In his book “Antifragile”, Nassim Nichols Taleb explains how volatility, stress, and uncertainty can be powerful opportunities for growth. Things are either fragile, robust or antifragile. A glass is fragile, when dropped it breaks. A pillow is robust, when dropped it’s unfazed. But what can survive a fall and become stronger because of it? Maybe not a grandma ( even though mine would take falls like a pro wrestler) but definitely a toddler. Humans were made to fall, to fail, to go through the volatility of life and become stronger because of it. Let’s examine how we can become Antifragile in health, business, and relationships.
*Note – quotes are from the book “Antifragile” unless otherwise stated
How to become Antifragile in health
Nothing can be built without a solid foundation of health. Yet many people try to design their lives on shaky terrain. “Much of aging comes from a misunderstanding of the effect of comfort — a disease of civilization.” Comfort zones cause us to become fragile, unable to deal with the stresses of life.
In “The Coddling of the American mind” psychologist Jonathan Haidt illustrates how a parent’s desire to protect their children from discomfort weakens future generations. A mild allergen in a child can become life-threatening when completely avoided. But small exposures create immunity, making the body resistant to the allergen.
Unlike chronic stress, acute stress is beneficial. It triggers hormesis, our body’s antifragility mechanism. We can induce hormesis with any one of the following acute stressors:
- Taking a sauna.
- Taking an ice bath
- Exercising intensely
90% of health is subtractive.”Telling people not to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last sixty years”. Still, in western society, we believe in adding things such as supplements, to improve our health. Doctors are quick to prescribe and operate but we are better off if we “Avoid medical procedures and intervention unless absolutely necessary”.
”Random variability is often mistaken for information hence leading to intervention” such as a spike in blood pressure resulting in a drug prescription.
Psychiatric drug use is increasing but our mental health is deteriorating. To deal with the mental health crisis many people are turning to mindfulness. However unrealistic expectations can produce undesired effects.
“Psychologists have shown the irony of the process of thought control: the more energy you put into trying to control your ideas and what you think about, the more your ideas end up controlling you.”
Meditation is not about controlling your mind, it is about watching it. Learning to sit with uncomfortable mental states, creates an antifragile mind, one that is necessary for building an antifragile business.
How to become Antifragile in Business and Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship is risky but so is life. Corporate jobs project the illusion of security but can be riskier than starting a business. Narrow specialization leaves workers extremely fragile during volatile changes in the economy. That’s why it’s vital to acquire skills in multiple disciplines.
You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be antifragile but you do have to keep learning.
Eric Ries writes In The Lean Startup “You can’t take learning to the bank; you can’t spend it or invest it. You cannot give it to customers and cannot return it to limited partners. Is it any wonder that learning has a bad name in entrepreneurial and managerial circles? Yet if the fundamental goal of entrepreneurship is to engage in organization building under conditions of extreme uncertainty, its most vital function is learning.”
Testing your ideas, failing fast, and pivoting when necessary will make your business antifragile.
Don’t try to build the perfect business or perfect product. Create MVPs (minimum viable products) and let the market test them. Don’t hoard your creativity, share it with the world even if it isn’t perfect.
Many businesses try to use data to perfect their decision making. But data can cause us to draw false conclusions and over-inflate our confidence. “Providing someone with a random numerical forecast increases his risk-taking, even if the person knows the projections are random”. “For the antifragile, good news tends to be absent from past data, and for the fragile it is the bad news that doesn’t show easily.”
Entrepreneurship can be stressful but as Taleb writes ”The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates.” Embrace the stress as a natural part of solving difficult problems.
Many organizations rely on strategic planning to help them deal with the uncertainties of business. But ”Strategic planning is just superstitious babble.” It’s what the consulting industry uses to squeeze large chunks of change out of organizations without providing any positive change in return.
All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t plan. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said “No Battle was ever won according to plan, but no battle was ever won without one….Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. Plans can be helpful but only when combined with adaptability.
More important than the business plan are the people who execute on it. Who you choose to partner with can be even more significant than the idea behind your business.To create an antifragile business, partner with antifragile people.
How to become Antifragile in relationships
Embracing conflict is a prerequisite of antifragile relationships. Conflicts are the small shocks our relationships need to grow stronger.
The professor and psychologist Jordan Peterson says that conflict is a natural part of healthy relationships.It allows each party to express where they stand, and opens a path to finding a middle ground.”The avoidance of small mistakes makes the large ones more severe”. Learning to deal with small conflicts prepares us to deal with bigger conflicts. A relationship that avoids disagreement will inevitably meet a conflict it can’t handle.
In a recent interview, the Mathematician Hannah Fry further elaborates on this point.
“The people who have the best chance at long-term success are actually the people who’ve got really low negativity thresholds. They’re the people where if something annoys them, they speak up about it really quickly, immediately and address that situation right there and then. But they do it in a way where the problem is dealt with and then actually you go back to normality. So it’s couples where you’re continually repairing and resolving very, very tiny issues in your relationship. Otherwise, you risk bottling things up and then not saying anything”
To become Antifragile we must be willing to give and take criticism. We must surround ourselves with those that can see our blind spots. More important than finding positive influences is avoiding negative ones.”Keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.” At the same time we don’t want to burn bridges.
Sometimes our paths with people diverge but we never know when they may intersect again. Staying connected to a large network can be done with minimal effort allowing you to maintain infinite upside.Being well connected creates optionality in your life. It gives you opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t have. Develop both a wide network of contacts and a small circle of deep meaningful relationships.
Remember the false attribution bias, which states that we judge others more harshly than ourselves. To balance this natural tendency, hold higher standards for yourself than others.
You become antifragile when you embrace the natural current of volatility in life.
Instead of trying to avoid stress, discomfort, and uncertainty, you should learn to make them close friends.
Welcome them into your home.
Make them a cup of tea or perhaps dinner.
And send them on their way, knowing that when they return, you will be even stronger.