With crisis, we must adapt to survive. Yet, with mindful awareness, we can make even better, sage choices, so we can adapt to thrive.

Survival of Most Adaptable

I was recently traveling through Ecuador and was fortunate to visit the Galapagos on a week-long cruise.  As I looked at the animals, I could see firsthand how Darwin came to his insight in Darwin’s Origin of Species: It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one most adaptable to change”. 

A fellow passenger, a PHD student whose work focuses on saving endangered species with conversation genomics, shared an insight that surprised me.  She said, “We often think there is a grand plan for evolution – that beings are adapting towards some great end state, but adaptation is full of bad choices.”  For example, the female marine iguanas are choosing larger males who yield larger iguana offspring which helps them push others way and get more food today; however, they may evolve into bigger, less agile swimmers who will have more difficulty eating algae underwater in the future.  In other words, even if adaptation is working for today, it may not work for tomorrow.

When a crisis occurs and disrupts our world, we are forced to adapt. 

During the pandemic we all adapted in our own ways based on our different environments.  Businesses learned that productivity doesn’t diminish with work from home, something it would have taken years to research in the absence of this disruption.  Higher education shifted rapidly to live virtual learning, also shaving years of development time. My daughter returned from her sophomore year of college in California and never returned; she graduated in December, after finishing out her college experience in Ecuador (which inspired our recent trip).  

I could fill up this blog with how people adapted in ways large and small, including how many people became bakers of sourdough bread.  We adapt based on what happens and we survive. In the case of unexpected disruption, like the pandemic or financial crisis, we often judge it as bad at first.  It comes with bad news that threatens our protection, whether it’s health or security.  And yet, we quickly adapt and attach to a new reality.  Now I know people are resisting going back to the office.  And if we start making choices that serve our greater good, like many of those who have resigned and found better situations, we may even thrive.  

All this certainly fits with Darwin’s theory:  if we’re going to survive, we must be adaptable to change. 

But what about when we aren’t forced to adapt?  What happens then? 


The Power of Neuroplasticity to Grow

Based on the latest science of neuroplasticity, we know we can change our brains by what we think, do and pay attention to.  We fortunately have the ability to be mindful about how we’re adapting – whether it’s in our career, our life, our relationships.  Great news, but how often do we?

Obstacles to growth:  

Unfortunately, there are certain things that get in the way, such as The Law of Inertia

The Law of Inertia, also called Newton’s first law, states: “if a body is at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, it will remain at rest or keep moving in a straight line at constant speed unless it is acted upon by a forceSo physics says we’re unlikely to change course, unless we’re forced to do so. 

Another obstacle is our Predicting Brain…

In Regina Pally’s article, The Predicting Brain”, we learn why:  “From the perspective of our brain, even before events happen, the brain non-consciously makes a prediction about what is most likely to occur, and starts to construct the perceptions, behaviors, emotions, and physiologic responses that best fit with what is predicted. Predictions evolved as short cuts, to enhance adaptive functioning.” 

In evolutionary terms, animals who were prepared and able to react more quickly were more likely to survive.

So while we have the ability to adapt in each moment, we are more likely to do what we’ve been doing in the past, which our brain have already predicted we will also do in the future.  So all of this makes it challenging to live fully in the present moment.


Breaking our Limits:  from Autopilot to Aware 

Sometimes it’s great that we are able to take shortcuts.  How tiring it would be to have to re-learn how to tie our shoes each day, or drive a car.  In business, we need to make myriad decisions, many of which are more efficient if we’re able to fast track based on past relevant experience. 

But, the world keeps changing, and we are limiting ourselves by not living in the moment and reacting in real time, or envisioning a future that can be very different from our past.  A Harvard study found that nearly half of people’s time is spent mind-wandering ,and more recent research shows that the number has reached nearly 60% during the Pandemic.  What power is left on the table!  It starts with being aware. 

Just think about what happens when we’re not aware, like with relationships.  Ever been in a meeting when you zone out and don’t know what people are saying?  Research shows 70% of leaders report regularly being unable to be attentive in meetings, so if that’s you, you’re not alone. How can you make the best decisions as a leader if you don’t know what’s going on? Or create trust with others?  

When leaders aren’t really listening deeply to themselves or others, they are unable to make the best decision or motivate their teams for the long haul.  And how we show up at the zoom meeting table is often mirrored at the dinner table.  


According to HBR research, most leaders think they’re aware of how they show up and affect others, but in reality, only 1 in 10 actually are.

Maybe you’re the 1 out of 10 with high awareness and emotional intelligence.  More likely, you are someone with great potential to keep growing these skills.


Dangers of Not being Aware: My New Year’s Story 

Recently, I became painfully aware of the dangers when people don’t live in the present moment and use their awareness to make sage choices. 

It was January 1st, 2022, and my family and I had just returned to Quito, Ecuador, after visiting the Galapagos and the Andes.  We were excited to be back in the charming old town, and I’d just finished shopping for souvenirs with my daughter, Olivia, and enjoying ice cream at a lovely balcony that overlooked the city.  I remarked how it was such a beautiful place and everyone had been so kind to us, and I couldn’t imagine the violence that we’d been warned about.  When my daughter first arrived, she’d been warned to never leave the hotel alone due to street crime; yet, she’d grown bolder by taking measured risks with walks in her neighborhood during daylight hours.  Now after a month in Ecuador and 5 days in Quito, I felt safe leaving our hotel for a 5 minute walk to get some fresh air in our nearby square an hour before sunset.  

Once I arrived, I took in the view.  I saw maybe 35 or more people milling around, less busy than usual, and less touristy, but I was certainly not alone.  I looked at the hills and wondered if I should take a few last photos.  

Getting Hijacked:  Fight, Flight or Flee  

Suddenly, I felt someone grab me with great force.  I looked up and saw his face and immediately realized he was trying to rob me of my iphone that was clearly bulging out of my right pant pocket.  Fortunately, I wasn’t as easy a target as he thought.  First, my phone was wedged deeply and securely in my leggings.  And secondly, I didn’t have time for this crap!  I was leaving at 9am the next morning, and my phone contained my precious photos, credit cards and vaccination records.

I couldn’t flee, as he was too strong to pull free, but I could fight back.  He never spoke or showed me a weapon, so I didn’t feel that my life was in danger, although I certainly felt violated.  

As we fought, he pushed me onto the ground, and I got leverage, so I could kick back with my left foot, while protecting my right side pocket/iphone with my right hand.  

At the same time, I screamed as loudly as I could with my mask covering my mouth.  I alternated between yelling “Get off me!” to him and “Help Me!” to the faceless crowd around me.  As my body kept fighting, my mind focused on this:

  1. I was not alone.  The square had 35+ people milling about and police were usually nearby.
  2. I needed my phone, as Iwas flying to my next destination at 9am the next day. 

These two thoughts kept me fighting and screaming, but I was tired physically and emotionally.  After 10 screams or more, I briefly wondered if it was worth it. I knew the phone could be replaced, but I I also knew he didn’t deserve it.  I felt I could keep going, and I didn’t realize I was bleeding with a gash on my chest from fighting back. I chose to keep fighting and yelling, even as I was getting increasingly shocked that nobody came to my aid.

I think a full 5 minutes went by, and then I saw several guys lightly tap the man assaulting me, and he simply let go and walked away.  I jumped to my feet and thanked them profusely. I heard them speak to me in Spanish, but I couldn’t understand their words, so I looked in their eyes.  That’s when I realized they didn’t save me based on compassion or kindness; they wanted a reward.  Later, I realized they probably worked with my assailant and this was plan b.  But at that moment, I trusted my gut, which was to be kind, and then run as fast as possible towards my hotel and not look back.  

WIthin minutes, I was safely in the hotel lobby, and I was confused to see police and people milling about who knew what had happened to me.  A man who may have worked with the police said the whole thing was on videotape, but it would have been better had he stolen my phone, as there would have been a real crime to prosecute. 

I’m not here to talk at length about Ecuador’s policy on crime, or the lack of support and compassion I received.  I know others have suffered much worse, and I knew that even then,  although I also knew how much I needed to let myself cry and process what happened.  What I want to talk about is the power all those people didn’t exercise when they did nothing.  I was attacked, and I was scared.  But I didn’t let my fear make me a victim.  I fought back.  All those people who did nothing were victims – of The Bystander effect and of not consciously choosing differently with their sager selves.

The Bystander Effect 

The bystander effect is a well known phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the LESS likely people are to help a person in distress. When an emergency situation occurs, observers will be more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses around.  People also follow the crowd, so if others fail to respond, then individuals take this as a signal that they don’t need to respond either.

One of those bystanders, a middle aged American businessman, introduced himself to me in the hotel lobby.  He admitted he was in the square the whole time and apologized for not coming to my aid.  He said he was with his wife and college aged daughter and that his wife was concerned for their safety.  She looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders as she apologized to me too.  I didn’t judge their decision at that moment, for I know it’s important to feel like you and your family are safe.  However, I did say out loud to my daughter how shocked I was that nobody responded to my screams.

It’s strange to know you are not alone and feel alone anyway. 


Combatting the Bystander Effect

Some psychologists say that increasing our awareness of this Bystander Effect phenomenon is the way to break the cycle.  Awareness of how we’re acting – or not acting – is the key to moving from autopilot to choiceful action.  However, this does not mean you should place yourself in danger.  If people truly feel in danger, they need to protect themselves.  In this situation, I was holding my own with my assailant who had no weapon, and I know that several woke people coming to my aid would have made a big difference.  

How aware are you?

Sometimes we don’t know what we would do until we’re placed in a situation.  While science has documented that the Bystander effect is real, it also shows we can change based on what we think, do and pay attention to.  So more importantly, what kind of person do you want to be?  One held in place by fear – or one who takes measured risks to step into more greatness?  

As I think about my situation in the square, with 35-50 people seeing me fight back and not coming to my aid, I can easily see how much easier it would be for a person to be overlooked and marginalized in a company when they are silently struggling, not physically seen and suffering without the support they need.  

In business, these awareness skills are more important than ever, since leaders are often feeling like they are building a plane while flying it, which understandably leads to more reactivity and fear.  Additionally, with more remote working arrangements, leaders need to be more proactive in digging for truths and building relationships. With discernment and awareness, we can move beyond FEAR and autopilot to thoughtful, sage action – seeing possibilities right in front of us. 

When we adapt AND move beyond FEAR in each moment, we also find new opportunities emerge. 


How workforce needs to Evolve

The World Economic Forum stated in its 2018 Future of Jobs Report that “in order to truly rise to the challenge of formulating a winning workforce strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, businesses will need to recognize human capital investment” and by 2022 human skills—such as emotional intelligence, creativity, leadership and social influence—will significantly increase in importance.  The more recent 2020 edition underscores this, warning of even more major shifts by 2025 due to COVID-19 disruption and job losses due to increased automation.

When businesses help their people bolster emotional intelligence skills, which begins with a foundation of awareness, they will be able to lead with more positive impact, innovation and growth.  And they can create the psychological safety needed for teams to thrive.

I’m inspired by this quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”   

We can evolve based on preferences, and when we show up and do things we didn’t think we could do, we find we become a person who does those things.  That’s survival of the SAGEST.  Going beyond survival to thriving as human beings. 

Whether you’re in a town square, or in the workplace or at home, I invite you to ponder this to grow from surviving to thriving: What’s more important to YOU than fear?  

Stephanie Klein is a keynote speaker, author, executive coach and certified teacher of the Search Inside Yourself (SIY), mindful based emotional intelligence program.  She is passionate about igniting leaders’ untapped potential to propel beyond functional to optimal in a complex, changing world. In 2020, Stephanie founded Mindfire Mastery to support overstressed professionals navigating change – helping them “fire up minds” to build mental strength and resilience, so they can shift from burnout to balance, igniting greater productivity, relationships and wellbeing.  She is the author of “Waking Up on the Right Side of Wrong”, to be published in 2022, about how challenging, disruptive experiences can transform our life trajectories in positive ways. To stay connected and learn more about how she can support you, contact Stephanie@mindfiremastery.com.

Stephanie Klein, MBA, CPC, ELI-MP

MindFire Mastery


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