How do we live in a complex, uncertain and unpredictable world? How do we embrace not knowing?
via Nuna Da Silva Blog
Humankind has been on a millenary quest to understand the world and it’s underlying rules and properties, with the hope to predict the future. For centuries, we have been colonized by the idea that the world is mechanic and predetermined and that, if we get to the root of things, if we get down to the basic building blocks, we will be able to control reality. However, the more we go down the rabbit hole, the more things get strange, defying our notions of what reality is. Instead of “finite and discrete things, scientists found that things change their form and properties in relation to each other, as they respond to each other (and to the scientist observing them). We are waking up to a world of relationships rather than things. And what we think of, as things are actually intermediate states in a constantly changing network of interactions and relationships. Systems then, are not reducible and predictable; everything depends on the particular and unique relationships which configure and disappear in an on-going ebb and flow.” In spite of these new perspectives, we spend too much time and resources trying to predict (unpredictable) outcomes: In the course of doing so, we take the tree for the forest. We are obsessed by prediction while we should focus on what our exposure to uncertain outcomes is all about. What matters is how the uncertain outcome affects us. What matters to us is our response. And so we must develop more response-ability!
Everything gains or loses from volatility. Things that lose from volatility are fragile. Things that gain from uncertainty are the opposite. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls these things that gain from disorder antifragile. Antifragility is harvesting what we don’t understand. Taleb advocates a quest for antifragility, a quest that nature has long embarked into. Mother Nature practices antifragility, as do her greatest interpreters: “Evolution loves disturbances… discovery likes disturbances. Everything in nature is fractal, jagged, and rich in detail, though with a certain pattern”. Antifragility, the capacity to benefit from twists of fate and history, thrives on tinkering, improvisation and bricolage, not on one-size-fits-all high theories that the next storm will flatten like matchwood.
Something that is antifragile, actually grows and flourishes because it is stressed and then allowed to order itself in response. Antifragility allows an entity not merely to withstand all the shocks coming its way but to absorb their forceful volatility and emerge only stronger. Fragile things have their real opposite not in durable things, Taleb says, but in “things that gain from disorder.”
At the core is this contrarian concept that most of us live in direct contradiction to how the world works; that we should love variability and embrace risk and resist forecasting if we don’t want to be like a turkey. The story goes that a turkey was fed by the butcher everyday, having a confortable monotonous life until October, when in all likelihood, the turkey gets sacrificed for Thanksgiving Day. Living like the Turkey, in a controlled sort of environment, gives the false illusion of security and gets soften. Something that is antifragile – the opposite to fragile – actually grows because it is stressed and then adjusts itself. So by being antifragile, we can cope with any shocks that come along and be stronger as a result. Ironically, Taleb says our greatest asset – the built-in antifragility of certain risk-taking systems – is the one we distrust the most. Take the immune system for instance; the moment babies go out of their mothers’ womb, through the birth canal, they start a life long exposure to microbes and bacteria fundamental for our organisms proper functioning since we have a ten to one ratio of bacteria to cells in our bodies. Our skeleton system also needs regular tension, to a certain level, in order to ensure strong bones are there when needed. Living in environments that always have the same temperature, debilitate our organisms. Temperature oscillation and seasons are fundamental to our bodies’ proper function. The religious practice of fasting is a good example of inserting more antifragility in us, providing our organism with the capacity to sustain seasonal food scarcity. In our paranoia for control, we take pills to deal with any sort of bodily fluctuation, like fever for instance, and instead of living better, the system is making us live longer but sicker.
Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled.
For instance, there is very little historical evidence for the contribution of fundamental research compared to that of tinkering by hobbyists. We need to overcome the dogma of theory over practice in praise of embodiment. Something Taleb calls the “lecturing birds on how to fly” effect. The modern problem is that we try to decrease fragility of things instead of making them antifragile. Throughout life, small stressors are beneficial, big stressors are bad. A life-threatening situation is potentially bad. Regular gravity’s demand for muscular exertion makes us stronger, while, living in space with zero gravity for instance, will bring atrophy to the muscles.
Our lives aren’t linear. There is a fundamental unpredictability of the big events in our lives. Take death for instance. We know for sure that it’s going to happen to us, although we try to forget that. But we don’t know when and how it’s going to happen and we can’t fundamentally prevent it from happening!
We need to rethink how we live in this complex, uncertain world. Big strategies and long-term plans don’t work. Most innovations and scientific discoveries of the last centuries were made by mistake while looking for something else. We need to embrace nature’s long lasting practice of trial and error. Instead of long plans, it’s better to have short plan that give us more options. You don’t want to get yourself into a highway with no exits on the way!
In praise of risk-taking, trial many times, preferably when you expect small errors that can’t produce much harm.
What we need today, are people who get their “skin in the game”. People who act in places where vulnerability is present and therefore more response-abilities are needed. In Washington, D.C. and on Wall Street, the absence of skin in the game is the presence of power without responsibility or vulnerability, which led to the 2007 crisis and those responsible for it getting away with extra gains while the common citizens had to cover the huge costs. We need “Skin in the game,” as in Roman times when engineers had “to spend some time under the bridge they built. We need to get our ass on the line, sort to say.
What can we do?
Play it safe in some areas of our life and take a lot of small risks in others. Intentionally inject some stress in our lives: fast, take cold showers; get out of our comfort zone. Never take advice from someone who doesn’t have “skin in the game. Don’t listen to those who have nothing to loose if they are wrong. Instead of focusing your time on adding things to your life to make it better, focus first on subtracting habits, practices, things, people that fragilize you. A few examples: get rid of debt, quit smoking, stop hanging around toxic friends, eliminate unhealthy foods.
Take risks and face our fate with dignity! Stay with the trouble. Discover that dead-ends are an invitation to get into some new ways.
As Karen Barad says ‘There are no solutions; there is only the ongoing practice of being open and alive to each meeting, each intra-action, so that we might use our ability to respond, our responsibility, to help awaken, to breathe life into ever new possibilities for living justly’
 See Allan Kaplan – “Artists of the Invisible”, Magaret Wheatley – “Leadership and the new science”, and Fritjof Capra – “The web of life”
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb book “Black Swan” or “Antifragile”