Aiming Towards Antifragility Is a Powerful Step Beyond Resilience

Our Waggl Wellspring series shares trends in workplace engagement and well-being. Sources include academic and industry researchers, visionaries and neuroscientists. First we outlined the influence of servant leaders. Then we focused on how empathetic leaders build resilience. Now we outline how aiming towards antifragility is a powerful step beyond resilience.

The state of our world today is forcing us to reexamine our fundamental human values. Leaders are struggling to guide fellow citizens and colleagues along a safe and meaningful path. Two weeks ago, this path was through extreme uncertainty due to our global health crisis. Today, that uncertainty is intensified by witnessing in full force the injustices toward our Black communities. These both present a need for profound physical and mental resilience, and also something more: antifragility. 

We know resilience is about steadiness and rebounding in a storm. But what makes us get stronger through the storm? Believing “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” seems trite and dismissive. But aiming towards antifragility is based on this faith. 

Antifragility builds a stronger foundation

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb says “The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.” Antifragility isn’t just bouncing back to a previous strength. Aiming towards antifragility builds a stronger foundation. Dr. Larry McEvoy refers to this as evolving from “a foundation of resilience towards a systemic outcome of resilience.”[1] 

Rather than a rigid foundation though, we create a more fluid base. Author Arlan Hamilton models this in her path towards antifragility. Hamilton survived homelessness and started a VC fund for underrepresented founders. She notes “you bend, so you don’t break.”[2] Antifragility also goes beyond finding a “new normal.” As author Arundhati Roy states, “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”[3] 

Instead, Taleb proposes we deliberately aim towards antifragility.[4] We accept and account for adversity as a starting point for every thought and action. This makes antifragility a core value. When leaders model this value, they guide their people to practice this as well. In this way, we can develop strength and endurance through each challenge. 

Antifragility through weights, ancient art and war

Taleb compares antifragility to lifting weights. When we lift weights, the stress breaks down our muscles, and then our muscles become stronger. Japanese Kintsugi pottery is another example.[5] Kintsugi artists repair broken ceramics by filling the cracks with gold, silver or platinum. This creates sturdier pottery – and more valuable monetarily. 

Today, Croatia and Greece are demonstrating antifragility in how they’re weathering the pandemic. During Croatia’s war of independence, and Greece’s debt crisis, each country underwent extreme upheaval. They had to develop new skills, mindsets and systems to surmount it. Now, their citizens are banding together and keeping the virus relatively contained. 

A Croation barber recently shared: “I was a kid, I remember playing soccer and seeing mortars falling out of the sky…the discipline we all learned [now] helps us get in line and creates some sort of forced unity.”[6] Similarly a Greek massage therapist, who lost her business three times, states, “We’ve been through a lot, we are hardened, so I think we’re going to be able to rebuild.”[7] Both are demonstrating antifragility in the form of stoicism and fellowship from surviving past upheavals. 

Antifragility is intensely human

Our Black communities are models of extreme strength, faith and endurance. They’ve persevered through centuries of institutionalized oppression, brutality and injustice. Novelist Toni Morrison writes, “The point is not to soak in some warm bath of nostalgia about the good old days—there were none!—but to recognize and rescue those qualities of resistance, excellence and integrity that were so much a part of our past and so useful to us and to the generations of blacks now growing up.”[8] 

Legendary singer and songwriter Nina Simone shares this extraordinary perseverance as well with her song: “It’s a new day. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new life for me.”

Healthcare leaders and workers also model profound antifragility. Most have undergone long, intensive medical training. This now fuels their heroic endurance, skill and compassion during the acute stress of our pandemic. 

Grieving the death of a loved one is another intensely human example of antifragility. An author demonstrates this in Losing My Mom to Alzheimer’s, Then Finding Her Again. She describes going through feelings of “guilt, inadequacy and anger” throughout her mom’s long illness. After her mom passes away, she experiences a “pure, uncomplicated sadness of loss.” Her gratitude alongside her grief illustrates a profound form of antifragility: “I wish someone had told me about the beauty that waited at the end of this journey.” 

Honoring antifragility

Around the world we are all experiencing grief, anger, confusion and uncertainty. There is no choice to sidestep this. Working through this together though will build our collective antifragility. We have the choice right now to honor this. If aiming towards antifragility brings growth through challenges, then honoring this growth can encourage us to keep going in the right direction.

Leaders honor this by acknowledging that they are on this growth path too. Then honoring this growth with their people can make it more sustainable. As the author of Antifragile is the New Resilient states, “individual awareness is always the first step towards a collective cultural shift, and knowing antifragility is the end goal makes it possible to start doing the work required to get there.” 

This also requires recognizing where we’re failing at this. Professor, coach, grandfather, friend and leader on Voice/Silence, Dr. Russell Robinson, recently shared his experience of systemic racism in I am not OK! Stepping up in solidarity for our Black community is one of the most profound ways to honor antifragility that I can imagine. 

How can we build antifragility?

Firstly, we ask ourselves this question often. Seth Godin refers to this as “Visualizing what’s possible. Deciding to do something about it. Wondering (to ourselves and then to the world, ‘how can I make this better?’)” We can’t wait any longer to reexamine our values. Let’s ask ourselves what really matters now, in 3 months, 6 months and a year.

These are the values that will develop our individual and collective growth towards a more kind, fair and sustainable future. As one visionary states, “People coming together around a shared vision, passion, and purpose — can transform the world and take us toward an antifragile, resilient, and regenerative future.”[9]

In trying to understand how I can personally make positive change, I keep studying articles, blogs, podcasts and social media. What I keep learning isn’t new, or rocket science. It’s to approach this moment “with compassion, honesty, and openness. We will emerge from this as better leaders, better people, and better companies.”[10] 

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

By aiming towards antifragility, “We must dwell in this pause — accepting all its pain, doubts, fears, confusions, questions — with an open mind, open heart, and open will.”[10] My friend and co-worker Gina Martinez shares, “I think now if you want to really make a difference you are going to have to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”[11]

Also, Lao Tzu is translated as saying: “It is a good time to ask oneself, ‘Am I sincerely pursuing the good for it’s own sake, or do I have a hidden agenda?’”[12] For me, this is pausing and listening more honestly to see if I am overlooking or dismissing racial inequality and therefore perpetuating it. Then it’s being accountable for making amends at every one of these moments. This is a critical first step towards evolving into a stronger and kinder society.  

Antifragility as a universal value

We can start aiming towards antifragility as a universal practice. This won’t overcome uncertainty and prevent challenges. But this is how we’ll evolve through this “collective apocalypse.” We have so many inspiring visionaries to guide us. 

They’re asking “what helps us perform, learn, and be vital and energized in these circumstances?”[13] They’re urging that “this time for contemplation will activate our inner compass guiding us to make awareness-based, life-affirming choices toward co-creating ‘a world that works for all,’ that is not steeped in inequality and ‘othering.’”[14] They also acknowledge that “None of us have the answers. But if we live into the questions, I trust that the answers will emerge from our collective intentions and actions.”[15] 

Update June 16, 2020: Thank you to Si Alhir – who authored one of the first books on antifragility – for inviting me to kick off a broader conversation about Antifragility and Transcending the Crisis!

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash.

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