What is the opposite of fragile? Most people would say robust. If a package marked "fragile" were dropped, it would be easily damaged. If a package that was robust were dropped, nothing would happen. But what about a package marked "antifragile, please drop"? This would be something that would get better if it were dropped. Is that a real thing?
In 2012, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a New York Times bestseller that challenged what I thought I knew about life and story. The book is called Antifragile, and it was the capstone to a theory that Taleb had been publishing since about 2001.
Taleb's first book, Fooled by Randomness, explained how we tend to mistake skills for luck and how randomness does not look random. The Black Swan was his next hit, in it, Taleb explained that high-impact but rare events (called Black Swan events) dominate history, and people retrospectively give themselves the illusion of understanding them thanks to narratives.
Finally, in Antifragile, Taleb places the icing on the cake by explaining that we live in a Black Swan world, meaning huge, unforeseen disasters are certain to happen but impossible to predict. And throughout history certain systems and organisms have survived, not just because they are robust, (meaning they can withstand certain stressors) but because they are Antifragile, they gain from some form of stressor- things like time, change, stress, debt or chaos. And that these antifragile systems have mostly shaped the world we know today.
What drew me in about Taleb's theory was the implications it has on people. Most people live as if we're fragile, trying to be robust. We avoid risk, mitigate stress, and just try to survive trials while pretending everything is fine. We look for comfort, and we search for easy. But if we live as though we're fragile, then we're doomed. Because the Black Swan events are coming in our lives.
James, the half-brother of Jesus famously said, Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
According to James we're not just supposed to accept trials, but to consider them pure joy! That's always been an odd piece of advice. I know many people that have been crippled by trials. Does this make them failures or just fragile? I think neither.
Most of us were taught to not be fragile, so we thought we had to be robust. We didn't want to break under trials, so instead, we tried to be unaffected by trials. But we're not fragile or robust. Trials do affect us. So, while we were trying to be robust and remain unaffected by trails, we were slowly being chipped away at. Weakened from the inside out because we were trying to be the wrong kind of strong.
Being robust doesn't cause us to reconcile with anything. If we're robust, once we've survived the storm we just move forward and don't think the past affects us.
What if everyone, instead, tried to be antifragile? When something happens, you don't push away any feelings, but instead, you own them and examine how you can move on and grow.
Being antifragile requires us to be vulnerable. To look back and examine things that have hurt us and put them under the light.
Humans are already antifragile, but nobody ever told us. The way we learn new skills, the way we build muscle, it's all from introducing low levels of stress. We don't get better when we remove all stress from our lives. Some stress is unhealthy; stress can destroy someone that doesn't experience it regularly. I can't walk into the gym and lift as much as someone who goes there every day. I can't take over a large company tomorrow and manage all the stress that comes along with it.
People might scoff at the idea of welcoming stress but gradual doses of stress might be just what we need. Maybe that's why James asks us to consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds. Maybe it's going to produce perseverance and maturity. Maybe it creates people who take ownership of the 90% they can't control by focusing on the 10% they can. Maybe James was trying to make us into Story Makers.