As some of you know I grew up in the desert southwest. My love of sunshine continues to this day but unfortunately, my skin has paid a price. In my pursuit of the perfect tan, my skin (particularly on my forearms) has become ridiculously thin so that it often bruises and sometimes bleeds at the slightest injury. By the same token I was listening to a podcast this week that asked, “Are we all becoming very thin-skinned and fragile these days?” It went on to ask if our pursuit of comfort and convenience was making us “bruise or bleed” at the slightest inconvenience, threat or annoyance. Regrettably, those questions struck a bit too close to home. Everywhere I look (especially on Facebook!) people are bruised and depressed about how awful things have gotten (climate change, no gun control, schools, etc.) and how mean and impatient other people have become. And don’t even mention religion or politics! Fortunately, there is a cure. Just like using a powerful sunscreen on my arms helps—enhancing our antifragile selves could allow us to live more peacefully in our stressful world.
What do I mean by antifragile? First coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author, mathematical statistician, risk analyst and professor—antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Although most of us think that an opposite is resilience, Taleb argues that while resilience might allow us to bounce back from adversity or stress, antifragility is the ability to grow stronger and better when faced with challenge. He explains that like the Phoenix it is good to be resilient and important to rebuild ourselves from the ashes of destruction. However, antifragility is far better. Antifragility is like the Hydra of Greek Mythology. If you cut off its head, two or even three heads grow back allowing it to become much stronger after the ordeal. In other words, be the Hydra, not the Phoenix.
A large focus of Taleb’s work concerns children. He repeatedly sites research that shows that children need a certain amount of stress, unpredictability and failure to grow into strong and capable adults. The current trend however is to protect children and is actually creating overly sensitive children both biologically and emotionally. To protect them we keep them inside, so they won’t catch anything and end up making their bodies weaker and more susceptible from germs. And certainly, don’t criticize them or require them to do something they don’t like to do, or you will damage their self-esteem. If that was working well, we likely wouldn’t have an epidemic of depression and suicide among young people these days.
But it isn’t just kids. As a culture we have become overly focused on convenience, safety and ease. However, we all know that if you lay around in bed all day your bones and muscles turn to mush. We need exercise and resistance for our bodies to stay strong, and yet we seem determined to get rid of anything that challenges us or makes us uncomfortable. Example? We drive our car to the gym and take the elevator to the floor where we spend time on the treadmill!
Then there is our emotional sensitivity. Again, our culture seems largely focused on catching our attention, entertaining us, and then manipulating our emotions in ways that serve those seeking to earn our support. Our current midterm elections are a perfect example. While there are lots of important issues as stake, the goal of many seems to be to scare us and force us to fight for the sake of one side or another. Instead of asking us to think deeply about the consequences of which way we vote and how that vote aligns with our values—we are being emotionally manipulated into doing what those in control insist we do. And while you are at it, would you donate money as well or all will be lost! Meanwhile we righteously criticize the anyone who disagrees with us and are shocked if they respond accordingly! And in case you are wondering—I’m mainly talking about myself here!
Looking back over my life I don’t believe I have ever been as emotionally hardy as I would have liked. I’ve often used the excuse that I would rather be sensitive than stoic. But you know what? I think I’m ready for a change. As I age, I am growing weary of being at the mercy of external influences rather than following my own internal guidance. I am tired of hearing some news or reading something on Facebook that gnaws at my soul and keeps me awake at night. But make no mistake, I’m not giving up on other people, my country or the world, I’m just planning to grow a thicker skin and embrace my antifragility. I’m not sacrificing my feelings—I’m just not going to let them rule my life.
Fortunately, there are lots of great teachers out there for me to learn from. The stoics offer amazing advice. For example:
- Marcus Aurelius: “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”
- Epictetus: “Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.”
- Seneca: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
By the same token the Buddhists and Taoists offer similar ideas on the thoughts of inner strength:
- The Buddha: “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”
- The Buddha: “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draws it.”
- Lao Tzu: “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
- Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. if you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
And because Thom has been rereading the work of Michael A Singer, here’s one from him in his book, The Untethered Soul:
“If you want to be happy, you have to let go of the part of you that wants to create melodrama. This is the part that thinks there’s a reason not to be happy. You have to transcend the personal, and as you do, you will naturally awaken to the higher aspects of your being. In the end, enjoying life’s experiences is the only rational thing to do. You’re sitting on a planet spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Go ahead, take a look at reality. You’re floating in empty space in a universe that goes on forever. If you have to be here, at least be happy and enjoy the experience. You’re going to die anyway. Things are going to happen anyway. Why shouldn’t you be happy? You gain nothing by being bothered by life’s events. It doesn’t change the world; you just suffer. There’s always going to be something that can bother you, if you let it.”
There are thousands of other authors who have written about becoming more antifragile. The challenge for me is not that there isn’t plenty of instruction—but rather in maintaining the actual practice of it. I confess I’ve gotten a bit lazy about fortifying my inner world so that I am stronger and more able to deflect the circumstances around me. Need an example? I’m thinking of the Dali Lama who lives in the same world we do and certainly has a past filled with challenges and struggles. But what does he do? He laughs. Of course, he is actively engaged in influencing the world around him but still he laughs. When I think of being antifragile, the Dali Lama exemplifies it.
Just like I know how important it is for us to exercise and do bone strengthening exercises as we age, I now know that enhancing my antifragility is even more important. Because I want to stay active and engaged as long as I can, I want to know that mentally and emotionally I can withstand circumstances in the world no matter what happens. I also want to know that although it can be unpleasant to witness certain activities in the world, those situations won’t devastate me—I can and will carry on. I want to be able to handle disappointment and loss if it comes rather than let it cripple me. And I want to be strong enough inside to be able to be of support and help to other people and causes in the world around me. Sure, I might have let my physical skin become very thin, but with intention I believe I can strengthen my inner skin from here on out. Perhaps it is SMART for us all to remember at our core we are antifragile.
Great post! And I love all the comments. I especially like the author who indicated social media is creating “fragilistas” and I couldn’t agree more. Some people are so dependent on it they break down when they can’t see what others think of them or their ideas.
The world has been changing rapidly in the last three years from the pandemic to the Ukraine war. There are many things that require thinking about and not making it stop you from living life. When we were thinking of going to Portugal, it was a thought in the back of our minds. However, we couldn’t do anything to affect the war so, while we knew it was happening, it didn’t affect the enjoyment of our trip.
I love the idea of antifragile. I have always thought of myself as a phoenix (even have a tattoo) however, after your post, I think I have some hydra in me as well. It has done me well in my life to be able to reflect and see other points of view. In fact, I remember one instance where a supervisor thought my co-worker and I were arguing because we were both expressing our opinions (maybe a little too loudly LOL). When we confronted us, we just said we were having a lively discussion on a topic we each had differing opinions on. The same goes for Shannon and me when we’re talking. We don’t agree on everything. However, we respect each other enough to discuss a topic without it turning into an argument.
I agree with your comment about children and have, actually, uttered those words myself on several occasions. Society has grown overly sensitive. And I would have loved to see the Chris Rock show Donna saw. Sounds amazing (I think he’s funny anyways). The best comedian who talked about the life condition was George Carlin, in my opinion. Made you think without shoving it down your throat, if you get want I mean.
Thanks for the post, the thoughts, the reflections, the quotes and pointing out something we should all get a little better at: antifragility.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Debbie! As always I am glad you liked the post. This topic has been on my mind more and more lately because I am realize that as I get older I don’t want to get weak…and while it might be inevitable that it happens physically??? I never want to get to the point where my mind or emotions get so fragile that I can’t deal with what is happening in my life and the world. Even if/when things seem bleak, I want to be strong and resilient inside…and yes, continue to learn and grow as long as I’m around. And I think you are the same. Let’s keep reminding each other, okay? ~Kathy
I agree, we are very much alike. And it’s always good to have a friend to lean on and keep reminding each other. Thanks!! 🙂
Amanda@ AnDweplant.com says
Hi Kathy another great article. Antifragile is a new concept for me and this has given me much to think about. Reminds me of my mother telling me all my life, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Amanda. Thank you. I’m glad you found it interesting. To me at least it was a necessary reminder that people who don’t always agree with me are not only healthy for me (in one sense) but also open me up to new ideas and possibilities. In this day and age it is far too easy for many of us to get a little righteous about our way of thinking and surround ourselves with a bubble that anyone (or thing) that challenges us is wrong. Instead of welcoming differences of opinion or practice we/I can get defensive and even “hurt” if people have a different perspective. I think we all KNOW that different perspectives are healthy and necessary, but I think humans try to insulate ourselves against anything that feels like a threat. And recently a LOT of things feel threatening to us. Reading about antifragile really brought this concept home for me and I’m hoping I introduced others enough to pursue it for themselves. ~Kathy
Galen Pearl says
You and Bob and I are all on the same wavelength with current posts. Funny how often that synchronicity happens! Maybe, like the Borg queen says on Star Trek, our thoughts really are one — ha!
I love this post — one of my favorites on your blog. I retired from teaching law several years ago. When I listen to my former colleagues talk about how difficult it is to discuss controversial issues in class these days, I’m glad I retired when I did. Some students seem ready to pounce on anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. And while I agree that all of us can be more mindful of how our words impact others, we need to be able to explore difficult topics and different opinions with respectful dialogue.
Thanks for adding all the wisdom quotes from various sources. Like Bob said, there is much to digest from this inspiration-rich post. Thank you!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Galen….my first thought was “resistance is futile”. hahaha…Thank you so much for letting me know that this post resonated for you. As a former teacher I’m SURE it has an impact…that’s where it is becoming more and more obvious. But exploring this topic is really helping to remind me that if I take things extremely sensitively without doing my best to understand other perspectives of what is happening–I will never bridge that gap between difficult topics or ideas. While I think we all agree that respectful dialogue is good, being part of it is much harder and the author (and others like him on the same topic) show how we are constantly being triggered to react as extremely as possible so that we can be manipulated. So obviously, the more conscious we can be the better. Thanks as always for your comment. ~Kathy
Kathy, the title of your related post sums up my feelings on this topic, ‘do no harm but take no shit.’ That statement strikes the perfect balance between being overly sensitive and living completely unfiltered.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Suzanne! I so agree! In fact I wrote a blog post with that title https://www.smartliving365.com/do-no-harm-but-take-no-shit/ I just have to remember it over and over and over. Thanks for the reminder! ~Kathy
Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com says
I agree that a lot of people have become more fragile in today’s world. I think social media shares a lot of the blame. First, we self-select our “news” so when we hear other opinions, we can’t believe anyone would think/feel that because it’s so obvious that they are wrong. I also know more than a few people who bare their souls on (mostly) Facebook and then judge how well their day is going by how many “likes” they receive. That’s just two examples, but I know there are more.
My derma is also getting more fragile, but what’s underneath is pretty strong (so far 🙂 ).
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Janis! Congratulations, you’ve pointed to one of the biggest problems. As you say, if we only self-select what we are willing to hear, and eliminate any that doesn’t fit with our view, we are really enforcing that bubble. Social media and mainstream media is certainly front and center in helping to make this issue a problem. Talab points out how being antifragile in the worlds of finance and systems is critical because he believes we must become more and more flexible and comfortable with change and uncertainty if we are to thrive in the days ahead. Another author that uses the antifragile idea in the area of social science is a author/professor named Jonathan Haight which offers some really interesting ideas I might explore in future articles. He REALLY believes that social media is behind our becoming “fragilistas.” So many ideas, so little time!!! ~Kathy
Caree Risover says
I confess my antifragility building has meant that I am now deliberately avoiding the avid consumption of news about current affairs over which I have limited influence, short of writing to my MP in circumstances where the ink in my pen ran dry months ago. I’m still aware of what is happening in the world but am working hard on concentrating only on those areas of life where I am personally affected or can sway the outcome. It is contrary to how I have operated most of my life (far too opinionated for my own good perhaps) but certainly leads to a more contented lifestyle and I remain totally nonplussed as to why it has taken so long to discover. Perhaps sadly I actually needed global chaos and political extremism to force a change in my ways.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Caree! I completely agree with the “guarding your consciousness” with staying away from news and other crazy information–especially in areas where we have little or no influence. However, this book helped me see that too much “contentedness” can build such a insulated bubble for ourselves that we become destroyed if something happens that we don’t see coming. Talab calls the “Black Swan moments” because if we are convinced that all swans are white and then one turns out to be black it blows our minds. In a world that is filled with change and unpredictability, building our antifragile muscles might be wise. Of course, even if we do, we have to find a way to balance it with our sanity. And it sounds like you’ve managed to do just that! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the idea. ~Kathy
Bob Lowry says
This post is not a quick, read one-time, post. It contains much to think about and decide on a personal response to the issues you raise. I have not heard the antifragile word used this way before but I think you are on to something important.
A good example is the uproar over what’s been called critical race theory. At its core, this is simply being honest about our past and looking for ways to make things better. But, with fragile egos, it becomes an attack on the self.
Interestingly, with what has happened over the past several days involving the midterm elections, I have a sense of optimism about our collective future and a realization that regardless of what would or might happen, I have the inner strength to weather it and continue with my life’s journey.
As a side note, the skin condition we suffer from has the horrible name of senile purpura, which simply means thinner skin making blood vessels closer to the surface. My dermatologist tells me to just call them bruises. That is being antifragile!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Bob! Yes I was hopeful that I was able to at least share how interesting the idea of fragility and how it is becoming more and more of a problem in our culture. So thank you for saying it deserves some thought and hopefully further research. From what I’ve read the book by Talab is VERY deep and not an easy read. I read numerous articles by and about him and I don’t think I’m up for that challenge. I wasn’t quite sure how to approach it but there is something about the idea that is intriguing.
I find it also very helpful for understanding how different people see different issues so VERY differently. You write about the need to be able to communicate with others and especially those that see things differently than we do and I think this idea speaks to that issue in a novel way. For example, when we are so convinced that our side is so very righteous about any particular idea, chances are good that the other side is feeling just as righteous with their own morals and views. If we continue to stand our ground and take offense that the other side is even suggesting they might have the right solution/answer/viewpoint we will never get anywhere. So instead of shutting down and refusing to even consider what anyone outside our bubble thinks, we are making ourselves very fragile if it turns out that the other side actually has some good ideas or at least essential information. Tabel asserts that only minds that are able to deal with uncertainty, change and occassional chaos will thrive, the rest are “fragilistas” that become devastated if things don’t fit their box. Another author that has somewhat similar thoughts (although more about social science than mathematics and markets) is Jonathan Haidt with his book, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”
So glad you are staying relatively positive about the future of politics. And I am VERY happy to see that AZ seems to be edging closer to a blue state! Thanks for helping make that happen. ~Kathy
Retirement Reflections says
Hi, Kathy – I recently went to a Chris Rock show where his opening was on how sensitive we’ve all become and the choices we have other than clinging to victimization. He raised many of the same points that you raised above. Although infused with his trademark humour, the meaning was deep and weeks later I still find myself reflecting upon it.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! I’m not surprised that you found traces of it out in the world because I think it is something being circulated these days…although I wouldn’t have guessed it by Chris Rock! Of course some of the best comedians point out some of the obvious things in culture by putting them in a humorous context, right? But it is probably a pendulum in that while it is swinging fairly high in one direction, it was also likely swinging fairly low in the opposite not so long ago. Hopefully it will find a nice balance somewhere along the line. And actually, a balance of strength and antifragility is something to shoot for. Thanks for sharing your experience! ~Kathy
Gary Lange says
Yes, we are becoming stronger and clearer about where our time and energy go. Yes, Buddha: “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Gary! Yes, aging does help get some things more clear right? And it’s one thing to learn and agree with a concept and another one to take it to heart. Thanks for reminding me, my friend! ~Kathy
Thank you for your well written post. This will be saved as there is so much info for me to read again and again!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Robin! You are welcome and I’m glad you found it thought provoking! ~Kathy
Rick Smedstad says
Great read, Kathy.
Dealing with life became easier once I began to accept the things that caused chaos rather than fighting or trying to change them. I could coexist with thoughts that made me uncomfortable, that I wanted to change, but only if I accepted them just as they existed. It became clear that life isn’t perfect (gasp) and I didn’t need to be perfect to function successfully in day-to-day interactions with thoughts and people. The acceptance epiphany came to me 30 years ago as I became alcohol-free and is still the most important factor in my daily happiness.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Rick! Thank you for sharing your own personal path to being an antifragile person. Having that philosophy is surely a key to a more peaceful and happy life. I can see where becoming alcohol-free would be helpful by allowing you to face the issue honestly within yourself instead of serving as a distraction. And during current events, having an antifragile mindset is a life safer. ~Kathy