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HER take on adapting to change: A conversation with UI professor Beth Livingston

Being agile — or able to adapt to change — has suddenly become a crucial skill for most of us in the wake of the pandemic crisis. Beth Livingston, University of Iowa Tippie College of Business assistant professor, said companies have used this word for years, especially when hiring new employees. “It’s a buzzword, but rarely do we sit down and think about what it really means,” she said.

Now, with so many shifting priorities and changing work environments, Livingston said company leaders have been forced to reckon with this concept and whether they’re truly able to be agile.

“If you’re hiring people based on this concept, you should expect them to try things and fail sometimes,” she said. This is particularly true when everyone has been thrown into a challenging situation. Livingston said company leaders should still be open to failing, adapting and changing.

“The concept doesn’t change even when the cost of failure is high,” she said.

Livingston acknowledges that it might be easier to have this mindset in academia, where learning and evolving are part of the job.

“My entire career is built on thinking I might know more tomorrow than I do today.”

With so many things that are hard to control, it might be useful to embrace a little bit of this “academic” attitude, rather than barreling through, doing the same things you’ve always done. “We’re all forced to be adaptive right now. It’s okay to be wrong and pivot,” she said.

Taking a moment to acknowledge all the ways you’ve already adapted to adversity might be helpful, too. Livingston said it’s hard for people to give themselves credit for all the ways they’re adjusting.

On her recent wedding anniversary, she took a moment to reflect on how much her family has weathered over the years.

“I’m not normally nostalgic, but we thought about all the changes we’ve been through. Some of them hurt in the moment, but we adapted,” she said.

Recently, Livingston has dealt with plenty of changes at work, but for her, the changes to her social life are more difficult.

“I’m super social — work problems seem more easily solvable than finding a way to hug loved ones,” she said. She isn’t the biggest fan of Zoom, which she said doesn’t offer the same interpersonal connections as the lunches she used to enjoy with co-workers in the university dining halls. To try to replicate some of the social aspects of her work life, Livingston and a colleague came agreed to call each other (rather than go through the rigmarole of arranging a Zoom meeting) any time during the day they want to discuss a few things — much like what they used to do by popping into each other’s offices.

Livingston also has focused on establishing boundaries between work and home to help her cope with all the changes. It’s one of the topics she covers in the YouTube videos she’s been filming since the quarantine began.

“The commute, the physical space — those can be important triggers to tell you what role you’re in and what the role requires,” she said. With everyone who calls her “professor” on the other side of a computer screen, her way of switching into her “work” role is by setting specific hours for focusing on projects. “My physical space is so flexible that I need my time to be rigid,” she said.

Trying to stay present in the moment is one other small thing that helps her.

“I’m not making mile-long checklists; I’m just trying to take a step forward every day,” Livingston said.

Quotes on adapting to change:

“Sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a man in the process of changing.” ― Brandon Sanderson

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” — Stephen Hawking

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road … unless you fail to make the turn.” — Helen Keller

Books on adapting to change:

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath, Dan Heath

Activate Your Agile Career: How Responding to Change Will Inspire Your Life’s Work by Marti Konstant

Adaptability: How To Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For by M.J. Ryan

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