Antifragile Education: How to Learn for Life in a Changing World


“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” -Nassim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile

In Antifragile, statistician and scholar Nassim Nicolas Taleb argues that there are three types of responses people and things can have to stress, disorder, and change over time:

1) Robust — Unharmed by disorder. These things or people possess an enduring quality, neither strengthening or weakening with stress. Think of a mountain, a bank account flush with cash, or a well-managed business that has lasted for a century.

2) Fragile — Damaged by disorder. These things are often complex products of human design and can generally only work in the absence of stress or change. Think of a wine glass, an index fund of high-risk stocks on the eve of the Great Depression, or a centrally-planned economy (Greece may be a particularly relevant example).

3) Antifragile — A new category. Someone or something who is antifragile actually grows stronger as a result of disorder. Think of an Olympic weight trainer, gold (or Bitcoin), or the creative destruction of a free market.

Why is this important to education?

The world is changing. Schooling is not.

Schooling is still teaching us to memorize facts when access to the accumulated knowledge of the world is only a web search away. It teaches us to view creativity as some kind of freak attribute of the precious few when creative tools and creative education are cheaper than ever. It teaches obedience to patterns and central plans passed down from people who don’t know how to use email.

In other words, school is training us to be fragile.

We live in a world that demands daily personal creative destruction. Your future job probably hasn’t been invented yet.

Technology isn’t the only thing that is “disrupting” the world we live in. The cultural and ideological norms we’ve come to accept are always changing around us and (if we’re not careful) making us irrelevant. This has been true of every generation, and it’s no less true of ours.

One of the most important things we can do now is to learn how to learn in any circumstance, at any age, and with or without any structure. If we want to thrive in this future (instead of inevitably turning into the kind of people who shake our canes at “kids these days”), we have to make our educations and our careers antifragile.

Here are some of the lessons of antifragility from Taleb’s book that rang true for me in my experience in learning:

Make variability routine.

“. . . we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living. . .”

The best way to make yourself fragile to change is to never experience it. Sitting in a classroom or at a desk and regulating your time by bells and alarms may be a good way to prepare for the status quo. It’s not the kind of lifestyle that lets you enjoy and participate in the daily revolutions happening all around us.

Find a way to test your weaknesses and improve your strengths by doing and learning things you’re not used to. Completely baffled by technology? Try to learn how to code. Cloistered away from the world of the market? Learn how to sell. Don’t consider yourself a literary person? Start reading Jane Austen. Take the roads less traveled by and prepare yourself to adapt by adapting your learning, your skills, and your work even when you don’t have to.

Embrace positive stress.

“. . . the best way to learn a language may be an episode of jail in a foreign country.”

School teaches us that obedience to a protocol is enough — that there is no situation that authorities can’t (and shouldn’t) solve for us. Many of us run the risk of believing it. We spend our learning and working lives running away from stress and shirking responsibility for many of our most significant choices. Though we may have long lists of resolutions, we find ourselves unable to produce anything of consequence.

On the contrary, people who grow and learn more do harder things with their lives. Our ancestors were reading Shakespeare and Plutarch when they were children. They settled frontiers and raised families as teenagers. They walked twenty miles to school in the snow every day (OK, that last one was a joke). My point is that people who have done extraordinary things in history were not extraordinary people. They simply had the freedom to adapt and thrive with the positive stress of extraordinary challenges.

Like them (and all humans) we’re motivated the most by the biggest, most audacious goals we can imagine. Just as a weight trainer gains strength from struggle, we gain most from battling to take our lives and learning to higher plateaus. There are plenty of extraordinary challenges left for us. Let’s allow ourselves the freedom and courage we need to embrace them.

Create first. Read textbooks later.

“Technology is the result of antifragility, exploited by risk-takers in the form of tinkering and trial and error, with nerd-driven design confined to the backstage.”

Some of the best and most lasting human achievements are often discovered through a process of tinkering — taking and working directly with an already-proven framework or model. Antibiotics? Largely an accident. The majority of computer software? Created using some kind of open source or open-standard framework. Even the best works of drama, literature, and music arise from a mixing of past cultural memes and stories by artists who build on the work of predecessors.

My point isn’t that innovation only emerges spontaneously. My point is that all great creations share the iterative and hands-on process we use to learn everything from language and bike riding to walking and feeding ourselves. All humans learn these most difficult and significant skills of our lives by just doing them, even in the most schooled cultures.

If we want to become truly antifragile, we can benefit from asking what other learning we’ve been denied by making our education about consumption instead of production.

Get some skin in the game.

“Never ask anyone for their opinion, forecast, or recommendation. Just ask them what they have — or don’t have — in their portfolio.”

The whole process of schooling from kindergarten to college is focused on chasing the ultimate credential — the degree. Ticket to a stable middle class life? Perhaps it was at one point, but we put a lot at stake when we sacrifice our ability to learn independently in order to gain security in a social status quo that has all of the convincing permanence of a pre-voyage Titanic.

What happens when the degree doesn’t stand for much in the marketplace? What happens when people (rightly) start to demand more from their educations and more proof of their creativity, hard work, and mastery than the signature of a university president?

Schooling tends to shield us from taking ultimate responsibility for proving our worth. We put our own names on the line and “skin in the game” when we have to own our work and earn that proof ourselves. That may mean taking a job instead of partying through college. It may mean creating art and subjecting it to brutal ridicule. It may mean being uncomfortable in a foreign country for a few months in order to really learn a language and culture.

Having skin in the game won’t just help you to make better decisions — it will help you create a stronger credential than any institution could hand out on graduation day. It will allow you to make learning more than a phase in your life but a definitive part of your personality instead.

Future-proofing education

Ultimately, building an antifragile life is about basing our our knowledge and ability on the process of learning.

This may seem fairly intuitive. What isn’t intuitive is that we have to deschool ourselves of the habits and mindsets of imposed order that make us fragile. It isn’t intuitive for many of us that we have to be in charge of the learning process ourselves. Always.

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to leave top-down systems of education for alternatives that put that self-direction first. The irony of the institutions that make us too fragile to enjoy this world is that, in the end, they are too fragile to hold us.


James Walpole is a writer, podcaster, and marketer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He currently works with bitcoin payment technology company BitPay and explores the ideas and people behind the decentralization movement with the DECENTRALIZE podcast. He also writes and works with Praxis, a ten-month program for entrepreneurial and self-directed young learners.

Originally published in a modified form as “Learning for Life in a Changing World: How to Make Your Education Antifragile” at blog.discoverpraxis.com on July 1, 2015.

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