I recently watched a compilation of SpaceX fails, and instantly came to the conclusion that the audacity of private space travel is both compelling and unsettling. I was a kid when the Challenger space shuttle exploded with a civilian on board and like most people at the time, I assumed space travel should be reserved for the government establishment.
Elon Musk, however, views the topic quite differently. Like other forward-thinkers, he adapts to a constantly changing landscape of political, financial, and technical dynamics that would overwhelm the vast majority of humanity. That same ability to adapt and remain sharp resides in you. You may not realize it, but by applying a few tactics, you can remain sharp in your arena of influence, no matter how much it shifts and changes.
Here are 5 tactics to make sure you stay sharp no matter what:
1. Fail Frequently
Every true expert in any field will tell you that failure is a major component to success. Thomas Edison took the sentiment a step further and said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” To stay sharp in a shifting environment, you must learn to fail frequently. In doing so, you maintain pace with changes in your environment and adjust your methods, thinking, and implementations to accommodate unpredictability, rather than avoid it. If you’re not willing to fail, you are incapable of success.
2. Embrace the Suck
I have a good friend who is an ultramarathon runner, and noticed she was wearing a hat that said, “Embrace The Suck.” Since I’m a former cross-country runner, I instantly understood the reference: “it’s gonna hurt, but go after it anyway.” How many of us embrace the lack of stability that comes with changing environments? Sadly, most of us do not. We complain, we blame, and we excuse the fact that we never stabilize.
What if we instead embraced the changes? What if we learned to accept the fact that business (and life) is always changing, and it’s a false reality to believe that anything is truly static? When we embrace the suck, we change our psychology. We come to grips with fluctuating terrain as a requisite component of growth. And when that happens, we are able to gain stability in the most uncertain environments. Sailors call it getting your sea legs.
“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” – Henry Ford
3. Read a Lot
People like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Cuban, as well as most CEOs, read about 50 books per year. In fact, when asked about how he learned to make rockets, Elon Musk claimed he learned from “reading books.” Innovation is always predicated on existing knowledge, and existing knowledge is most often solidified in books. If you want to learn to adapt to shifting environments, you must build a foundation of knowledge that comes from spending a lot of time reading.
Study after study affirms this point. Reading can be accomplished in many ways, and part of remaining sharp requires you to diversify your input. I read about 30 books last year, but I also read several hundred articles, studies, and blog posts. Books tend to provide structural or foundational information, while articles, studies, and blog posts tend to apply knowledge. You need both to succeed in uncertainty.
4. Practice the Uncertain
I remember my first few years practicing law and I often envied attorneys who did personal injury work. In my view, they learned one area of law really well, performed the same tasks every day, the same way, for the same reason, hoping for the same outcome. Then there was me, being asked to advise or draft contracts for situations that had no framework or precedent.
Most of the time, it felt like being dropped out of an airplane into the jungle each morning, having no idea who I would encounter, what they would need, or why they needed it. I learned to adapt by doing the work, which became my practice. There’s an interesting thing that happens when you face uncertainty on a consistent basis: you become comfortable with it.
To this day, I may not know what type of client will walk in my door, or what they will need from me, but I can guarantee that I have practiced enough to have my own framework of reference for how to help a person move forward in whatever circumstances they face. I do this daily in my legal and consulting practices, but you can do this wherever you’re situated.
“Be willing to be uncomfortable. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. It may get tough, but it’s a small price to pay for living a dream.” – Peter McWilliams
5. Visualize the Process
There are times when no panorama exists for what you are facing, and no amount of failing, reading, or embracing will prepare you for the uncertainty you need to conquer. In situations like that, visualization can be the key to progress. Visualization, however, can feel awkward and it’s important to visualize the process before the outcome.
Start where you first encounter the problem and how you might interact with it. Look around (within your visualization) and notice if there are people or other assets available to impact the situation. Visualize yourself dealing with the situation one way and then another. Try many approaches and see if any of them work within your visualization.
The goal here is for your brain to start developing mental pathways towards success, and by visualizing your encounters with uncertainty, your brain collects hypothetical experience. I’ve used this tool with my consulting clients many times to help them process through shifting circumstances.
As an entrepreneur, business owner, CEO, or other leader, you possess the ability to adapt. It may not always feel like it, but it’s innate and simply needs to be activated. When you find yourself troubled by shifting circumstances, take a deep breath and look forward, knowing you now have some tools to navigate.