Here’s a trade-off:

“The better adapted a system is to a particular environment, the less adaptable it is to new environments.” – Jerry Weinberg

Or, if you’re more self-centered:

“The better adapted you are, the less adaptable you tend to be.” – Weinberg, again

I see this everywhere now.

Think about when you’re struggling with a problem and you bring someone else in to take a look, to get “fresh eyes” on it. In any situation like that — and they’re many and varied, from pair programming to hiring a consultant — you are adapted to the problem context, and the other person is not. The other person is more adaptable, and thus less likely to be making as many assumptions as you. That can help.

I think about adaptedness versus adaptability when I hang out with my toddler. He’s as newbie as you can get, worlds more adaptable than me. He has the ultimate Beginner’s Mind. And he’s way more perceptive than I am. He notices every dog that barks in the distance. He notices every plane that flies overhead. Meanwhile, to me, all that is background noise at best. I’ve learned to consider it unimportant. I’ve adapted, for better or worse. Autopilot engaged.

I think about adaptedness versus adaptability when I pick up a wine menu in a restaurant. Someone who drinks a lot of wine is probably adapted within that domain. They know what they like. Maybe they like an extra dry red from a certain region, a certain kind of grape, with notes of cedar or orange peel or chocolate or whatever. I can’t really even write intelligently about that, because I’m not adapted. To me, it’s red or white, dry or sweet. What I am is adaptable: I’m happy enough with just about any red wine.

I thought about adaptedness versus adaptability when I saw these photos of athletes with vastly different body types. They’re all differently adapted. Being well-adapted for gymnastics calls for very different training (and a very different body to begin with) than being well-adapted for weightlifting. Competitions involving multiple activities, like maybe a decathlon, require athletes to be less adapted to individual activities, meaning they’re more adaptable.

I think about adaptability versus adaptedness when I play RPGs (which is admittedly rare nowadays). I used to play World of Warcraft a lot. I was a rogue. My specialty was dealing damage. I was adapted to do some stabbing. Other classes could have different specialties. A priest might be adapted to healing. A warrior might be adapted to tanking (drawing bad guys’ attention and taking a lot of damage without dying, often with the help of a healer). Still other classes could be more adaptable. A priest could choose to be decent at doing damage, at the cost of some healing potential. A warrior could sacrifice some tanking ability to do more damage. A druid could try to be competent at damage-dealing, healing, or tanking. Adaptable.

I thought about adaptedness and adaptability when I wrote about plans versus planning. In a sense, the act of planning makes you more adaptable, because you’re considering possibilities. But picking a plan can make you less adaptable, unless you’re willing to let go of that plan when the situation changes.

I think about this adapted/adaptable frame with respect to my software development work, too. The longer I spend with a language, on a platform, in a code base, or at a company, the more adapted I get. This is good when it comes to solving problems in whatever context I’ve become adapted to. I learn more of the details and have to think and learn less to solve a small, particular problem. It’s less good when I need to move on to a new context. I can’t add a feature for a new client until I’m familiar with the client, project, code base, tool chain, etc.

Should you try to be adapted or adaptable? It depends. It’s complicated. It depends on the situation and on a lot of factors around it. And even taking that into account, it feels unlikely to me that you’ll ever be able to look back and say you got it “right”. These are directions, not goals, not ends. They’re interesting to think about. They can be a tool in your toolbox for thinking about different kinds of problems.

I will say this: For me, as a technology professional, my plan is still what I said in Finding Fox Work: “Be a specialist and a generalist.” That is, be adapted to something (or a few things), but commit cycles to staying adaptable, too. Be a hedgehog and a fox.