Adaptive Thinking: The Best Way to Deal With Unexpected Situations

For a long time, thinking, good thinking, has been primarily outsourced to reading books. “Just read books, and your brain will swell, making you super smart and forcing you to wear a hat.” But is reading heavy bricks with dense material enough to become a great thinker and allow you to act appropriately in a constantly changing environment?

Sure, the usual process of thinking – producing thoughts based on the information you consume – works in most situations.

But what if you are a fighter pilot and enemy planes are fastly approaching?

You can’t rely solely on what you know and the initial thoughts your brain produces to stay alive. You need adaptive thinking to survive.

What is Adaptive Thinking?

We can easily label adaptive thinking as critical thinking on steroids. Or if we can rephrase the words from the author who wrote the deliberate practice book, adaptive thinking is the ability to recognize unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one.

What is Adaptive Thinking

Applying adaptive thinking in our everyday life is becoming more and more crucial.

Not only if we want to survive the unexpected. But also if we want to thrive in our field of choice.

Why did I mention that adaptive thinking is critical thinking but boosted?

Well, if critical thinking is the ability to be exceptionally rational. Adaptive thinking is the same ability to be logical but doing it at high speed.

Imagine that you are a surgeon who is in the middle of an operation. You check the box of being rational and smart – after all, you made it as a surgeon. But is this enough?

Not at all.

Surely you have a plan about how the whole medical procedure will go. But what if something unexpected happens?

Your smartness won’t serve you any good if you can’t apply what you’ve learned during all these years in medical school – and not only – ultra-fast.

You need to quickly switch gears if the situation requires it in order to save the life of the patient.

That’s the main advantage of adaptive thinking. You are smart not because you know a lot of things. You are smart because you can apply what you know quickly in an unexpected situation.

Examples of Adaptive Thinking

Every time adaptive thinking is mentioned, this surely involves also mentioning the Vietnam War.

Here’s why:

The US Navy fighter pilots were taking great losses during the Vietnam War.

The North Vietnamese airmen were taking down US jets like they were sitting idle.

This inspired the creation of the now-famous Top Gun school. A program that focused greatly on failing and learning from that failure.

In particular, the Top Gun school was giving the opportunity for fighters to learn how to act fast in a dangerous environment with many unknowns. They pushed themselves and their planes to the edge and learned how to best respond to different scenarios. All of this, was supervised and coordinated by the finest aviators at the time.

That’s the gist of how the term adaptive thinking was born.

But what about a more down-to-earth example?

I got you.

Not everyone is flying a plane and hopefully, no one will ever need to engage in an air dogfight again in the future.

Another example of adaptive thinking everyone can relate to is talking to a client.

Sure, this sounds not harmful at all, but the situation can quickly evolve and throw you off balance.

For example, what if the person on the other end of the phone asks a question you don’t know the answer to? Or, what if the conversation gets heated and you have a mad man throwing verbal flames at you?

In conditions like these, the usual script will no longer work. You need to wake up your creative brain or your emotions will consume you – you will start arguing back or start silently crying. Alternatively, you can bolster your adaptive thinking and handle the situations with grace – quickly analyze all the appropriate responses and decide which one will work best in the changing conditions.

It’s kinda like playing chess in your head. You consider the different options and see which one will result in a checkmate.

How Do You Develop Adaptive Thinking?

Harnessing the power of adaptive thinking requires work and open-mindedness.

The biggest blocker that can stop you from having a good response to an unexpected situation is not letting your mind wander.

When we let our thoughts drift. We can find alternative and better solutions to the problems we are facing.

Usually, we are locked in our heads. Never exploring what is actually possible (the so-called unknown unknowns). Only using what we already know is possible.

When you explore. You find options. When you know the variations. You can find the best response to an unpredictable situation.

But let’s explore this further…

To become prolific in your thinking. To master adaptive thinking. We need to acquire these 3 components:

Adaptive Thinking Skills:

Let’s look at them one by one.

Detailed Planning

This deserves a longer treatment, but here’s the short version: Plan in advance how you envision a task.

You’re about to talk with a new client? You are about to disassemble your laptop so you can clean it and look what’s inside? You are preparing to go on a hike in an unexplored area?

Sit down and write everything you need for your task to become successful.

How do you imagine going through the whole task? Think about every little detail. Imagine actually doing the task in your head.

This is what runners do before every race. They mentally go through the course and think about what will happen during the race.

All of this preparation, helps you figure out what is needed for the task to become successful. Plus, allow you to spot what can go wrong.

What Can Go Wrong

Rarely do things happen the way we plan. The best form of planning is having a plan if things fail.

What the client might ask that can derail you from your script? What can go wrong when you are toying with your laptop? What’s the worst that can happen when you are up in the mountains?

Have a plan for these situations.

And even more importantly, have a backup plan on your backup plan.

We are surprised – and often terrified – by unexpected situations because we never thought about them.

Sure, everyone can conquer a peak if the weather is nice and there are no bears in the woods. But few will survive if the conditions drastically change.

Preparing for the things that can go wrong will reduce the chances of failure and increase the chances of survival when things turn from good to terrifying.

In this step, being a curious explorer is an important advantage.

Staying Calm Under Pressure

No matter how intentional you are about the planning of the things you do. No matter how obediently you follow Murphy’s Law – preparing diligently for all the stuff that could go wrong. Things will inevitably go wrong that even Nostradamus couldn’t have successfully predicted.

And when they do, calmness is your best friend.

As Daniel Goleman notes in his book Emotional Intelligence, there is a thing called emotional hijacking. In plain English, this means that your emotions block your ability to think.

Say that someone cuts you while you drive. Your immediate reaction is to use a language we usually hear in rap songs. But how is this helping in the situation?

It’s not. It can even worsen it.

Emotional hijacking blocks our ability to think. Therefore, we respond using our basic emotions – annoyed, resentful, even mad.

Anger, fear, even positive sensation disable our ability to think clearly.

And thinking clearly and thinking fast, are skills you need at your disposal all the time.

Think about it for a moment. If you are a neurosurgeon and if suddenly the operation you are performing takes a dramatic turn – an unexpected artery starts bleeding – how will anger help you?

Screaming at the patient won’t magically cure him.

How to Improve Adaptive Thinking?

Developing adaptive thinking is not improving it.

We also need a plan to further foster our adaptive thinking skills.

The reason the Top Gun academy turned out to be a huge success was due to their problem-solving approach.

Students were practicing, getting feedback, and improving on their feedback.

But there was one extra component that allowed them to become exceptionally good air fighters – building a library of case studies.

When they were in the air training, they weren’t using bullets and missiles – obviously. Instead, their planes were equipped with cameras to record each encounter. Every training session was recorded and later observed by the entire crew.

The discussions on the videos were invaluable for every pilot.

In a sense, they were creating a library of case studies in their heads about how to respond to different situations.

For instance, discussing the situation and answering questions like: What happened? Why? Why your response was good? Why it was bad? How it can be better? What we can do to prevent similar mistakes in the future?

Dry theory can help you get the essential elements when you do something. But what you really need is real-world examples that show you how to solve problems.

This is observed in every profession.

An account with 10 years of experience might not be great at what he does. But he surely knows more than a person with 1 year of experience. The reason is simple: The first person has been exposed to more problems. He has a more elaborate bibliotheca of problems he can refer to when something unexpected happens.

The skills that make a professional, professional. Are not based on how versed he is with the information in textbooks. But how he handles situations that are not mentioned in the textbooks.

In this line of thought, to further improve your adaptive thinking. You should create artificial situations where you encounter real problems and think about different ways to solve them.

Adaptive Thinking Strategy

Ultimately, adaptive thinking is changing your usual behavior, fast, in response to an unexpected situation.


During a large part of our days, we are on autopilot. Doing the same things. Thinking the same thoughts.

Adaptive thinking is a way to respond in a good way to something you are not sure how to act.

Add freshness to your usual way of thinking.

A simple to follow strategy is the following:

  • Understand the complexity of the problem you are dealing with.
  • Be vigilant so you can recognize immediately a change in the environment.
  • Implement a new strategy, different from the initially planned scenario, based on the new changes with calmness.

Above all, you should be comfortable with uncomfortable situations and adopt the idea that you will never be fully prepared. There will always be something you don’t know how to do. But this should never discourage you from moving forward.

Some Closing Thoughts

No longer only leaders of large organizations are in need of adaptive thinking.

Our dynamic world requires everyone to learn how to navigate in complex situations and adjust based on the fast-paced environment.

I became increasingly more concerned – and interested – about whether my thinking in the moment is good. (That’s why I also explored the main types of thinking, how to think better, and what to think about.)

Do I jump quickly to conclusions that are sound, or do I end up making decisions based on my emotions?

The whole process involves sober investigation.

But what thing is certain. It also requires a lot of reading. A lot of studying. A lot of deliberate practice.

Observe what others do – how others think – when they enter shitty situations. This will help you expand your portfolio of case studies and thus allow you to better respond to unexpected situations.

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business.” Warren Buffett

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