Resilience won’t help. Antifragility will.

Photo by Abhishek Pawar on Unsplash

Photo by Abhishek Pawar on Unsplash

Here we are, halfway through the year. This is usually the time I would recommend reviewing your annual goals and checking in on your progress. But this isn’t a typical year (as you already know).

For the past several months, you’ve probably been in survival mode — a coping strategy that you can be in for only a limited time. You have likely begun shifting out of a survival mentality, but, if you’re like me, you’re not quite sure what to call this next stage of coping.

You may be thinking, “I’m resilient, I’ve been through tough times before… I should be able to manage this better.” But you feel unmotivated, bored (even with a lot to do) and feel a bit lost for how to get back on track.

Resilience isn’t enough. Resilience is about recovering, so you can essentially go back to normal.

Resilience works great when you experience a challenging event, but everything else around you essentially stays the same. For example, a job loss is tough, but resilience can carry you through until you find a new job. It may have rocked your world, but it didn’t rock the entire actual world. Basically, the rest of the world stayed the same and you were able to get back to normal after getting a new job.

But when the world is totally rocked with unprecedented change, our old tools and ways of managing won’t work. There is no getting back to normal — everything will remain changed.

What is needed now is a different way of engaging — an approach that is more robust than resilience.  We need a way forward that is long-term, healthier, and more vigorous. Basically, a way of being that is the opposite of fragile. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a word for this until Nassim Nicholas Taleb created the concept of Antifragile in his 2012 book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.

Taleb explains that “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors… Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

Antifragility isn’t about recovering or resisting failure (challenges); it’s about getting better because of failure and unexpected challenges.

Antifragility has been applied to many disciplines such as physics, medicine, engineering, and computer science. I recommend you apply this concept to yourself.

We live in a world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complex, and ambiguity), which means things are only going to continue to get wild and new. You have a choice:

  • You can see 2020 as a waste, a nightmare that you’re hoping to wake from, or a year to spend numbing out while drinking wine and binge-watching Netflix (been there, done that).
  • Or you can see 2020 as an opportunity to understand how you can grow and improve so you and our future can be much better than what it is right now.

A more developed way of thinking is critical for this VUCA world because our old way of thinking is what created these problems. To solve them, we need a new way, a collaborative way, because it will require all of us.

If you choose to open another bottle and go back to Netflix, I get it. Just let this decision come from a place of choice (because it’s what you need in this moment, a form of self-care) — instead of coming from a place of ignorance and unconsciousness.

What do you choose? Do you want to be antifragile in a wild new world?

If so, here are a few steps you’ll need to begin practicing.

Step 1: Know your mode.

Everything, including you, moves through cycles. And if you’re like me, you expect yourself to perform at a highly productive, creative and energized mode nearly all the time. I hope by reading this you realize, as I have, how ridiculous this expectation is.

The alternative is to know what mode you’re in and not fight it. By moving with your mode, instead of against it, you can save your energy and potentially use it for more important uses.

For example, if you’re forcing yourself to be social when you’d rather just organize your house (work mode) or go for a walk alone (self-care mode), by identifying what mode you’re in, you can change the situation to be productive within that mode.  Or you can force yourself to be social, which will likely mean you’re not very engaged and the connection is not very meaningful (aka, a waste of time and energy and possibly hurt the relationship).

Here are some common modes, borrowed from Buster Benson.

  • Self-Care Mode. This mode happens when you feel burned out, tired, and basically useless. The goal of this mode is to work toward moving out of it, which starts with the basics: sleep, water, sunshine, movement, nature, connection with friends, good books and other nourishing entertainment. Trying to be productive is pointless. Productivity happens in other modes… so work on moving out of this mode, slowly, patiently, and without beating yourself up.
  • Novelty Mode. This mode has a slightly higher energy level than Recovery Mode but not quite enough energy for deep work or creativity. The key is to channel the desire for distraction into seeking novelty: meeting new people, trying new things, learning about something new.
  • Work Mode. This mode is about the same energy level as Novelty Mode but is handy when there’s a big backlog of things that need to get done that have been weighing on you. These are things that don’t require much creativity or thought to do, but which just need to be banged out: fixing, cleaning, maintaining, organizing, etc. When done in the right mode, this kind of slogging work can actually be very satisfying.
  • Flow Mode. This is a higher energy mode than Novelty or Work and requires that you have at least one known interest that you’re ready to pour yourself into. It takes a lot of energy and time to get into the flow and have quality time with a deep interest but, once you get there, it is one of the most fulfilling modes to be in. Put in quality time towards something bigger than yourself, something you love.
  • People Mode. Spending quality time with people we love is probably the most rewarding experience we can have on this planet. The list of names in this category is short, and these are the people who are most easily taken for granted. Being in this mode is all about doing the work that sets you up for quality time. It means ensuring you have a chance to connect in a real way with the people who mean the most to you, as often as possible, while you can.

If you have been going nonstop since the start of the pandemic, it is imperative to let yourself be in recovery (self-care mode) to recharge. This recharge is critical to be in the mind space to learn, create and integrate (all critical parts of leveling up and becoming antifragile). Besides, you’ll also be a much better person to be around (your loved ones will thank you).

Step 2: Improve Your Mental Models

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” – The Talmud

Mental models are the lenses or filters you have that interpret the data around you (the outside world). These come in the form of assumptions, generalizations, beliefs, values, stories, automatic thoughts, expectations… etc. Mental models operate automatically in the background; you don’t even know you have them.

In order to solve the complex problems of a VUCA world, we cannot use the same mental models that created the problem to solve the problem. Old models are incomplete, not wrong. They are just like an old operating system that needs an upgrade to a newer version. Our mental models need updating, too.

We need to shift our mental models to a new way of thinking. This can be done by moving forward with intention, which means increasing consciousness and not letting unconscious (default) mode rule you. This requires questioning your thinking patterns, processes and beliefs.

It’s not easy to see alternative ways of thinking without seeking out diverse perspectives. The only way we can upgrade is if we’re willing to explore and consider lots of different points of view. These different perspectives usually come in the form of difficult conversations. If we are open to actively listening with a growth mindset and willingness to integrate new ideas – these conversations can be engaging and not so difficult.

If you want to learn even more about mental models, I found Farnam Street’s Mental Models For a Pandemic incredibly helpful.

Step 3: Play the Long Game.

Covid-19 is not the first pandemic, nor will it be the last, no matter how careful we are. Existential threats are a reality of life. Pre-2020, there was an expectation that life doesn’t change very much. When there was a disruption, the focus was on hindsight to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future. The problem with taking this approach is we’re only able to prevent scenarios that have already happened; it doesn’t stop future scenarios that we can’t imagine.

We need to think about the long game with a future-looking approach that fully accepts that disruption will happen. The new approach means integrating planning for massive change in our life. This is done by learning to be agile, embracing the benefits of change and allowing change to increase our resilience. 

There is no getting “back to normal.”

The normal of 2019 has proven to be fragile. It was a time when the world was unprepared and vulnerable (we just didn’t know it).

Instead of focusing on how things used to be, I purpose you move forward by growing strong through change and challenges. That is what being antifragile is about.

There is a tremendous opportunity for growth right now.

After the bubonic plague and the series of crises of the Middle Ages, there was a renaissance – a profound period that gave us great works of art, tremendous social change, a boom in science, diplomacy, and a newfound love of learning. That period was born out of the human consciousness wanting to level up.

Wouldn’t a second renaissance be magnificent?

If you’re needing additional support, I’m here for you.