Making the Most of Setbacks

What’s the opposite of ‘fragile’? Most people say ‘resilient’ but Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the best selling book ‘The Black Swan’, says that isn’t the case.

If you are fragile, you fold under pressure. If you are resilient, you survive.

But what if you do better than just survive, and in fact thrive under pressure? What if pressure doesn’t just bring out the best in you, but also enables you to learn, so that the next time you are under pressure, you do even better. Taleb says that this would be the true opposite of fragile, and to describe it, he has coined the word ‘antifragile’.

In response to a growing problem in relation to young people’s mental health, there are some who argue that they should be protected from all harm — both physical and mental. For example, they should not be allowed to play without supervision in case they get hurt; or when they study, they should be pre-warned if there is a distressing scene coming up in a novel; direct language that might cause offence should be avoided and so on.

The intentions are good — they want students to be happy. The problem though, as top American psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff outline in their excellent new book ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, is that these remedies don’t help; in fact they make things worse. They even argue that “good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure”.

Stronger mental health, they say, results not from avoiding challenges but from facing them and overcoming them. Lukianoff and Haidt draw on Taleb to telling effect, showing how the idea of ‘antifragility’ has a basis in evidence from psychology research.

I was struck by the relevance of this thinking not just to individuals, but to large organisations and governments too.

Folding

Sometimes a government simply folds under pressure. I remember, for example, how the British government a decade (and two prime ministers) ago sought to consult on road-pricing and then, in response to the inevitable backlash, simply wilted. As a result, road-pricing — a plausible and potentially beneficial idea — was dropped and has never really returned to the political agenda. That was a fragile response.

I also remember the courageous Education Commissioner in Louisiana, Paul Pastorek, being encouraged by the then governor to be radical on education reform, only to be hung out to dry when there was an inevitable reaction. That too was fragile.

Surviving

When it comes to the resilience to survive, there are many instances in governments around the world. For example, the Obama administration worked through the crisis caused by the initial failure of its website, Healthcare.gov.

Amidst a storm of criticism, not just from political enemies but even potential allies, they doggedly fixed the problem rather than giving up. As a result, they kept the show on the road but drained political capital and both the President and initiative were damaged.

Thriving

But what about the ‘antifragility’ response to a crisis? Here’s one example from my time in the Blair administration. There was an epidemic of street crime in 2001–2, fuelled by a new wave of snatching mobile phones, which had not long been widely available and were therefore highly desirable.

The government didn’t fold, but initially it sought only to survive, announcing programs and funding but not really getting to grips with the problem. Similarly, the police argued that with more money they would be able to slow (but not halt) the rate of increase — perhaps that would have helped in media terms but clearly not in reducing the misery of the victims.

The Prime Minister was frustrated. He wanted to know why the Government could be effective in a ‘real’ crisis, but couldn’t get on top of a problem like this. As a result, we decided to treat the street crime issue as a full-blown crisis, and the Prime Minister publicly promised to get it under control within six months.

We gathered all the key players, including ministers, police chiefs and prosecutors together regularly — almost daily to start with, then weekly, then monthly. We began to gather weekly data — down to the precise location and time of day of each individual crime — and we broke the problem down into its detailed constituent parts. Practical solutions were applied with rigour, pace and urgency. If an idea worked, we built on it; if it didn’t, we dropped it.

The approach was successful. Street crime dropped dramatically in the following six months. The problem was tackled head-on, and both policing and government became more effective. More importantly, we had a new sense of belief that big complex problems were soluble if you tackled them with urgency and learnt along the way. We had not just survived a crisis; we had become more effective overall as a result of it. That was ‘antifragility’ in practice.

Much depends on the context, of course, and on the courage of political leaders — but it is always worth asking when you see a government running into a crisis; what would the ‘antifragile’ response look like?