Antifragility: Growing Through What You Go Through

We have all seen those boxes with signs saying that something ‘fragile’ is being carried, and hence to ‘handle with care.’

We have heard about being resilient and being unaffected by change.

Now, have we heard of antifragile?

Consider fragility, antifragility and robustness as a spectrum. So first, let us see fragility. We are generally aware of what ‘fragility’ or being fragile means; it implies that things/phenomena need to be handled with care. Any unnecessary interruptions, disorder, disruption or chaos is likely to destroy anything fragile. A real world example is, say, someone who follows everything to the T; even a slight change in the rulebook is likely to throw them off the guard and they are unlikely to adapt well

Now, robustness. One would assume the opposite of fragile would be ‘robust’, which implies the phenomenon does not get affected by any intervention, uncertainty, chaos or disorder. A robust mindset implies someone who does not get affected by any disruptions or changes in the situation; sometimes that works great as resilience, and sometimes, it could translate negatively into stubbornness or rigidity of thoughts. 

But another ‘option’ for the opposite of fragile is antifragile; it implies anything or anyone who actually works great under pressure, chaos, change or disorder. So, someone who has an antifragile mindset is not merely resilient, they actually find ways to grow and develop their skills through the uncertain chaotic situations. It’s like that trait where a pressing deadline or a stressful situation actually pushes someone to do the job much more creatively and with great results. 

Antifragility is a concept expounded by Lebanese-American mathematician, statistician and former option trader Nasssim Nicholas Taleb in his famous book ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’. In the book, Taleb lays out his theories of how to deal with an uncertain world. He draws this from the concept of Black Swan, which he defines as ‘large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequences’, in his older book of the same name.

(Large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequences. Does that not sound familiar?)

As Taleb sees it, we overestimate our ability to predict with the fancy statistical tools and all the data, and when the something uncertain actually does happen, systems tend to collapse. The solution? Develop antifragility.

Greg Wymer succinctly puts this in context of entrepreneurship:

While each specific entrepreneurial journey requires different skills and competencies, one thing they all share is the need to operate under uncertainty and ambiguity. Succeeding and staying sane throughout the chaotic entrepreneurial process necessitates an antifragile mindset –- one that “improves” as a result of this volatility.

To sum up antifragility in Taleb’s words:

“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.

Although the term might sound new, the concept in itself has been around us all this time, especially during the pandemic. We see how offices made the best of WFH, thinking of ways to keep the employees engaged; we see how everything that had been carried out offline, from interviews, recruitments, to meetings shifted online, and in no time developed everything into what is now called the ‘new normal’. We were not only resilient, we actually found a way to thrive under the uncertainty. That is antifragility.

Now that we know the actual word for this attitude that a lot of us developed over these months, is it possible to develop such a mindset consciously? We will delve into two ways where we can (and may or may not have used antifragility without realising), one on a psychological level and another on an entrepreneur/professional level, both being closely related.  

The Psychological Level:

Developing an antifragile mindset at the psychological and emotional level doesn’t imply quitting our certain level of emotional fragility that naturally comes with being human, nor does it mean to accept things as they are with a sense of resignation and resentment. Rather, it implies accepting the things are not the same, and that it is necessary to think of new ways of implementing new methods, rather than using the new methods in old ways. Controlling the pandemic is out of hands, but controlling how we let the changes in the situation affect us is in our control.

Entrepreneur/Professional Level:

Drawing on what Greg Wymer lists out, antifragility for entrepreneurship and/or in the professional sphere can be developed consciously by:

Maintain a bias toward learning and personal growth, instead of financial success: It all comes to down to having a growth mindset, where every step, good or bad, every endeavour, irrespective of whether it ‘reaped a reward’ or not is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. That is a major way to thrive, no matter what the situation is.

Keep your eyes open when you’re getting punched in the face: Building on the previous point, grow from the discomfort that comes with difficult situations by paying attention to what exactly bogged you down, and finding ways to deal with it rather than focusing on the discomfort in itself.

Develop the ability to flow with randomness: Remember the concept of antifragility itself and have a perspective that the universe is conspiring you to provide learning from each situation, regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant it is.

Follow an approximate direction, not a detailed roadmap: Building further on the previous points,treat each obstacle as a new potential path forward, and think in terms of following a system rather than following a goal. To elaborate a bit on the latter, working within an antifragile, growth mindset would be the system and also the goal, allowing one to be flexible when the objective goal itself is thwarted.

The thing with the pandemic or any difficult situation is that it all comes back to a similar lesson: grow through what you go through. It all might sound repetitive, with the same tone of motivation. But an awareness about the concept of antifragility will help us harness our power to be flexibly resilient in a manner that frees us from the rigid standards of what success and growth mean.