Live Like a Hydra
Thoughts on how to get stronger when things are chaotic.
If you’re familiar with the idea of antifragility, skip to #2.
#1 What is antifragility?
I’ve been a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb since reading Fooled By Randomness 9 years ago. It’s one of those books that you read and you can never look at the world the same way.
Since then he’s continued to think about the same ideas, and it’s been fascinating to follow. He really hit it out of the park with Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.
Basically, antifragile things are things that benefit from disorder, obstacles, unexpected events, change, etc.
- Obi-Wan: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
- The mythical Hydra, that grows two new heads every time you cut one off.
- “What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.”
- Natural selection, survival of the fittest, where the weak or unadapted perish, leaving the fit to continue on more suited to the environment.
- Silicon Valley — lots of small startups that are allowed to fail.
- Muscles get stronger when they’re pushed to the point of failure.
Being antifragile is different from being resilient or robust. Being resilient or robust means that you bounce back quickly from disturbances — for example, a bridge that can withstand a 9.0 earthquake, or our skin that can quickly repair itself of cuts and bruises.
Antifragility goes a step further and describes things that not only bounce back quickly, but come back stronger when they meet adversity. The way bacteria becomes resistant to antibiotics, or the way Venture Capitalists learn from the investments that fail and make smarter investments in the future.
Almost everything in the universe that has lasted a significant portion of time has an antifragile system in place. This is simply because the fragile things (things that could not withstand high levels of change and adversity) and even the resilient things have been eliminated over the years as the universe changed around them.
#2 The Chaos Monkey
If you’re familiar with Netflix’s Chaos Monkey, skip to #3.
Netflix has a server architecture that currently serves a pretty high percentage of all of the internet’s traffic, due to their streaming video service.
One of the most interesting things about their server architecture is that they routinely attack their own systems. They have a tool called Chaos Monkey that randomly disables their own production instances to make sure they can survive that common type of failure without any customer impact.
Because there are several ways in which servers can fail, they’ve also employed a fleet of monkeys that attack all manner of servers — some that are too slow, some that aren’t connected up to the proper server groups, some that just look weird, etc. And finally, there’s a Chaos Gorilla that doesn’t just turn off individual servers, but occasionally wipes out an entire availability zone, as if Godzilla had destroyed an entire portion of the country.
The philosophy is simple: by building a server architecture that expects failure, the system as a whole can learn how to withstand bigger and tougher obstacles even if they don’t know exactly when or how they will occur in real life.
#3 Life’s Chaos Monkey
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about goals (43things.com) and habits (healthmonth.com, 750words.com, 8:36pm) over the years, and I’ve long believed that the only way to change anything about your life is to guard against failure. Now I realize it’s more than that.
Goals and habits, as they are represented in mainstream culture, are very fragile things.
Goals, habits, and resolutions are often crafted with ambitious expectations that are then susceptible to the first rainy day, sick day, vacation day, holiday, grumpy day, low-energy day, or otherwise non-standard day.
Most goals and habits try to ignore the fact that chance occurrences will disturb their best laid plans. And by trying to ignore this random factor, they become extremely vulnerable to them.
Life’s Chaos Monkey has become very skilled at tripping up the best intentioned goal-maker or habit-maker. Ask anyone. Ask yourself.
That’s why almost all products and services that claim to be able to change you say that it only takes 21 days, or 30 days, or 90 days to change. The chance of a Chaos Monkey throwing a banana onto your path is smaller if you keep the time period low.
You might be able to exercise regularly for 21 days, or even 90 days, but more often than not this is because the Chaos Monkey was on vacation, or just bugging someone else (he’s a busy dude).
Eventually, he will show up. And you need to not only be ready for him, but welcome his wily antics.
#4 Love the Chaos Monkey
I’ve been pretty sick for the last 4 days.
My meditation habit and biking habit are totally offline.
Serving lots of Fail Whale.
And I’m okay with that.
The difference is that I’ve learned to love the Chaos Monkey, and rather than try to stay on a single track with my goals and habits all the time, I have a list of modes that I can switch to in response to my current mental and physical states.
Netflix’s servers probably don’t get super frustrated every time the Chaos Monkey strikes. Rather, because it’s expected (self-inflicted even), they become an opportunity to test, refine, and improve the recovery systems. Taking certain servers offline isn’t going to break their streak, or prove that they’re worthless as servers. Shifting gears and responding to the adversity is just a necessary step in order to recover faster.
The Chaos Monkey is actually here to help you.
The Chaos Monkey is here to help you practice switching gears, help you build antifragile responses, help you get stronger and smarter about your life, so that you survive even bigger monkeys in the future.
Instead of trying to meditate and take long bike rides during this health outage, for the last 4 days I’m all about taking walks, sitting in the sun, listening to audiobooks, and writing long posts on Medium (hi!).
If I were on a bike, being sick would be like hitting a steep hill. The way to get up the hill is to shift to a lower gear. Once I’m on flatter ground again, I can shift back up.
#5 An antifragile way of life
An antifragile way of life is all about finding a way to gain from the inevitable disorder of life. To not only bounce back when things don’t go as planned, but to get stronger, smarter, and better at continuing as a result of running into this disorder.
First, here are some principles that come from Antifragile:
- Stick to simple rules
- Build in redundancy and layers (no single point of failure)
- Resist the urge to suppress randomness
- Make sure that you have your soul in the game
- Experiment and tinker — take lots of small risks
- Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
- Don’t get consumed by data
- Keep your options open
- Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
- Respect the old — look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time
The general underlying principle here is to play the long game, keep your options open and avoid total failure while trying lots of different things and maintaining an open mind.
Things that don’t fit into these principles (that you’re probably more familiar with):
- Giving something up cold turkey
- Going all in with a single big change for a short period of time
- Tracking everything
- Using the latest and greatest gadgets and apps
#6 Seven modes (for seven heads)
Everything in the universe goes through cycles. Cycles of high energy and low energy. Cycles of change and stability. Cycles of focus and distraction. We’re no different, but most of the time we are trying to force fit ourselves into a mode that we aren’t in, and that causes trouble.
Here are seven modes that I think capture a good chunk of my own day to day states.
- Recovery Mode. This is the mode where we are burned out, tired, over-stimulated, under-nourished, and basically useless. This Chaos Monkey has hit us and we are down. The goal of this mode is to get out of it. The way to get out of it is to focus on the basics: sleep, water, sunshine, vegetables, exercise, stretching, meditation, nature, comfort of friends, walks, and good books and other entertainment. Trying to be productive is pointless. Productivity happens in other modes… so work on moving out of this mode, slowly, patiently, without beating yourself up.
- Novelty Mode. This mode has a slightly higher energy level than Recovery Mode but not quite enough energy to focus on a specific thing. The key here is to channel the desire for distraction into seeking novelty. Meeting new people, trying new restaurants, going new places, learning about something new. It’s also a great place to think about the people that are important to you, reaching out to important people that you haven’t connected with in a while, restarting hobbies that have fallen by the wayside, and revisiting things that you don’t like to see if maybe there’s something new there that changes things.
- Work Mode. This mode is about the same energy level as Novelty Mode but is handy when there’s a big backlog of things that need to get done that have been weighing on you. Things that don’t require much creativity or thought to do, but which just need to be banged out. Fixing things, cleaning things, maintaining things, organizing things, etc. When done in the right mode, this kind of slogging work can actually be very satisfying.
- Self Mode. This mode is all about reconnecting with yourself. Making sure that you know what your needs are, and are able to take the steps to make sure that they’re met. This mode benefits from the progress of having your basics covered (sleep, nutrition, exercise) as well as having some outlet for the crazy energy that can only be taken care of by exploration and grunt work. Once in this mode, you’re ready to calm down, think about your values and beliefs, think about your interests and important people, and make decisions that are in your best long-term interest even if they’re difficult in the short term. Get your own head screwed on right.
- Flow Mode. This is a higher energy mode than Novelty, Work, and Self Mode, and requires that you’ve got at least one known interest that you’re ready to pour your soul into. A life project. It takes a lot of energy and time to get into the flow and have quality time with a deep interest, but once there it is one of the most fulfilling modes to be in. Put in quality time towards something bigger than you, something you love.
- People Mode. Quality time with people you love is probably the most rewarding experience we can have on this planet. The list is short of people that fit this category, and these are the people that are most easy to take for granted. Also, some relationships might need repair or re-connection before quality time is possible. Being in this mode is all about doing the work that sets you up for quality time, and making sure you have a chance to connect in a real way with the people that mean the most to you, as often as possible, while we can. Life is long, but not forever long.
- Gold Mode. This mode is much like Recovery Mode, except where your beliefs, relationships, interests, work, and sense of self are all lined up and working together. Where the first six modes require energy, this mythical seventh mode floats above them all. Honestly, I don’t know much about this mode, and have only experienced it in short bursts of tranquility, but I keep it here as a landmark for a way of living that is proactive, whole-hearted, and utterly unconflicted for sustained periods of time.
The purpose of these modes is to offer a selection of alternatives when one strategy isn’t working. Rather than beating my head against the wall because I’m trying to be social when I’d rather just organize my finances, these modes allow me to switch to the circumstances, and be productive within the mode that I’m currently in.
If you’re feeling stuck, switch modes. Try another head.
#7 How to be a Hydra
Being a Hydra is all about the long term. Thinking, even, about death, and the things that you’d look back on while you laid in your death bed as worth doing. Maximizing your life, today, to be reflected on positively from your death bed. Check out If I Live 100 Times, for a morbid exploration of that thought.
Okay, maximize the life we have. How?
- Think on the scale of months and years and decades (not hours, days, weeks).
- Think in terms of quality time with the people you love, passionate projects that you can pour your soul into, and your core beliefs (not day-to-day grievances, individual tasks, or short-lived challenges).
Follow simple rules. Create redundant systems.
Set a reminder on your phone, in your calendar, as a post-it note on your bathroom mirror, to remember the 1st of every month.
The 1st day of every month is your chance to re-start, revise, and recommit to the things that are most important to you.
Create a document on your computer, phone, or in a notebook titled something like “Review Every Month” and create sections for “My Goals”, “My Interests”, “My People”, “My Beliefs”, and “Chaos Monkey Tricks”.
See my doc as an example: Book of Beliefs
On the 1st day of the month, every month, open your “Review Every Month” document:
- Check in for last month. If you had a goal for last month, write “HIT” or “MISS” next to it, depending on if you think you did or did not meet the purpose of the goal. “MISS” is totally okay, it means you can edit the goal to be more antifragile this month. Write “PASS” next to any older goals that you hadn’t updated yet.
- Did the Chaos Monkey get you at all last month? If so, how did you respond to it, and should you have done anything differently? Add a brief description under the “Chaos Monkey Tricks” as a record.
- Did your list of interests that you pour your soul into change last month? Add, edit, or remove as necessary.
- Did your list of important people change last month? Add, edit, or remove as necessary.
- Did your beliefs change around anything? Add, edit, or remove as necessary.
- Sit for a second and think. Which mode(s) are you primarily in this month? (See #6 to review modes)
- If in Recovery Mode or Gold Mode, no need to set a goal for this month, just come back next month. Write “PASS” for this month’s goal. It’s TOTALLY OKAY to take a few months to recover. Take them… life is long, and it’s better to recover now than to stay in a burned out state for a long period of time.
- If in one of the other modes, copy, revise, or write a new goal for the month. Take into consideration the beliefs, people, and interests that support it. Also take into consideration any beliefs, people, or interests that might hinder it. Build in enough flexibility that it will be able to withstand any previous wily moves by the Chaos Monkey.
- If you’re ready to be fucking awesome this month, say “Fuck yeah!” If it’s going to a tough month but you are ready to meet it best you can, say “This is happening!” If you’re floundering, close the doc and go talk to one of your important people about it.
- If your goal requires any further reminders or systems to work, set those up. Be aware that confusion over tools is a classic Chaos Monkey move. If there’s any possibility at all, keep it simple. Track your progress in your head or on a piece of paper.
- Do your thing. And come back next month.
It all relies on returning each month, reviewing the most important things in your life (beliefs, people, interests), making note of how the Chaos Monkey is tripping you up, and making short-term goals to keep the most important things in your life front and center.
Note: The interesting paradox of this whole thing, however, is that it’s a bit of a circular dependency. The monthly review habit is itself a fragile thing. In order to make time for important things you need to already have motivation to make time for important things, because the process itself is an important thing. The meta-tip is to notice when circumstances in your life have naturally shifted to favor the important over the urgent (at the very least, Self Mode), and then that energy to set up calendars, alarms, peer pressure, and every other attention shifting tool in the world to bring you back every month. And if that doesn’t work, try again next time.
Go long, and get stronger and smarter along the way.
Go on. Be a Chaos Monkey loving Hydra.
My book, Why Are We Yelling?, is about the art of productive disagreement, and builds on many of the ideas that began with this article. It’ll be published in November by Penguin / Random House. Join my newsletter to receive updates and early thoughts about all of this.