Adaptation, Semiotics, and Being Cool with Things

My awareness of adaptation began in Mr. Johnson’s 6th grade class. Here’s the rub tho: I was a fresh but asynchronously promoted 5th grader who, after exhaustive testing, administrators felt belonged there for most of my core subjects rather than with my 4th grade peers who I’d just gotten to know.

I may have been ahead in some ways intellectually but I was way behind emotionally. I dunno that I’d ever felt more alone up until that point.

In any case, this degree of change, unbeknownst to me at the time, required a great deal of adaptation. Being smart in school was not sexy then like it is now. Parents like to brag about their smart kids but they rarely see and they’ll never share the down sides. Not their fault but it needs to be said.

I remember those days well: my new new teacher, Mr. Johnson, was built like he represented the Lollipop Guild, HUGE sideburns and all, and abruptly launched into a passionate lecture on the concept of adaptation. Using chimpanzees as context, specifically how they never sleep in the same place twice, he described how chimps make a new bed for themselves every night and how this is fascinating. It is. He went on at length to help those of us in class imagine what that would be like. He said this a lot:

It’s all about what you get used to.

While I sat there listening to Mr. Johnson tell his stories about chimps and adaptation, I played with a small, red stapler that said GIANT on it in big, white letters. Before he began, it had run out of staples and I needed one to bind one of my completed assignments with. I had already reloaded it with one of those bound stacks of small staples but continued to futz with it. It was splayed open like a Swiss Army knife as I listened. As I got more and more into what he was saying, I paid less and less attention to what I was doing.

Suddenly, at one point, I pressed the stapler back together, closing it on itself with a kerchunk, putting a staple squarely into the center of my thumb. It happened so fast, as I was so engrossed with Mr. Johnson’s propositions, I hardly felt it.

exclamation point as a traffic signMr. Johnson was talking about signs now, traffic signs, specifically, and how new signs have little or no power or effect mostly because they have not been looked at much yet. People, drivers, have not had time to adapt the new signs into their collective memory yet and so they are likely to be ignored.

He continued that there are countless examples wherein the average driver overlooks many details, which is why signs are more often symbols than words. Symbols are more noticeable, memorable and powerful. Easier to adapt to, in the context of integrating their existence into a driver’s memory and more powerful in their descriptions of the information they are attempting to effectively transmit to the greatest number of drivers.

There is no way I could have known that my professional life would one day touch marketing and advertising, where symbols of all kinds are indeed everything. In those early days, as my career only began to careen up and down the corridors of branding and positioning, engineering and digital content, I learned quickly that this holds true across all contexts.

As Mr. Johnson went on with his presentation, I looked at the ends of the staple through my thumbnail. I could see them clearly. My instinct was to pull it out.

Instead, I paused and thought about adapting to having it in my thumb. What challenges would it really present? Beyond the obvious, such as infection, etc, I imagined what it would be like to tie a shoe with a staple in my thumb, wash my hands, the potential discomfort of grabbing things tightly, such as climbing a rope, and the pain I may have to adapt to. The staple remained in my thumb for the duration of Mr. Johnson’s lecture.

I did not want to pull it out for two reasons:

1. I knew it was a puncture wound. I did not want to bleed like a stuck pig and have to excuse myself from his class and miss out.
2. I was already on everyone’s radar as a misfit for being moved up a grade and drawing more attention to myself was the last thing I wanted to do.

Instead, I waited patiently. I calmly listened to the lesson on adaptation even as I sat there, adapting to injury, working against my instinct to do otherwise.

I quickly understood that urgency is often a product of conditioning.

I imagined letting the staple become a part of me. It would not kill me. It probably would not even affect me enough to impact my overall quality of life. I sat there wondering what urgency means in other parts of the world.

staplesIt’s all about what you get used to.

Wherever you are now, Mr. Johnson, thank you for illustrating those ideas for me in that time and place. It was one of the most memorable lessons ever. It was powerful. As I was learning about adaptation in theory, I was applying it in real time.

Mr. Johnson, there’s no way you could have known it but your lesson was more successful than you ever imagined. As it unfolded, in real-time I was introduced to being more aware of myself and my instincts. I learned to be more mindful of choices, adaptation and, as a result, I’m slightly more aware of what I’m getting used to whether stapling myself, listening to someone’s proposition or – reading the signs.

Thank you. No small thing.