The Dangers of Adaptation

What does adaptation mean to you? My favorite definition is:

a modification made to fit a changed environment.

Adaptability has been the key to the success of the human race. We’ve found ways to protect ourselves, and even thrive, in the midst of an ever changing world. We’ve developed external manifestations that address our lack of the built-in weapons, memory, speed, strength, and even digestion that give other inhabitants of the planet advantages over us. We’ve reached the top of the food chain by observing our world and changing our behaviors to give us an advantage.

But there is another side to adaptation. A much darker one. We also adapt to comfort.

Comfort is insidious. Success allows avoidance of pain and effort. Surrounding yourself with softness makes you soft. Failing to challenge your mind allows mental pathways to atrophy. Driving everywhere you go erodes your ability to get there on your own two feet. Failing to stretch yourself and use your body’s full range of motion is the first step to losing mobility and efficient function. Failing to confront fear allows it to sink its talons deep into your psyche and warp your view of the world.

There are biological reasons for the attraction of sloth. Life was hard for our ancestors. Most of it was consumed by the hard work of acquiring the fuel to make it through to the next day. Conservation of energy is a universal biological mechanism that was developed as a defense against the famines of the past. Our bodies are not programmed for abundance. Maintaining muscle mass is expensive. So is maintaining the knowledge of a particular skill in our grey matter. If you are not continually signaling that those muscles, or those neuronal connections, are necessary your body will not keep them around. The same applies to flexibility in tendons and strength in bones and fluency in a seldom used language. The cellular view of the world is very much “use it of lose it”.

So where does that leave us? Einstein is supposed to have said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

This is the solution to the comfort trap. In life you have choices. If you carefully and intentionally salt difficulty into your life, you are at least reminded of the danger posed by comfort.

If you sit on the floor, it will force you to develop good posture. If you walk to get to where you need to go as often as you can. Anything less than a mile is easily reachable. Take the stairs. Lift heavy things and carry them. Listen for quiet sounds. Read fine print. Test yourself against someone who is better than you in an intense sporting event. Learn to lose and learn to hate it, then get back up and do it again. These will build your body, and your self confidence.

If you work on hard problems your mind will grow stringer. If you stop using your cell phone contacts list and memorize numbers and email addresses your memory will improve. Stop using turn by turn directions. Lean to read a map and plan your route for yourself. Read a difficult book, one that makes you work to find the meaning in its pages. Travel to a foreign land where you don’t fluently speak the language. Pick up an instrument and learn a song. These will all build your mind.

This is not the easy path. None of it will feel good in the moment. Most of these suggestions will be dismissed as crazy by those around you. Do them anyway. Intentionally making life more difficult than it has to be is the only way to offset the success that our species has achieved.

I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.