How often do you adapt to succeed?

Today is May 21 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you adapt to succeed?” History is littered with quotes about the need to adapt to succeed from those who navigated the chaos and practiced the art of living well. Some examples are: “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change” by Albert Einstein, “those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” by George Bernard Shaw, and "all failure is failure to adapt, all success is successful adaptation” by British consultant Max McKeown.

  • How often do you measure your ability to change?

  • How often do you change your mind?

  • How often do you consider that all success is successful adaptation?


Best-selling author and Dilbert creator Scott Adams understood the value of adapting to succeed. Adams believes that you are what you learn. “If all you know is how to be a gang member, that’s what you’ll be, at least until you learn something else. If you become a marine, you’ll learn to control fear. If you go to law school, you’ll see the world as a competition. If you study engineering, you’ll start to see the world as a complicated machine that needs tweaking.”


Adams wrote “It’s easy to feel trapped in your own life. Circumstances can sometimes feel as if they form a jail around you. But there’s almost nothing you can’t learn your way out of. If you don’t like who you are, you have the option of learning until you become someone else. Life is like a jail with an unlocked, heavy door. You’re free the minute you realize the door will open if you simply lean into it.” Adams should know as he himself learned how to be a cartoonist; something he wanted to do since his childhood. For six years, Adams learned how to balance his day job with the publication of his Dilbert cartoon. From 1989 until 1995, he created Dilbert during mornings, evenings, and weekends while maintaining his full-time job. Much like Adams, Olympian James Francis Thorpe learned to adapt to succeed.

Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation and became the first Native American to medal for the United States. Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon. Since the pentathlon had five events and the decathlon ten, Thorpe would compete in a remarkable 15 different Olympic events. Thorpe began the Olympics by crushing the field in the now-defunct pentathlon, which consisted of five events in a single day. He placed first in four of them, dusting his competition in the 1,500-meter run by almost five seconds.


As Sally Jenkins wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine “A week later the three-day decathlon competition began in a pouring rain. Thorpe opened the event by splashing down the track in the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds—a time not equaled at the Olympics until 1948. On the second day, Thorpe’s shoes were missing. His coach Pop Warner hastily put together a mismatched pair in time for the high jump, which Thorpe won. Later that afternoon came one of his favorite events, the 110-meter hurdles. Thorpe blistered the track in 15.6 seconds, again quicker than Bob Mathias would run it in 1948.” On the final day of competition, Thorpe placed third and fourth in the events in which he was most inexperienced, the pole vault and javelin. Then came the very last event, the 1,500-meter run. The metric mile was a leg-burning monster that came after nine other events over two days. And he was still in mismatched shoes. Thorpe left cinders in the faces of his competitors. He ran it in 4 minutes 40.1 seconds.


Thorpe would rely upon his drive, dedication, and hustle to carve out a variety of career paths following the Olympics. He would go on and become a major-league baseball player, co-founder of the National Football League and even pro basketball player—before winding up a stunt performer and Hollywood character actor. He died there of heart failure in 1953 at age 64. An unfortunate footnote in Thorpe’s incredible life story is the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped him of his medals after it was found he had been paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the amateurism rules that were then in place. While some researchers might note that in 1983 the IOC restored his Olympic medals. But that is not the complete story. As Jenkins wrote “It’s commonly believed that Thorpe at last received Olympic justice in October of 1982 when the IOC bowed to years of public pressure and delivered two replica medals to his family, announcing, ‘The name of James Thorpe will be added to the list of athletes who were crowned Olympic champions at the 1912 Games.’ What’s less commonly known is that the IOC appended this small, mean sentence: ‘However, the official report for these Games will not be modified.’”


The prolific English author Agatha Christie wrote “There is no telling what a human character is. Until the test comes. A man is confronted quite soon with the necessity to stand on his own feet, to face dangers and difficulties and to take his own line of dealing with them.” Thorpe was tested time and again during the 1912 Olympics. In 15 different events at the highest level of competition he proved that he was the greatest athlete of his time. Not bad for an athlete who needed to compete with mismatched shoes. Thorpe navigated the chaos by exemplifying McKeown’s axiom that all ‘success is successful adaptation.’ How often do you adapt to succeed?