think before acting, or better said: do you look before leap?

  • Leave your ego at the door when entering

Do you have a fear of letting go of what worked so well for so long?

The need to hold on to your own opinions as indisputable facts is your worst enemy when it comes to adaptive thinking.

Think, and think well: is your lack of humility standing between you and receiving feedback? Humility breeds curiosity, remember that. Let go of  your previously held assumptions and you’ll be surprised by the way your thought process shifts.

  • Stay curious

There is, and there has always been one way to let go of the old and adopt the new:

By having the ability to abandon what you once believed true with confidence, in exchange for what rings true now.

Be curious and be open. Don’t stick to something that is turning out to be outdated or wrong. Embrace the new!

Without adaptive thinking, you’re risking staying rigid in your worldview and therefore limited in your potential. Don’t let go of your potential for success because of your unwillingness to change. Go for it! Step out of the box!

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