9 Ways to Build an Antifragile Life
Don’t just survive stress. Thrive from it.
When something is antifragile, it “gains from disorder,” as the subtitle of Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile would imply.
For example, your body is antifragile. You can apply stress to your muscles through lifting weights, and your muscles will get stronger. On the other hand, a coffee mug is fragile. Apply enough stress, and it will simply break.
So how can you design your life to be antifragile? How can you design your life to not only withstand stressors, but to benefit from them?
A fragile life breaks when the expectedly unexpected happens. This can be a personal stressor such as a job loss or a relationship change, an illness, or the death of someone close to you. It can also be from macro stressors such as economic turmoil, political unrest, or a natural disaster.
An antifragile life not only withstands these stressors, but benefits from them. You’re equipped to deal with the stressor, and when you recover, you’re already equipped for new opportunities.
Here are some ways to design an antifragile life:
- Build geographic freedom. If you can live anywhere, you can move if you ever have to—whether that’s for economic or political reasons, or simply because you want to. Geographic freedom comes not only from being able to earn money from anywhere, but having the mental, emotional, and social tools to withstand the stressors of moving.
- Gain experience living in a foreign country. Living in a foreign country is a challenging growth experience. It’s a part of geographic freedom. It’s best to build this experience when it’s easy in the context of your life, rather than when it’s hard. For example, it’s easier to retire to a more affordable foreign country when you’re seventy if you did it before, while you were thirty.
- Diversify your income. The more income sources you have, the less individual stressors—such as changes to an industry—will affect you overall.
- Diversify your skills. Instead of trying to be the best at one thing, be really good at lots of different things, or excellent at one thing, and proficient at a collection of other things.
- Build mental and emotional resilience. Take mental and emotional risks. Build the confidence that you can survive just about anything.
- Know thyself. Know and accept, and still work on, your quirks and shortcomings. Meditate and journal and get therapy so that you know the patterns of your own ups and downs, and stressors will be learning experiences.
- Practice minimalism. If you feel you need lots of things — or unnecessarily nice things—you are less free to withstand stressors. Moving is harder, and your income requirements are higher. You have less mental space available to build antifragility.
- Build a social network of antifragile people. Seek out other antifragile people you can turn to for advice when the antifragile life presents its challenges. Strong social connections are also a key part of mental and emotional resilience.
- Consistently face your fears. If you’re afraid of something, and you think you might be better off not fearing that thing, go towards that fear. The fewer things you are afraid of, the fewer things that qualify as stressors. When stressors do arise, you can react more quickly, and see new opportunities more clearly.
The mix of antifragility you need depends upon your risk profile and risk tolerance. Diversifying has costs that sometimes come at the expense of what you can gain from deeper commitments. Maybe you’re willing to bet that certain things just aren’t going to happen to you, and so certain antifragile hedges aren’t necessary.
Here are some of the ways I personally build antifragility into my life:
- Geographic freedom, by not buying real estate: I didn’t buy a house after college—even though others pressured me to. Renting has allowed me to respond to opportunities in other geographic areas without being at the whims of housing prices. It also freed me to make financial investments that have paid off better than a house would have, and investments in my own skills that I wouldn’t have had time for if I had to deal with a house.
- Geographic freedom, through entrepreneurship: I deliberately built my career by saying “no” to opportunities that required me to be in a certain place at a certain time, and by building skills that would allow me to make an income from anywhere, anytime.
- Geographic freedom, through language learning: After years of living in a Spanish-speaking country, I speak Spanish pretty well. What nobody tells you about learning a new language, is that it’s like discovering a secret world on a video game. Suddenly, you can navigate places you couldn’t before—sometimes those places are cheaper, too, which makes learning a new language essentially profitable.
- Foreign country experience and self knowledge, by living “mini lives”: I have lived “mini lives” in various places throughout the world. This has contributed to my geographic freedom, because I have built the skills needed to adjust to different places and cultures. It has also improved my self-knowledge through the repeated process of experiencing the influence of place on my own behavior.
- Emotional resilience, through foreign country experience: My foreign country experience has built emotional resilience. I recently experienced some visa difficulties, for example, which was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. But now I feel more prepared to handle more serious situations.
- Emotional resilience, through making work satisfaction a priority: I deliberately made loving my work a priority in building my career. Life is challenging enough without dragging yourself out of bed to do something you hate. Some piece of this is also learning to love the discomfort required to succeed at something you enjoy.
- Practical minimalism: I’ve sold most everything I own a couple of times in my life. I don’t have possessions weighing me down. More important, I don’t rely on my things for a sense of self worth.
- Diversified skills, through following my curiosity: We live in a culture that shames people for having a wide variety of interests. I decided early on to ignore that, and instead follow my curiosities with fervor. This has led me to breakthrough opportunities, such as a book deal, and I now have the skills to be a completely independent self-publisher—from writing, to design, to marketing.
- A social network, through moving, and podcasting: Where I grew up, in Nebraska, there weren’t many antifragile people (okay, except for my neighbor, Warren Buffett). Thanks to my geographic flexibility, I eventually got a job in Silicon Valley. That helped me start a network of antifragile contacts. I’ve stacked that, along with successes that came from following my curiosity, into having a podcast. That podcast has helped me meet other antifragile people, such as David Allen, Seth Godin, and Tyler Cowen. Seth Godin even endorsed my book!
The antifragile life is different for everyone. What’s antifragile for one person may be fragile for another person, and what’s easy for one person may be impossible for another. To build your own antifragile life, pay attention to your risk profile and risk tolerance, and make adjustments where you see fragility.
So, what’s in your antifragile life?
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