Finding Peace in a World of Unknowns

June 10, 2020 ☼ PhilosophyHumanity

I originally published this on my substack.

I’ve been thinking a lot about change of late.

At work, I’m always thinking about change: how to communicate about changes, how to plan changes, and how to implement change.

The last few years for me have been a fraught with major personal life changes.

Socially… Well, it feels like it’s been a long, downward spiral (since 2016?), picking up momentum at a dizzying pace. 

And finally, the events of this year—and in particular the events of the past few weeks—have me staring blankly at the wall.

After all this, I’m left asking: How can I create lasting change in a world that is constantly changing? How can we live—and find peace—in a world of imperfect knowledge? A world of imperfect systems? A world of imperfect people?

“I want to live happily in a world I don’t understand.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

Antifragile is a thought provoking book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

What is fragility? Something is fragile if it is averse to change. See a giant red FRAGILE sticker on a package? Don’t shake it; it doesn’t like it. Did you lose your life savings investing in Beanie Babies? That was a fragile investment. Does your team keep getting paged at 2AM to deal with issues in production? That’s a fragile system. Do we have to periodically bail out the same organizations that are “too big to fail?” That’s a fragile system.

What is the opposite of fragility? Most of us, without reading Antifragile, would respond with words like robust, or resilient. Robust packages, investments, and systems are not harmed by change.

But wouldn’t the opposite of something that is harmed by change be something that benefits from change? Lacking a proper word for that, Taleb proposes antifragility. Something is antifragile if benefited by chaos, disorder, and randomness.

A phoenix is to robustness as a hydra is to antifragility. When a phoenix falls it rises from the ashes as if nothing happened; when you chop off the head of a hydra it becomes stronger than ever.

I won’t attempt to rehash the book—I’d do it injustice and I am not finished reading yet. But my takeaway so far is this: the key to peace in a world of unknowns is to build something that is antifragile. 

You want to become a person that grows from experience; don’t be the helicopter-parent that overprotects their child. Make diverse investments that limit your risk and give you lots of room for growth. Be a team that learns and grows from its mistakes. Build systems and governments that support people without becoming helicopter-parents for “job creators.”

Antifragility is recognition that attempting to predict the future is dangerous and futile. Antifragility is building things that get stronger under pressure. We want to live in a system where we look forward to failure and stressors, as they are stepping stones to greater things.

In the sentence immediately preceding the quote about living happily in a world of unknowns, Taleb says something else profound:

“The chief ethical rule is the following: Thou shalt not have antifragility at the expense of the fragility of others.”

To me, this is becoming a unifying theory that describes the things I feel are most wrong with our society.

Many of the richest among us—and health insurance companies!—have grown richer than ever during an international pandemic and economic crisis. This is antifragility.

Law enforcement agencies have been strengthened, militarized, and receive astronomical budgets boosts over the past decades in spite of increasing allegations, protests, and lawsuits. A clear antifragile system. (Meanwhile other public services are gasping for air and teachers are forced to buy school supplies so their students can learn.)

America has been built on the backs of slaves working land looted from the native population. America has prospered through wars that revived the economy, and made private contractors rich. Corporations take without reservation from the earth, and our society returns islands of plastic to the sea.

A common theme here is this: systems designed by the rich and powerful (and overwhelmingly white) to strengthen their riches and powers—to build fortunes and legacies that continue to grow even during times of duress.

All of this at the expense of the most vulnerable.

I don’t have the answers, but we must change. We have to shake these systems and show that antifragility built upon the fragility of others cannot stand.