Live Like a Hydra

Thoughts on how to get stronger when things are chaotic.

Buster Benson
Aug 25, 2013 · 12 min read

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.


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 ( and habits (,, 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:

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):

#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.

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?

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:

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.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Buster Benson

Written by

Author of Why Are We Yelling?, a book about the art of productive disagreement. I run Previously product at Patreon, Slack, Twitter, and Amazon.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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