Adaptation: The case for professional versatility in a windy world

Written in stone

You may not normally look to prehistoric whales for career advice. But evolutionary science has lessons to teach about evolving in a tumultuous job market.

For 113 years following publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1859, most scientists adhered to a view of evolution best described as gradualism. Imperceptibly over millennia, our spines gradually straightened and we walked upright. Pines gradually came to develop cones and birds slowly grew feathers.

A whale is simply a hippo major who made a bold career move about 50 million years ago. Likewise, we can reinterpret ourselves and fashion new solutions to changing problems.

Then in 1972, paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge refuted not Darwinism but Darwin’s sense of steady, gradual evolution. In its place, the two described a theory of “punctuated equilibrium.” Gould wrote, “Lineages change little during most of their history, but events of rapid speciation occasionally punctuate this tranquility.”

Evolution isn’t the smooth and steady process we’d imagined. It’s unpredictable and jarring. Stable, then merciless. During stasis, species go about their work of living and reproducing, well-fitted to their steady environments. Then comes some tip, some trigger or tumult. Species feel the strain and are forced to repurpose the tools they have to a new set of rules.

Our professional lives go through the same punctuations—periods of stark change that require quick adaptations.

Domestic dogs evolved from wolves who figured out about 15,000 years ago that it was easier to eat by being nice to people than it was by being mean to elk. The whale took to aquatic life by jury-rigging its fingers into fins. And dandelions adapted to life in your yard by blooming low to the ground beneath your mower blade before quickly seeding out high to catch the wind. We are just as adaptable by nature.

The career advice to be found in the fossil record is that no role we play today is written in stone. A whale is simply a hippo major who made a bold career move about 50 million years ago. Likewise, we can reinterpret ourselves and fashion new solutions to changing problems. We can chart wildly new directions for ourselves as long as we have the necessary imagination, courage and resourcefulness.