The adaptability to change, long life correlation

During the funeral service earlier this week for my 91 year-old mother-in-law, Jean Basinger Schumacher, her pastor identified adaptability to change as a unifying characteristic among old-old people. Family history, lifestyle, and economic status matter, but it seems that one’s approach to change counts most for length of days.

Folks who roll with the punches – who find contentment in any circumstance – tend to live longer than their less adaptive peers. As reported in a study of Ohio (the state my mother-in-law called home) centenarians:

  •  Age isn’t an issue for these easy adapters. They’re too busy living in the present.
  • Long-lived individuals use and enjoy humor.
  • In telling their life stories, these oldsters show a great ability to adapt to a range of changes, both good and challenging.
  • They demonstrate a generalized sense of control over their environment and their psychological well-being.

I see my mother-in-law reflected in the research findings. Not that her life was a bed of roses. In fact, quite the opposite. Her childhood was marred by the death of her mother. She buried two husbands. And she lived with the constant pain of severe osteoporosis for much of her last decade.

Yet through it all, my mother-in-law remained optimistic, curious, and forward-looking. Regardless her circumstances, she got up, put on her make-up, and faced each day with a smile.

THE ADAPTABLE ORGANIZATION

If my work with faith-based nonprofits has taught me anything, it’s this: adaptability to change is as important for organizations as it is for people.

I’ve met organizational leaders who cling to the past with all their might, grieving for what has changed, and fearful of what’s ahead. I’ve also worked with  leaders who are ready to roll up their sleeves, grab hold of new possibilities, and embrace the future.

There’s no surprise as to which organizations are succeeding – even thriving – despite tough economic times. History, mission, and finances matter, but ability to adapt — to change — is key. Show me a successful organization and I’ll show you leadership that’s open to new knowledge, new insights, and new experiences.

Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, writing in Great by Choice, note that

Those who spend most of their energy ‘reacting to change’ will do exactly that, expend most of their energy reacting to change. In a great twist of irony, those who bring about the most significant change in the world, those who have the largest impact on the economy and society, are themselves enormously consistent in their approach. They aren’t dogmatic or rigid; they’re disciplined, they’re creative. . . they’re SMaC (Specific, Methodical, and Consistent). The more uncertain, fast-changing, and unforgiving your environment, the more SMaC you need to be.”

In other words, you get up, put on your make-up, face the day with a smile, and make it all work — sometimes for as long as 91 years.

What's your take on this topic?

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