When the wheels come off

Why the ability to adapt may be our greatest skill

There is perhaps no more humbling sport than the game of golf.

One can play for years—even decades—and still find themselves, in the middle of a round, absolutely clueless about why the ball refuses to travel in the intended direction.

One mistake can lead to another, and another, and before we know it, the proverbial 'wheels' are off. We've spiraled out of control and any hopes of salvaging a decent score are lost, like those Titleist balls we've just deposited into the pond.

The funny thing is that such challenging stretches are not unique to weekend hackers; even pros go through them. And it's not just every once in a while, it's virtually every time they step on the course.

If you find yourself in front of a TV this weekend airing the Masters tournament, take a moment to notice the challenging stretches the leaders face—especially on Sunday afternoon.

Inevitably, things will go south at some point in each of their rounds. They'll dunk one into the water. Sail one into the woods. Or miss a two-foot putt.

For any golfers out there, such mistakes will sound very familiar.

So what makes these pros different from you and me?

In a word, it's resilience. In a phrase, it's the ability to adapt.

Somehow these professionals have found a way to build strength into the system such that when challenges appear—and they always appear—they do not crumble. They keep it on the rails.

But how?

Well, obviously practice is a huge component. Just getting reps. And that starts from junior tournaments all the way through college and beyond. And many, many hours on the range.

But there is one particularly important component that comes from all of this practice—and that is that after a certain number of reps, they've basically made all the mistakes you can make on a golf course.

"How is making a mistake a good thing?" you might wonder.

It’s because when you make that mistake, your next move is to figure out how to fix it—or at least how to rebound from it. When you hit a slice once and try to fix it, you're probably going to be just as clueless as when you started. But when you hit that slice 10,000 times and attempt to fix it 10,000 times, you start to learn a few things. Your sample size is large enough that you gain valuable experience on which fixes work for you and which don't.

So when Jordan Speith hooks one into the woods this weekend, or Dustin Johnson sprays one into the next fairway, they will make an adjustment on the next tee. And that adjustment will be based not on guesswork, but on thousands of data points accumulated over many years.

What does this all mean for you and me?

It means that it's unreasonable for us to expect everything to go perfectly all the time. On the golf course, I prove this every time out. But in other facets of our lives, it's just as true.

  • We oversee a project at work that ends up flopping

  • We try to establish a new workout regimen but don't stick with it

  • We launch a side business but fail to get any traction

And we have a tendency to beat ourselves up over such failures. Maybe I'm being too ambitious. I'm never going to get in shape. I just don't have what it takes.

But what we don't realize is that every mistake—every failure—becomes a new arrow in our quiver.

We try. We fail. Then what?

The key question is: what is our next move?

If we quit, we lose. The mistake wins. It defeats us.

But what if we take that experience and try another way? Another approach to that work project. Another method for improving our fitness. Another model for our side business.

And what if we keep trying this? Again, and again, and again.

I'll admit, it takes a thick skin. Being okay with failure—especially public failure—is actually a real skill. Something to be developed over time.

But that mindset shift, from 'I am defeated' to 'I gained valuable experience' is so incredibly important for success in any field.

Our mistakes in this way make us stronger. Nassim Taleb wrote about this concept in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Repeated assaults on the system force us to adapt, to grow stronger. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

So think about this during your next challenging situation. Whether it's on the golf course, in the boardroom, in the gym, or anywhere else that you're facing failure.

Each mistake, each trip-up, is giving you slightly more power. We know nothing will ever go perfectly as expected—it's the nature of human existence. And as a result, the most important skill we can develop is the ability to change on the fly—to adapt. It's what makes us strong, resilient, and ultimately successful.


For the golf fans, enjoy the Masters. For the non-golf fans, try to let your golf fan spouses/friends/parents/kids enjoy the Masters.

Have a great week - Greg

Photo credit: @mmagnemyr @ Unsplash.com

Extra credit: If you're interested in the concept of being 'Antifragile' but don't have time or the will to read Taleb's book, this podcast he did with James Altucher back in 2014 does a decent job of covering the main ideas.

Life extension rabbit hole: I'm currently going down a major rabbit hole on the concepts of 'life extension' and 'health spans' which I hope to write an educational post on soon, but this concept of constantly stressing our systems to make them stronger keeps coming up. There are different ways to do this physically—the most common ones are intermittent fasting and exposure to extreme temperatures. The idea is basically that modern lifestyles, while providing extreme comfort (spending our days with full stomachs in 72-degree rooms) are making us very weak and much less resilient to disease when it strikes. Lots more to come on this topic but just wanted to give you a preview of what I'm spending time on at the moment. If you've got any good resources on life extension/health spans, pass them along and I'll incorporate them into my research. I've already found Dr. David Sinclair and Dr. Rhonda Patrick and am consuming all the content I can find from them.

Thanks for reading. See you next week. And don’t worry about those mistakes. They’re actually good things in the long run. - Greg