Are you stuck deciding whether to stay put in life or move ahead? Perhaps you’re afraid that trying and failing might break you. In other words, you feel fragile. But you can be the opposite — you can be antifragile.
Antifragility is a mindset that embraces shocks, challenges and failures as opportunities to grow and get stronger. With an antifragile mindset, you’ll have tools for pushing through blocks and opening yourself up to new risks.
What Is Antifragility?
Antifragility is a concept that coaches and other people who do transformational work often observe. For a long time, though, they didn’t have a name to really capture it.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb came up with a name for this idea: “antifragility.”
Here’s what Taleb says about antifragility in his book on the topic, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder:
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
Antifragility is a powerful orientation for us to stand in. As Taleb highlights, all forward progress has its roots in antifragility. He points out a number of examples:
- Delicious recipes
- Technological advancements
- Political revolutions
- Evolution of species — including our own
My little list here only scratches the surface of the extensive catalog that Taleb includes in the prologue of his book. But the point remains that when antifragility is at work, progress can happen.
Antifragility is a stance of being able to alchemize anything that occurs and turn it into fuel. It’s a particularly resourceful mindset of periods of transformation or “hardship.”
Antifragility in the Body
When I think about antifragility, an example from the human body comes to mind. It helps me distinguish between the ideas of resilient, fragile, and antifragile.
Our bones are resilient. They are strong, can take a lot, and don’t break easily.
Our skin is fragile. It doesn’t take much to cut or damage it.
But our muscles are antifragile. We expose our muscles to stressors when we go to the gym and work out. The soreness that we experience afterward is the feeling of them rebuilding stronger than they were before. We tear our muscles to make them grow back stronger.
That’s the essence of antifragility. It happens when things are damaged or exposed to stress of some kind, and they come back stronger than they were before.
In fact, when you think about it that way, even bones and skin have elements of antifragility to them. If you break a bone, as it heals, it becomes stronger in that particular spot. It’s less likely to break there again.
Your skin may develop calluses or scar tissue in the areas that experience wear and tear.
Antifragility is built into the world around us. In many ways, antifragility is a rather ubiquitous concept; so many things are already operating according to that model. And you can choose to stand in that mindset, too.
Fragile vs Antifragile Mindsets
Do you ever deal with any of these blocks in your life?
- Fear of failure
- Fear of rejection
- Having trouble pulling the trigger on something
- Worrying about how things will wind up
- Feeling uncertain about opening up in a relationship
If so, you’re not alone. Those are common blocks or limitations that people experience.
Antifragility is a mindset that can be incredibly useful for getting through those blocks.
When you have an antifragility mindset, you’ll know that, no matter what happens, you can use the experience to become stronger.
Antifragility is underpinned by a foundation of beliefs that allow you to take risks in life and experiment. That lets you engage with life and uncertainty in a new way.
You can become detached from the outcome of it all. Your mindset says, “Whatever happens, I’m going to take this lesson and use it for growth. I’ll become a better version of myself — a more loving heart, a more open person, a wiser individual — regardless of where this goes. Therefore, I’m going to take action and move forward in the direction that I want.”
Ego at the Fulcrum
Coaches often see antifragility happening when clients are able to get out of their own way. In other words, they put their egos aside.
That allows them to be moved by something bigger. They realize that what goes on outside of them doesn’t speak to their worth. Their value in the world doesn’t depend on what goes on around them.
A fragile mindset occurs when someone interprets everything about life as meaning something about who they are on a deep, fundamental level. That’s the mindset that a child has: “Dad gets angry, and it’s because I’m broken” or “Mom left, and it’s because I’m worthless.”
Adults can fall into this same line of thinking: “This business failed, and it’s because there’s something fundamentally wrong with me.”
When that is your mindset, you are putting your ego at the fulcrum of meaning. You create a fragile state of mind that insulates you in an unproductive way. It holds you back from taking risks because you feel that there’s so much more at stake than just a new experiment or behavior that you’re trying. You believe that your very identity is on the line.
A self-focused obsession in which you make everything mean something about yourself leads to a fragile mentality.
Video Games and the Ego
Video games give us a great model for understanding this concept of the ego.
In a game, you’re playing a character. You’d think it was ridiculous to identify with the character that you’re playing in the game, right?
You’re not the character; you’re the player of the game. You don’t actually possess the same skills and abilities that the character has. The character’s stats don’t apply to your life.
In video games, you fail a lot. You run up against challenges, and you defeat them until you can figure out how to move through them. But it’s not you failing; it’s the character.
We can relate this to our experience with a fragile mindset. We can start to make failures into our identity. When something happens that doesn’t produce the results we were looking for, we map that back onto ourselves.
We build our understanding of our identity around that particular moment in time.
Antifragility and Success in the World
Antifragility has a lot to do with achieving what we consider success in the world.
Success is usually defined as achieving what you set out to do.
When you’re trying to succeed at something, the path tends to follow the same sort of meta-model:
- You identify what it is that you want to do.
- You try and fail (unless you’ve already done something close enough to it in the past that makes success a near-certainty).
- You keep trying and failing.
- You develop skills in the process.
- You keep going until you no longer fail.
Success is equal to failed attempts plus one. That is what the path to success looks like. You move through all the failed attempts in order to get to success.
Unfortunately, it’s tempting to say, “I’m only going to try if I can be sure.” We want a surefire way to get success, and we’re resistant to “failing.”
We ask, “How can I succeed without risking failure?” But when we do that, we are missing the essence of it all. The path to success is paved with failure.
Think about lottery winners. Within five years, the vast majority of them go back to being as poor, if not poorer, than they were before winning the lottery.
Why? It’s because they didn’t actually succeed. They just got lucky. They didn’t travel along that path of trials and failures before reaching success, so they didn’t develop the financial skills for handling a large amount of money wisely. It’s challenging to hold onto success when you don’t achieve it through a process of trial and failure.
An antifragility mindset is about changing your relationship with what the path to success looks like.
Antifragility and the Scientific Approach
Being antifragile is like having the mindset of an experimenter.
Is a scientist failing when they’re running experiments? No. They’re just doing experiments. As they switch up the variables, different results are produced, but none of them are failures.
The experimenter is sitting with a lens of observation and curiosity. Their whole identity isn’t tied up into it.
They approach the subject with openness. They allow themselves to see the data in the clearest way that they can. They analyze the data, see what’s working and what’s not working, and then take action accordingly.
The experimenter doesn’t necessarily feel like a failure just because something didn’t happen the way they wanted or expected.
Antifragility and Language Development
Think about when kids are learning to speak. Learning to talk before you have any language seems a little like trying to build a plane while you’re flying, doesn’t it? But that’s the way it goes.
So with kids, they first piece together what they think words are meaning. Then they try to repeat things that they’ve heard other people say. Of course, they make plenty of mistakes along the way.
Friends or family members say, “What are you saying? Point to it. Oh, ‘fence’? Yes, that’s a fence!”
It takes someone who’s already a master of the language to show that child the way. Once another person hears the child say something the wrong way, they can guide them to the correct pronunciation.
If the child never tried to use the word aloud, then no one would ever correct it. The child would hold onto the mispronunciation forever.
The actual utterance, the failure, is an essential step in learning to take on a new experience that leads to growth. It’s not despite the failure that kids learn language; it’s directly because of it.
This is how we develop any skill that we ever have. Anytime you’re exposed to somebody who’s learning something, you can watch them failing their way to success. It’s not that they’re handling failure on their way to success. It’s that they’re paving the road to success with failure.
Antifragility and Uncertainty
An antifragility mindset involves developing a new relationship with uncertainty. In fact, it involves welcoming uncertainty into your life.
Jordan Peterson talks about this as the zone of proximal development. It’s the line between order and chaos. You’re in a place where you’re in the known, and then you venture into the unknown — but you don’t go so far outside that it completely blows you into pure chaos and disintegration.
There’s a place between order and chaos. There, you are accepting and inviting uncertainty so that you can metabolize it.
You can continue to develop a relationship with uncertainty in which it’s exciting and an adventure, rather than something that’s terrifying and has you white-knuckling your way through.
In the process, you’ll want to allow yourself more uncertainty around who you are. You’ll allow yourself to be surprised by what you might be capable of or how you’ll show up in a new context that you create.
Trying to protect your identity from uncertainty limits transformation and growth.
Sometimes, for example, we assume that confidence is a prerequisite for taking action. We think, “Oh, if only I were a little more confident, then I could do that thing.”
But what if you let yourself be more uncertain about your identity? If you didn’t box yourself in as an unconfident person? If, rather, you just went ahead and took that action, not knowing what would happen?
Taking courageous, uncertain action can develop your confidence. Because no matter what happens, you’ll survive it. You’ll gain more experience in the world. You’ll become a little bit more antifragile.
That’s what can take place when you’re willing to hold your identity with a sense of uncertainty and allow yourself the opportunity to grow.
Antifragility in the Face of Devastation
How does antifragility apply when something devastating happens, and you just don’t know where you’re going to go from there?
- Your spouse has died.
- You’ve lost your job.
- The stock market has crashed.
How can you adopt this mindset of antifragility around things that are just devastating?
One thing to remember is that calling something a devastation is a judgment. It’s one interpretation of reality. It would certainly fit and align with how most people would talk about the situation.
But the fact of the situation and the devastation aren’t necessarily the same thing. The devastation is in your thinking about the situation.
Let’s say that you have friends who have invested in the crypto space, and a market crash has caused them to lose 90% of their money. They’re on vacation, though, so they’re not aware that they’ve just lost 90% of their assets. They simply don’t know.
Are they devastated by it? If they don’t know about it, then they can’t be devastated by it. So it’s not the thing itself that is devastating. Rather, the devastation is tied to knowing about it.
So we can understand that we are forming opinions about these things that we call devastating. Yes, they sound true and real. Most people would agree with you: “Yep, that’s devastating.” But it is our thinking about it that makes it devastating.
Everyone has an infinite number of interpretations of things available to them. Devastation is just one of them. Acceptance is another.
Even antifragility is just an interpretation of reality that we can choose. It’s just an opinion, a thought about the world.
If we think antifragility might be resourceful for us and help us have more of the experiences that we are looking for in the world, then it’s the interpretation we can choose, no matter what is going on around us.
A Cautionary Consideration for Antifragility
One thing you may want to consider is that there may be some conditions in which antifragility occurs as a spiritual bypass for you. This doesn’t happen for everyone, but it might reflect your interpretation of the world.
You may feel that, rather than sitting with the devastation of an event and allowing yourself to get hit with the darkness of life, you’re trying to skip over the top of it and immediately put a positive spin on things. You aren’t giving yourself the space to engage with the darker experiences of life.
For you, perhaps it’s better to think of the antifragility concept as a sequence of events. You can feel the shock and the devastation of an event. You can give room for, and even welcome, the emotions that come with it.
Antifragility doesn’t require you to jump right to a standpoint of “I’ve gotta start looking for the opportunities in this right away.”
You can feel the sensations in your body. You can allow your system to reset. Perhaps you can even let yourself be completely annihilated by the experience.
The key is not to get stuck there. Rather, you’ll want to continue moving through it, almost like moving through the stages of grief.
The various stages, such as anger, sadness, pain, shock, and denial, may all be important for alchemizing the experience. From there, then you can ask, “How do I want to use this experience in my life as fuel?”
In other words, you can chew the experience first, rather than swallowing it whole.
(If this doesn’t reflect your interpretation of the world, that’s okay. Some people want to get into the depth and darkness of the human experience in order to alchemize. Others want to evolve past the darkness and use it only as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of the spiritual realm. Both of those are just choices about the interpretation that we make about the story of reality. Neither is better or worse than the other. You are the human who gets to decide how you want to interpret things.)
Metaphors for an Antifragility Mindset
We’ve looked at multiple metaphors so far to help us understand what’s involved in an antifragility mindset:
- The human body
- A scientist performing experiments
- A baby learning to talk
Since metaphors are such a powerful means of understanding the world, let’s wrap up this discussion by considering just a few additional metaphors and perspectives. These examples may help you better understand what it’s like to live according to an antifragility mindset.
- Tears — Instead of looking at crying as an indication that something is wrong, you can look at crying as releasing toxins.
- Phoenix — When devastating failure or loss happens, you can think of it as one stage in a cycle of death and rebirth, like the phoenix rising from the ashes.
- Wattage — Having experiences that overwhelm you or blow you out is testing your system’s elasticity. It upgrades your capacity to handle more wattage of life.
- Calluses of the Spirit — Perhaps when experiences seem that they’re going to break or damage you, it’s an opportunity to develop calluses of the spirit.
- The Whisper of the Universe — When something is not going as expected or according to your preferred timeline, it’s an opportunity to ask, “What is actually wanting to happen that’s in service of me?” You can listen to what the whisper of the universe has to say.
- Trees — Every year, trees lose all their leaves and go into a dormant period of rest, but then they come back bigger the next year.
As Pema Chödrön said, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
Antifragility is a resourceful mindset that you have access to. It’s a tool you can use if it’s appropriate for the way you want to experience your reality.
To learn more, listen to me discuss antifragility with Clayton Olson in Episode 13 of The Shift to Freedom podcast.
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