Don’t aim to be strong – be anti-fragile


“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”
― Niccolo Machiavelli

In the ancient mythology Hercules had to fight with the Hydra monster in one of his adventures. The Hydra was a lizard / dinosaur like monster and each time Hercules chopped of a head, two heads grew in its place. This monster’s super power can be viewed as anti-fragile: it will grow in strength each time it is hurt. How can we mimic this super power in our daily lives?

What is anti-fragility?

Anti-fragility is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He mentions this in analyzing economic systems and how they behave. It is a reflection on the economic crisis which was the result of the fragile banking system, led by irresponsible executives.

He argues that banks grew too large and complex, making them especially vulnerable to external risks and events. The complexity not only put the banks themselves at risk, but the society as a whole. Year over year the bankers received the profits, while taking unacceptable risks. However, when the downside of the risk manifested itself, society paid for this by ways of taxes and a massive recession. Such a system is very fragile (besides being unfair).

In an alternative system, you would have lots of smaller, highly specialized banks. Because of the specialization, the individual banks may take a higher risk. However, as a whole, the system would become anti-fragile. It will not collapse if one bank goes bankrupt (how different was this in 2008…). Yet, the system will cumulatively benefit from all kinds of developments (technological, economical etc.). Hence, the system becomes anti-fragile as it can benefit more from opportunities than from manifestations of risk.

Anti-fragility does not only apply to economic systems. It can also be applied to individuals and personal growth.

Success makes us fragile

The success the banking system had before the economic crisis is a good analogy for personal success: let’s say your career is going great. You’re working for the same company for a longer period of time, earning a decent paycheck and gradually moving up the ladder – the equivalent of the banks making decent returns year over year. You get complacent because of all the success you’ve had in the past.

All of a sudden, you get bad news. You may lose your job for whatever reason or you start to detest the work you’re doing because the organization changed for the worse. This will have a big impact, because you’ve put all your effort in succeeding in one job at one company. You’ve set yourself up to be fragile and now will have to deal with the downside of risk. This downside will manifest itself sooner or later. So, what can you do to prevent this from happening?

3 Tips on how to be anti-fragile in your daily lives

There are many ways to harness the “power of the hydra” and become anti-fragile. Here’s just a few for you to reflect upon:

Tip 1: Reflect upon your values and worldview

Although a bit general, this one is very important. Bad things are bound to happen, but it is important how we interpret these occurrences. If you let these things get to you, it will be harder to focus on opportunities when they arise.

This is also one of the pillars of Stoicism. You don’t control everything that happens to you, but you do control your response. That doesn’t mean you can’t show any negative emotion, but it does mean that you must trust yourself to get back into the saddle when you meet adversity.

Tip 2: read broadly and train yourself in multiple skills

Overspecializing can be detrimental for your future success. The skill you’re good at may become obsolete in the future. Therefore, it is important to read broadly and develop your interests. Moreover, it helps to get educated in multiple areas of expertise. This way, if one area of expertise is no longer required in the market place, you can always pursue a different career path. The alternative can still be related though.

For instance, I started in external auditing, later on switched to being an internal auditor and I’m now a financial controller. These jobs are related, although my workday now looks significantly different from when I started working. An advantage is that I now can work in 3 different professions, instead of just one.

Tip 3: Browse through job opportunities from time to time

People generally do not stay to work for one company nowadays. But why wait browsing through job opportunities till you are displeased with your current job? Only the idea of having the possibility to change to a different job may have a liberating effect. It also brings much perspective to your current job and helps you to think about what you love to do and what you are good at. Moreover, it may help you build a network that will enable you to switch jobs fast when you lose your job.

Further information about anti-fragility:

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