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The Adaptation Advantage: Radical New Ways to Think About Career and Purpose


Heather McGowan’s Keynote speech to kick off SCUP 2022 was a call to radical action for higher education leaders. In making the call, she drew on her book The Adaptation Advantage. The actions she believes are needed include:

  1. Understand how the various “Great R’s” confronting societies -Resignation, Retirement, Resentment, Reshuffle, Reallocation, and Reset - reflect profound misalignment between current models of learning, work, and careers and the emerging needs brought into sharp focus by COVID.

  2. Move beyond post-pandemic malaise and attempts to return to the old normal, which cling to outmoded norms and assumptions about learning, work, and social/cultural needs.

  3. Seize opportunities made possible by: - The acceleration of the pace of change and adaptation on all fronts; - Technology, which generates opportunity everywhere; - The rapid redefinition of culture and social norms; and - The emerging work, learning, and knowledge ecosystem which is transforming to reflect the realities of the adaptive world.

  4. Capitalize on these opportunities to open the flood gates to full human potential by rethinking our preconceptions about work, leadership, and meaning. McGowan strongly recommends that we let go of our attachment to rapidly fading ideas about careers and what a “good job” looks like

Her bottom line: Discover new ways to think about careers, let go of the current concept of occupational identity, and enable faculty and staff to achieve greater purpose and meaning in their learning, work, and living. McGown calls this “letting go and learning fast to thrive.” Activating purpose and meaning will motivate greater learning, engagement, and empowerment. Embracing perpetual, continuous learning over extended careers will come with a twist: rather than learning to work, they will utilize working to learn continuously.


These leaps will require leaders and learners to cultivate agile mindsets and appreciate the joys of learning and adapting to new approaches that enable them to let go of current, rigid career identities. Strong, enlightened leadership will be critical to attaining the adaptation advantage, both in higher education and in all other industries that will need to compete in a world “Adapting at the Speed of Change.”


Research Based, Understanding Accelerating Change, and a Clear Vision of the Future


These are radical solutions, but they are based on sound research and vision. They are essential to meeting the challenges of our turbulent, accelerating world and the need for rapid adaptation as described by Thomas Friedman in Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to the Age of Accelerations. He refers to Heather McGowan as “the oasis when it comes to the future of work.” McGowan’s cultural analysis of the different realities experienced by Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z’s persuasively explains why merely extending definitions of work and meaning that worked for Boomers will not create prosperity and fulfillment for Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, and the generations to follow.

McGowan’s keynote, The Adaptation Advantage (coauthored with Chris Shipley), and Friedman’s ideas also reinforce our findings about the accelerating pace of change described in Transformation for Turbulent Times: An Action Agenda for Higher Education Leaders.

These findings include:

  1. Institutions need to “think in the future tense” and actively prepare today’s learners for the combination of continuous learning and the changing nature of work they will face in the knowledge, work, and learning ecosystem that will emerge by 2030 – or before. Institutions like Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University are consciously articulating and pursuing such strategies now.

  2. Colleges and universities have significant opportunities for growth in the adaptive learning future. Capitalizing on these opportunities will require them to provide active learning fused with work over careers spanning 60 years or more. In addition, institutions will have to come to grips with changes in the roles and responsibilities of faculty and staff. This will require recalibration of current practices and activation of new senses of purpose and meaning, appropriate to the adaptive future. Partnerships with other learning enterprises will be required to make this new learning a reality.

  3. The reinventions and transformations required to achieve #1 and #2 will demand that institutions develop the capacity to “adapt at the speed of change.” Leadership will need to launch serious transformation campaigns that engage large cross sections of the campus in discovering and co-creating the new roles, perspectives, and senses of purpose and meaning, suitable to the new world of 2030.

A Commitment to Transformation is Essential to Achieving the Adaptation Advantage


We suggest the following eight-step process, described at the recent SCUP 2022 Annual Meeting. These steps are essential to manage and leverage the transformations needed to usher in the adaptation advantage in the Age of Accelerations.



Adaptation without a strategic, institution-wide plan is merely aspiration. In transformational times, it’s imperative that higher education is not left behind. Learn more about these processes in our new book and on our website.