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Embracing anti-fragility

June 22, 2020

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Learners pursuing advanced degrees face a surfeit of challenges. The list of trammels is too numerous to name in this short reflection. However, in an attempt to provide some context, the obstacles range from the changes linked to content delivery due to COVID-19, to managing the competing obligations associated with family and work. As learners search for strategies to overcome such roadblocks, Brother Agathon reminds us of the importance of zeal. It is with zeal that we pursue our fullest human capacity. The following paragraphs will offer the reader a few tools in order to reach such aims.

Zeal is greater than an enthusiastic pursuit of one’s dreams. It’s more replete than exhibiting resilience in the face of challenging times. Zeal is the ability to become stronger in lieu of life’s tribulations. Therefore, zeal is associated with what Professor Nassim Taleb calls anti-fragility. Taleb argues the construct of anti-fragility falls on a continuum. At one extreme is a fragile system. Fragile systems or individuals break during stressful times. As we ascend the continuum, we arrive at what is known as a robust system. These individuals are able to withstand the shock but do not become better because of it, nor are they able to enhance their capacity. An anti-fragile system becomes better when stressed. According to the researcher, during unprecedented pandemics, becoming anti-fragile is the key to accomplishing one’s fullest potential.

In order to become anti-fragile, individuals and systems must exhibit five key characteristics.

  1. Strength. In experiencing external stress, they become stronger. Those who workout or have trained for a marathon can relate. Your body is put through stressful situations in order to make the muscles stronger. When the body faces a similar future encounter, the impact is less extreme.
  2. Eliminating unnecessary interventions. If the tension is removed too early when stressed, the individual or system is not afforded the opportunity to learn and grow. Parents can relate to the analogy of allowing children to fail successfully so they learn from their mistake.
  3. Exponential relationship between stressors and growth. According to Taleb, anti-fragile systems become exponentially stronger in lieu of shocks. Economists refer to this phenomenon as economies of scale. Thus, small, additional stress makes for a much more robust system.
  4. Building in redundancies. Traditional business theories berate redundancies as they reduce efficiencies. However, duplicate systems allow individuals to withstand extreme shock. Take the human body for example. Most people are born with two kidneys. If one were to fail, the body can still survive.
  5. Diversification. Anti-fragile systems invest approximately 80% of resources into normal operations and 20% into high-risk, high-return endeavors. Consider a business that invested 20% of its profits into online/curbside product delivery.

In unprecedented times, it is not enough to be strong, we must become anti-fragile learners in order to combat the various stressors faced by a stochastic future.