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Beyond resilience-how to live an anti-fragile life

Anti-fragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, offers a unique perspective on stress, uncertainty and resilience. I found it an inspiring and challenging read. In this article, I’ll define anti-fragility, then share 6 ideas that I will personally try to use to live a more anti-fragile life. Finally, I’ll offer some reflections on why I think it’s important to include a focus on compassion when considering anti-fragility as a philosophy of life.

What is anti-fragile?

When we think of the opposite of fragile, we tend to think of qualities of strength, robustness or resilience. But whilst the resilient and robust are able to withstand and bounce back from stressors, the anti-fragile actually benefits from them, just like our muscles grow stronger after strain and exertion. This same mechanism can be seen in many facets of life, and as Taleb puts it:

“The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what ininnovates”

In other-words, it is growth because of, not in spite of, our challenges.

How we make ourselves fragile

We live in an uncertain, ever-changing world. The anti-fragile thrives in such a context. But we have engineered systems, organisational structures and ways of living that depend on “things following an exact planned course, with as little deviation as possible” (p71). We have therefore made ourselves fragile to the inevitable yet unpredictable shocks, changes and disruptions that come our way.

Living an anti-fragile life

What does all this mean for how to thrive in a world that is uncertain and at times overwhelming?

  1. Use stress as information – in complex evolving systems, stressors provide vital clues about our environment so we can adapt accordingly and grow. This gives a meaning to stress as feedback with a message to be listened to, rather than something to be eliminated from life.

  2. Avoid chronic stress – the huge caveat to the point above is that it applies to actute (short-term) rather than chronic (ongoing) stress. The “drip, drip, drip” effect of constant low level stress is hugely destructive and keeps us feeling trapped.

  3. Make time to recharge – Taleb emphasises the importance of down time to recover after acute stress in order for the upsides of stress (growth) to be realised. How often do we just keep going rather than take a break? By telling ourselves we are too busy for self-care and rest, we are depriving ourselves of the chance to harness our anti-fragility.

  4. Pay attention – We make ourselves fragile when we don’t pay attention in the moment. Taleb tells us more people are killed at pedestrian crossings than when jaywalking. Why? The jay walker is paying attention. In Modernity, we have created a plethora of processes and procedures that we have become reliant on instead of using our “practical wisdom” and staying alert and attuned to our environment.

  5. Let time work in your favour – Taleb believes that we intervene too readily to try and problem solve and fix things that would do better without intervention. He cites examples of unnecessary back operations and prescribed medications that bring more harm than good. Taleb believes it would be wiser, in what he calls marginal cases, to allow time and nature to do their thing rather than getting in the way of a natural adaptive healing response. This applies not just at the physiological level but more generally. But it’s important to note Taleb is not against intervention in general (e.g. life saving surgery or climate change) but argues we need to get much smarter at recognising when it is and isn’t helpful to intervene rather than just acting on an impulse to “do something”.

  6. Embrace disorder – Taleb uses the ‘soccer mom’ and helicopter parenting as examples of how we can try too hard to organise and control life to generate the outcomes we want. Someone with this parenting style might have the best interests of their child’s development at heart, but by cramming life full of pre-planned activities, they are ensuring that:

“kids are totally untrained to handle ambiguity”

Taleb likens this to the expert weight trainer in the gym who gets hammered in a street fight. Instead of micro-managing our life or our children’s, Taleb suggests letting go of the reigns and rolling with the messiness and peaks and troughs of life – more like being an adventurer than a tourist. This means embracing boredom as much as the times of productivity and creativity.

Compassion – the missing ingredient?

In seeking to embrace anti-fragility, I think it’s important not to lose sight of being compassionate towards those who are struggling and, quite frankly, feel pretty fragile. Whilst I firmly believe that challenging life events can become catalysts for growth (given time and support), I also know that when I’ve been in the midst of a painful experience, I’ve just needed to go through it, with the gentle, loving care of others. It’s only been in hindsight I have been able to see how difficult events have led to growth. Also, there is a danger of getting so pleased with our anti-fragility during the good times that we lose sight of a key point of Taleb’s – that anti-fragility is systemic – part of an evolving ecology of interconnectedness rather than a life hack for a super-human individual. Also, anti-fragility is not an antidote to pain and suffering. It’s not an armoured vest that elevates you above the trials and tribulations of life. The dark nights of the soul will still be dark until the dawn. Finally, let’s have compassion for ourselves for those times when we do get stuck in unhelpful patterns that keep us fragile. After all, we are just trying to feel safe by over-controlling. From a place of self-compassion, we can develop healthier and more anti-fragile habits without giving ourselves a whole load of judgement and self-criticism in the mean time.

Sarah Taylor, PhD

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Elaine Carnegie