When I utter the word “antifragile”, either I get a blank stare or I am met with, “Is that the LE SSERAFIM song?” (which it is, came out in 2022). While the K-Pop group might be rocking the charts, there’s a deeper meaning waiting to be explored. This term, popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2012 book “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,” goes beyond simple durability.

Think of it like this: A fragile vase shatters with a touch, while something antifragile actually benefits from stress and challenges. It gets stronger the more it’s pushed.

So, what does that mean for young professionals navigating the ever-changing landscape of their careers? This blog dives into the concept of antifragility and how you can leverage it to thrive under pressure, emerge stronger from setbacks, and build a career that’s anything but fragile.

Here’s the thing: I’m on this journey with you. I stumbled upon antifragility a year ago and I’m still figuring out how to fully embrace it. This blog is our chance to explore the concept together, learn how to leverage it in our careers, and hopefully, by the end, have a clearer roadmap (and maybe even find a community of fellow “antifragility seekers” along the way).

What is Antifragility?

Imagine a world where all swans were believed to be white, until explorers stumbled upon black swans in Australia. Black swan events are rare, unpredictable occurrences that have massive and often unforeseen consequences. These events challenge our assumptions and wreak havoc on systems, for e.g. Nobody knew our medical systems were so fragile until Covid happened or who knew Russia would really launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and only during the Auckland floods did we realise we were so unprepared to handle such rainfall.

That’s where the concept of “Antifagility” kicked in. Antifragile systems don’t just withstand stress or bounce back from setbacks, they actually benefit from challenges and pressure.  Think of a muscle that gets stronger with exercise – the more stress it’s exposed to, the more it adapts and grows. This is the essence of antifragility. Taleb uses the term “convexity” to describe this response as shown below:

In nature, there are many examples of systems that embody antifragility, meaning they benefit from stress and disorder. For example, exposure to germs and pathogens helps our immune systems to develop and become more robust.  Every time we fight off an illness, our immune system builds memory and becomes better equipped to handle similar threats in the future. This is also how vaccines work!

Another fascinating example from nature is forest fires. While uncontrolled wildfires can be devastating, low-intensity fires intentionally set through controlled burns or those occurring naturally play a crucial role in maintaining healthy ecosystems. 

Fire acts as a controlled stressor, clearing out deadwood and vegetation that can hinder new growth.  The heat from the fire can even trigger seed germination in certain plant species that have evolved to thrive in burned areas.  Additionally, fires release nutrients trapped in dead plant matter back into the soil, fertilising the ground for new growth.  This cycle of fire and renewal promotes biodiversity by creating a mosaic of burned and unburned areas, fostering a wider range of plants and animals.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this cycle is how it exemplifies the antifragile nature of forests. When fires occur within a healthy ecological balance, they contribute to a more fertile and resource-rich environment, showcasing the forest’s ability to benefit from stressors.

Pop culture or mythical stories examples:

  • Hydra, in Greek mythology, is a serpent-­like creature that dwells in the lake of Lerna, near Argos, and has numerous heads. Each time one is cut off, two grow back. So harm is what it likes. Hydra represents antifragility.
  • Wolverine (X-Men):
    Wolverine’s mutant healing factor exemplifies antifragility. Every time he’s injured, his body regenerates stronger.

Developing an antifragile mindset: Actionable takeaways

This may sound obvious but while eliminating all weaknesses from your life might seem like the path to antifragility, it’s actually an endless pursuit. A more effective approach lies in identifying and mitigating your dependencies, while also developing a mindset that allows you to think of adversity as an opportunity and seek to get better from it. So, in the first part, I outline some effective ways to help with identifying fragility in your life and in the second part, I discuss some strategies to build an antifragile mindset.

Note: I am in the same boat as you. My life is fragile in some aspects too and I am working towards getting better and slowly develop an antifragile way of life. This section is the tip of the iceberg and will give you a starting point I never had.

Identifying fragility: Self-reflection is key to understanding your vulnerabilities

Here’s how to get started:

  • Regularly examine your routines and systems. Don’t underestimate the power of your everyday routines! They silently sculpt who you are.

    Sometimes, habits form without us even noticing. To combat this, schedule regular check-ins with yourself to analyse your routines. Focus on four key areas: Personal Finance (are you spending mindlessly, or are you setting yourself up for the future with strong saving and investing habits?), Health (how would you rate your overall well-being, both physically and mentally? Do your energy levels stay consistent throughout the day?), Relationships (can you navigate conflict within your social circles? Do you feel comfortable having open and honest conversations without fear of judgement?) and Career (does your job bring you fulfillment? Are there opportunities for you to learn and grow within your current role? Do you have a life out of your job? Or is it taking too much from you?)

” We first make our habits, then our habits make us” – John Dryden.

  • Take a step back and assess your daily grind. Imagine yourself on a balcony, observing the flow of your typical day. Are you prioritising activities that move you forward (Quad I & II) or getting bogged down in less productive endeavors (Quad III & IV)? Many of us, myself included, initially found ourselves spending a surprising amount of time in Quad III & IV – endless calls, mindlessly scrolling social media.  In my case, Instagram was a major culprit.  Like many, I wasn’t even aware of how much time I spent lost in the endless scroll.  The key? Track your time! Just by becoming aware of how you spend your hours, you start limiting your usage. For me, setting an Instagram time limit through the app settings proved highly effective.  Starting with just one hour a day and gradually reducing it to 30 minutes helped me regain control. Having said that, you can’t completely get rid of Quad III and IV, we are all humans and need some time to wind down and relax but becoming mindful allows you to optimise your day for greater productivity and reduce the need for late-night catch-up.

    The key is to spend a good chunk of every day doing Deep work (i.e important non-urgent work that will have a lot of long term impact)
  • Think about extreme situations in life. What if you were made redundant tomorrow?  Could you cope with a car accident or a natural disaster wiping out your belongings?  By pondering these extreme situations, you’re encouraged to take a long-term view and identify potential vulnerabilities.  This shift in perspective can lead to more resilient behaviours, allowing you to maintain your composure even in challenging circumstances.  For instance, establishing an emergency fund provides a safety net for unforeseen situations.
  • Watch out for intervention bias. Here’s my experience. I realised I was overeating, but only after I started tracking my food intake.  Embracing intermittent fasting, I initially lost a good few kilos.  Thinking this was solely down to the fasting, I upped the intensity and reduced portion sizes further.  However, my weight plateaued, and I started feeling weaker.  The truth?  It was a combination of factors – workouts, diet, good recovery – that led to the weight loss, not just the fasting itself. 

    So, if you identify a bad habit and want to change it, absolutely go for it!  But track your progress objectively.  Acknowledge your efforts, but be aware of other influences.  Slow progress shouldn’t discourage you – lasting change takes time.  Experiment with different approaches and seek feedback to discover what truly works for you.  By staying mindful of intervention bias, you can make sustainable changes and achieve your long-term goals.

Concurrent development of an Antifragile mindset

Identifying your vulnerabilities can be a valuable exercise, but it can get overwhelming at times as getting rid of bad habits and behavioural patterns is a tough task.

So you also need to change how you see the world. Developing your mental models alongside self-reflection is crucial. This way, you can learn to see your vulnerabilities as opportunities for growth, not roadblocks. Remember, change takes time. As you explore and refine your mental models, you might discover that your goals and values have evolved as well.

The following strategies, shared by many, can be a springboard for creating an antifragile system in your life. Think of these as tools in your personal toolbox. They can be used whenever required, but the goal is to build a way of life that works best for you and allows you to benefit from stress and disorder.

  • Using the difficulty : This is an acting concept that translates really well to real life. As Michael Caine (well known for his role as “Albert” in Christopher Nolan’s Batman) explains it in a video:
    Here’s an excerpt where he illustrates the moment of epiphany:

“I opened the door, and I said to the producer who was sitting out in the stalls, ‘Well look, I can’t get in. There’s a chair in my way.’

He said, ‘Well, use the difficulty.’

So I said, ‘What do you mean, use the difficulty?’

He said, ‘Well, if it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it. If it’s a comedy, fall over it.’”

Sir Michael goes on to say there’s never anything so bad where ‘using the difficulty’ can’t be applied. If we use it only a quarter of one percent to our advantage, then we’re ahead. We didn’t let it get us down.

Michael Caine’s philosophy, “Use the difficulty,” resonates well with the concept of antifragility. We can develop a “calloused mind” for calculated risks by constantly taking small leaps.  This doesn’t mean blindly jumping into the unknown. As Nassim Taleb suggests in “Antifragile,” focus on taking risks with limited downside – those that won’t leave you devastated. Learn from the failures of others to identify potential pitfalls and scope out risks for your own endeavors. This constant navigation of small challenges strengthens your ability to adapt and even thrive in the face of bigger obstacles.
Remember, antifragility is about taking risks that won’t break you, but ultimately make you stronger.

  • Develop a combination of abundance and growth mindset: Both these mindsets are like Yin and Yang of personal growth. An abundance mindset believes there are ample resources and opportunities for everyone to thrive. This fosters win-win relationships – viewing peers as collaborators, not competitors, and encouraging learning from each other. Consequently, setbacks become stepping stones, seen as opportunities for growth.
    On the other hand, a growth mindset celebrates personal victories and prioritises developing one’s ability to learn and improve through effort. It utilises competition and setbacks as fuel for self-improvement, viewing them as motivation to hone skills.

    Combining these mindsets creates a highly motivated individual. This person strives for self-improvement through effort while fostering resilient and antifragile communities through constructive relationships. They utilise a healthy dose of competition to test their abilities, and view setbacks as opportunities to refine their approach, akin to a hydra that grows two new heads every time you cut one off.

  • Create an alter ego. Todd Herman’s concept of the “Alter Ego” revolves around creating a resourceful version of yourself that you can channel when facing an adversity or a setback. In our daily lives, We naturally adapt our behaviour to different situations.  Think about how you interact with family versus colleagues – it’s like playing different roles, drawing on various aspects of yourself depending on the context. This aligns with Carl Jung’s theory on archetypes. Not that we fit in one of the twelve archetypes perfectly, more so that we borrow some characteristics from multiple archetypes when we are in different situations. Imagine a young professional struggling with presentations. Herman suggests creating a resourceful Alter Ego, a “work persona” embodying desired qualities like confidence and clear communication.  This persona, perhaps “The Power Presenter” or “The Strategic Thinker,” is designed to conquer specific situations. You define these characteristics, visualise yourself as this empowered persona, and practice their mannerisms, essentially unlocking hidden potential. A good example is Kobe Bryant’s Black Mamba. That was an identity Kobe created to excel at basketball while he was going through a lot of external crises such as sexual assualt case and personal issues. When he was the Black mamba, Kobe only thought about basketball and focussed solely on winning the game and performing at his best. Your alter ego acts like a shield towards our inner ego, against criticism, against everything else and it protects us. It lets you compartmentalise and bring your best self to work, leaving personal worries behind.

Read through Buster Benson’s excellent take on living an antifragile life. He discusses on life’s chaos monkey, that plays a vital role in breaking your routines, and throws a wrench at all of your plans. But loving the chaos monkey is the best way to thrive on controlled stress and use difficulties to become even stronger. Another interesting subject he discussed also leads to compartmentalisation of your brain and he calls it seven modes. 

” Everything in the universe goes through cycles. Cycles of high energy and low energy. Cycles of change and stability. Cycles of focus and distraction. We’re no different, but most of the time we are trying to force fit ourselves into a mode that we aren’t in, and that causes trouble.

There are seven modes that I think capture a good chunk of my own day to day states. “

Final Note: Embracing the Hydra Within

So, there you have it. We started this journey by acknowledging the limitations of the “fragile” approach to life. We explored the concept of antifragility, a philosophy that encourages us to thrive on challenges and grow stronger from setbacks. This journey of becoming antifragile is a continuous process. It’s about self-reflection, identifying weaknesses, and cultivating a mindset that embraces calculated risks and sees setbacks as opportunities.

This blog serves as a springboard for you to explore a whole new paradigm of growth and challenges. We explored actionable takeaways to get you started:

  • Identify fragilities: Regularly examine your routines and take a step back to assess your daily grind. Look for areas where you can become more efficient and identify potential vulnerabilities in your personal finance, health, relationships, and career.
  • Embrace the “Use the difficulty” approach: Don’t shy away from challenges. View them as opportunities to hone your skills and develop a “calloused mind” for calculated risks.
  • Develop a combined abundance and growth mindset: This fosters win-win relationships and utilises setbacks as fuel for self-improvement.
  • Create an alter ego: Channel a resourceful version of yourself to conquer specific situations.
  • Explore further: Dive deeper into resources like Nicholas Taleb’s book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” or Buster Benson’s blog on “life’s chaos monkey” and the “seven modes” to navigate the cycles of life.

Remember, I’m on this journey with you. This blog is a platform for us to explore antifragility together and learn from each other. Let’s turn challenges into opportunities and build careers that are not just resilient, but that actively thrive on disorder.

Hope you derived some value from this.

Thanks for reading. 

Peace out!

Follow me @Mohan Bettadpura for more updates!