Anti-Fragile You

Before we begin, I prefer to be interesting to being correct. It’s a sort of anti fragility, yeah?

OK let’s go.

What is Anti Fragility?

Anti Fragility is the property of things that become stronger with disturbances that could be expected to do damage, be absorbed or shrugged off. Example would be a rock, a china cup and a muscle. Rocks just absorb stress, muscles get stronger with the right amount of stress, nothing good comes from stressing a china cup.

Anti Fragile People

Humans have a lot of anti fragile properties. Just through living we’re crawling up the ramp against entropy – and while a broken bone won’t repair itself to be stronger than before, certain types of activity that would create wear on a machine, creates growth in us. Humans are not machines.

So in general bad stuff happens and we either end up worse, not bovvered, or we get stronger after getting weaker. There are activities and exchanges that are created by others to grind us down, things that just seem to align to grind us down, and the person who gives you a break, pointing the way to success out of a defeat.

I was expecting to write a list

Can we choose to engage in activities where we’re likely have the opportunity to learn from a potentially damaging failure? I had expected to write about all the things you could choose to do to be anti fragile. Lots of articles link being anti-fragile to being safe to fail – but it’s a lot more than that. To be anti fragile, you first need to be fragile. This hurts, it may not be fun, torn muscles, failed plans, stuff you don’t necessarily want for an easy life. Our brains will run acrobatics to make sure we’re the hero in our story, to make sure that we’re consistent, and it’s not us who needs to learn.

After starting a list of “things to do to be anti fragile” I realised the things on it were not really anti fragile. They seemed to be repeating the mistake of thinking anti fragile is just not putting all your eggs in one basket. Safe for things to fail, as long as one thing works. Like having a diverse portfolio, hedging your bets or just making sure you’re robust to total failure and using any excess resources to try to hit success.

Robustness confused with anti fragility

Anti fragility need fragility first. For exercise, running a marathon can kill you, and usually makes you really hurt. Lifting weights badly can permanently damage you. But exercise is also addictive, and done in moderation helps us become stronger, and take some small wins from entropy. Exercise is probably the most popular anti-fragile activity humans engage in.

We don’t even need to know this to exercise. We intuitively know we get better at running by running. And we get exercise happy drugs produced in our brain. But mental anti fragility is not the same. We really don’t like being shown how we’re wrong. We get “mental anti fragility feel bad drugs” instead that kick in enabling mental acrobatics of the “I’m not wrong, they’re wrong” type.

I wrote about “double loop learning” this time last year. Double loop learning is sometimes used to mean needing to figure out a new way of doing something. I think it’s more than that. It’s realising that your current knowledge is wrong, and is responsible for the problems you have. Anti fragility is getting out of this bind.

The paragraphs below show how opportunities to be anti fragile could show up. Opportunities to be mentally anti fragile don’t have to be taken. They are unlikely to be the easy option.

From “Metaphors in Mind” by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins p185

Onwards to the Lists

Here are the lists I’ve made.

Starting off with a list of things that could make you personally fragile

  • People questioning your beliefs
    • Often without stating theirs
    • Trying to make you angry
    • Making you do their fact checking
  • When you’re pitching your ideas without getting feedback on success or failure
    • You don’t know why you failed. You can’t improve
    • You don’t know why you succeeded. You dare not change.
  • When you have less Information, or an information imbalance
    • Getting in a law based dispute with a lawyer
    • You may be right, but they know the loopholes
  • A power imbalance
    • Like arguing on twitter with someone who has loads more followers than you
  • Being in debt
    • Not much good can happen here as an individual
  • Being a whistleblower
    • Again, not a successful career move
  • Being asked too many questions
    • Mental overwhelmed-ness
  • Being asked to explain something you’re learned to do automatically
    • Asking “how do you do that weird thing when you take penalties” to someone just before they step up to take a penalty.
  • Being hooked onto drama and the following brain state
    • Getting triggered, angry, and not being able to think
    • Half of the political establishment in the USA may be feeling this right now

So anti-fragility comes after these things, and because of these things. Anti-fragility means using what has harmed you to make you stronger. What might that look like?

  • Know your beliefs
  • Choose only work where you get feedback on success
  • Choose to play an infinite game
    • You play to continue playing, not to win
  • Recognise information imbalances
  • Recognise hooks onto drama

Hooks onto Drama

Learning to recognise hooks onto drama is interesting to me. Hooks onto drama are those conversations where escalations away from where understanding or learning is likely to occur.

Like in a job interview where you’re asked

Tell me a time when you have to solve a complicated problem?

And then, when you’re flushed with stories of success being asked

So, whose fault was that?

And you start to blame and persecute, because someones asked whose fault it was, and it would be rude not to continue the conversation in their chosen direction.

Anti Fragility has a Posse

Like hooks onto drama need someone else to wield the hook. Someone needs to do the mental heavy lifting to give you the opportunity to learn from fragility.

What would an “anti fragile you” look like?

Who helps you?

Who hooks you into drama?

What has to happen to make an “anti fragile you” happen?

This post was helped along by conversations and workshops at Northern Taste of Clean 2018 and Reimagine Work 2018. Thanks to everyone.

3 thoughts on “Anti-Fragile You

  1. swhitla

    Hi Mike, thanks for this. Anti-Fragile has been on my shelf for about two years … if it’s like this post then I’ll read it, if not then it will drop further down the list. What should I do?


  2. make10louder Post author

    Hi Steve,
    This is a bit of a different application of Anti Fragile, partly from discussions with Clean Language people. The book is really worth reading to get all the ideas in a Taleb style, but the Amazon reviews say it’s a bit long….


  3. swhitla

    Yes, I sense the Clean coming through! Interesting juxtaposition as it’s not the adjective you’d immediately jump to to describe Mr Taleb. The ideas are arresting but the style is, hmm, not very clean. I’ll keep it where it is in the order of priority



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