Becoming Antifragile - Navigating Uncertainty

28 August, 2020
Those who are antifragile move forward with confidence, even in the midst of crises and hardship. Having learned from adversity in the past, they're not afraid of uncertainty and flourish in times of chaos. They know how to handle stress and see opportunities where others only see problems.

Chaos, uncertainty, instability, unforeseen events, hyperconnection, loneliness, anxiety… We could use any one of these terms to describe human society in times of crisis. Fortunately, you may find one survival strategy useful: learning to become antifragile. This is an interesting concept that was popularized by Lebanese essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb back in 2012.

Learning to survive and flourish in an ever-changing and challenging environment is difficult, to say the least. But although many manage to do just that, others take this idea one step further, learning to make the very most of times of great turmoil.

When it comes to defining the term “antifragile”, people often use the metaphor of the hydra – a mythical serpent that was almost impossible to kill. When one head was cut off, two more emerged from the open wound.

This image serves as a fitting analogy for describing those who react well under pressure, despite pain, stress, and difficulties.

Needless to say, this is easier said than done. Each of us must first experience weakness and fragility, so that we can understand what failure is, what it means to fall, and what it feels like to hit rock bottom.

Only when we discover the true meaning of adversity, healing our mental scars so that we can come back stronger than ever, we learn to become what Taleb describes as “antifragile”.

A woman with her eyes closed.

Becoming antifragile

In 2007, Nassim Taleb published his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, which focuses on dealing with the unexpected and unpredictable events that occur throughout our lives. Somehow, this researcher and mathematician from New York University forced us to recognize that we’ve grown used to taking too many things for granted, leaving little room for the chaos factor, which can alter any area of our reality at any moment.

The black swan theory describes an event that comes as a surprise and usually has major consequences. This could be an economic or health crisis, as well as a personal loss or unexpected failure.

Learning to accept that we can’t control every aspect of our lives at all times is the first lesson Taleb teaches us in his now legendary book. Five years later, he added to his theory with another idea – the triad of fragile, robust, and antifragile.

If we want to navigate that lake of troubled waters and black swans that is modern life, we need to learn to be antifragile. Why? It’s simple: to cope with the stress of the unexpected and develop a calm, attentive, and skillful approach that can help us survive every chaotic situation and every demanding, unexpected, and complex experience we face.

Fragile, robust, and antifragile

Nassim Taleb explains that human beings can display three types of behavior when faced with a difficult situation:

  • For example, we can be fragile. In fact, we’ve all experienced this state at some time or another. It means living with permanent and unbearable anguish. The author gives us the example of Damocles, with that sword permanently hanging over his head, threatening to end his life at any moment. The stress we experience when we know something bad is going to happen and we don’t know how to stop it leaves us in a state of perpetual suffering.
  • It’s also possible to be strong and tough. Here, Taleb gives the example of the phoenix. A creature that rises from the ashes stronger but not smarter or wiser.
  • Finally, Nassim Taleb focuses on the importance of learning to be antifragile. He describes it as being like a hydra. If you cut off its head, two more simply grow in its place. It means acting with ingenuity in the midst of chaos and turning difficult and stressful situations into growth and empowerment opportunities.
A hydra.

Is resilience the same as antifragility?

The concept of antifragility first stemmed in the economics sector, while the term resilience emerged in physics.

Nevertheless, these concepts have found a place in the field of psychology, especially when it comes to the topic of personal growth. As a result, many have come to wonder whether both terms can be used to describe the same thing. Surprisingly, the answer is no.

Resilience defines our ability to adapt to adverse situations, learn from them, and emerge from them stronger than ever. Being antifragile goes beyond simply adapting to difficult, uncertain, or challenging times. It’s the ability to take full advantage of adversity, seeing an opportunity to achieve growth and power in uncertain times.

Becoming antifragile

Of course, humans aren’t hydras. Learning to be antifragile doesn’t mean turning yourself into a cold, unfeeling monster and it doesn’t mean you have to become more aggressive. Instead, being antifragile means:

  • Learning to manage stress.
  • Understanding and accepting your emotions. 
  • Using your anxiety to your advantage, rather than letting it get the best of you. Using it to strengthen your resolve, hone your ability to overcome adversity, and help you achieve success.
  • Being creative and finding multiple solutions to the same problem. 
  • Accepting uncertainty and understanding that life can change and that the things we take for granted today may not even exist tomorrow.
  • Choosing to accept change, rather than fearing it.
  • Understanding your own needs and taking steps to meet them. 
  • Recognizing and seizing the opportunities around you.

In conclusion, learning to be antifragile is a great survival strategy that you can resort to. Try putting some of these tips into practice in your everyday life to see the difference they make.

Taleb, Nassim (2012) Antifragil, las cosas que se benefician del desorden. Paidós: Madrid