This is the second post in a series about the book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
In the previous post I talked about the core concept of antifragility and its applications to fitness. Now it’s time to take the idea of antifragility and use it to help us make better decisions. How? By using barbells! Oh wait, I meant just metaphorically. Wait, this has nothing to do with barbells? Well, sorta. You’ll have to stick around, as I want to recap fragility and bring another important concept related to hour our bodies stay strong into the picture: hormesis, before throwing barbells around.
“Use it or lose it”
Hormesis ruins everyone’s fun, especially mine, since I can’t come up with a good joke about it. Put simply, hormesis is present in any system which weakens when it isn’t exposed regularly to stressors; most systems in the human body are exactly like this. It’s why you can’t just go nuts exercising one day a week then return to couchpotato-dom for the next six days and wonder why you didn’t get any stronger. Hormesis is also why you don’t want to wake up from a coma just in time for the zombie apocalypse. Good luck runnin’ on those sticks for legs. Hormesis also influences our ability to handle head and cold. If I were to go off to the Caribbean for 6 months I’d lose my almost Viking-like cold tolerance that I’ve developed (again) in the past several months, and maybe just maybe my body would actually tan properly for once (adapting to a different stressor: too much sun for my pale self). Anyhow, there are tons of examples of hormesis which I could ramble on about, but there is one big catch: the size of the stressor matters.
Hormesis only applies to small stressors that either don’t trigger antifragility (growth) or fragility. We’ve already discussed antifragility happening at the edges of our ability, but what’s an example of fragility here? Well, if you usually play catch with your friends using heavy(ish) rocks suitable for your strength, you’re still in that nice antifragile zone. However, if you decide let the lonely Cyclops join in on your game (it’s the nice thing to do!)…those boulders he likes to throw are going to turn you into a human pancake real quick. This isn’t exactly a Looney Toons cartoon, so I’m pretty sure you aren’t going to pop back up to full size after the despondent Cyclops yanks the rock off of your flattened self. There’s no way we’re fixing you up - that’s some seriously (fatal) fragility.
Once a pancake, always a pancake
When dealing with fragility, as I said above, it happens quite often that once we break something it can’t be fixed, or at least it won’t return to its original strength (something especially true of ligaments, by the way). Taleb calls it the path dependence of fragility. You can’t break your arm then hit a new record in your handstand, or bust your knees then succeed at that huge jump you were working on. To grow stronger our first priority is to avoid injury before we concern ourselves with growth (antifragility). Even with more optimistic situations of smaller injuries, such as me bruising the hell out of my quad. I had to stop using that leg entirely, then slowly re-introduced it to movement once the healing process was far enough along. It took months before that leg was back to full strength, and that was just a muscle contusion. In the case of our pancaked friend earlier, just like humpty dumpty, they weren’t able to put him back together again.
With all the above in mind about avoiding fragility (bad stuff) while needing and wanting both hormesis (little stressors) and antifragility (edge stressors) we I can finally talk about barbells -yes, still metaphorical. Barbells provide us with a good way to picture a bimodal strategy for dealing with uncertainty. The idea here is that we want to be doing stuff that promotes hormesis and antifragility, but we want to avoid fragilizing activities as much as possible.
To make this more concrete, I’m going to begin by applying the barbell strategy to building strength and physical capacity first. We can think of any barbell strategy as a spectrum, with robustness (hormesis in this case) on the left, fragility occupying the middle, and antifragility (supercompensation) on the right. Since we want to avoid fragility we chop out the middle and what we’re left with looks oddly like a barbell doesn’t it?* In practice the barbell might not look that “balanced” as that, because in many cases we want to stay mostly on the “robust” side. By doing so we are able to frequently take small (edge) risks with potential for higher payoffs. In other words, staying safe most of the time permits us to take more speculative risks,.
In this case, to make this all less annoyingly abstract, on the left we have “bulletproofing” sometimes also called developing “body armor” or a “body corset.” All the names aside, the idea is to make ourselves extremely resistant to injury through certain types of conditioning, mobility, and soft-tissue work. There is more nuance to it than that, but no room to expand further here. On the right is supercompensation (mentioned in the last post) where we push the edge of our abilities, making our body strengthen itself in preparation for something even more difficult the next time. Here the balance between robust and antifragile activities may be more even, considering it’s often a 3⁄4 split of working out to recovery days for many people.
What is the biggest cause of fragility in this situation? Poor form and technique, whether that’s because you’re just doing it wrong, or because you’re too tired to be able to maintain proper form. In either situation moving poorly leads to injuries (nagging or serious). To avoid injuries it is better to regress to an easier movement, take a break, or stop entirely than to continue moving with bad form. Sure, it’s less obviously dangerous than a Cyclops hurling a boulder towards your face, but it’s quite possibly worse because it’s more insidious and sneaky. At least you can dodge a boulder at the last second. The “medium” or middle risk of moving with bad form though, you won’t know it’s there until it stabs you all of a sudden.
*Note: You can’t completely remove or avoid some fragility, which is what the visible bar between robustness and antifragility represents.
The Mischievous Middle
It’s that beastly medium risk that presents the greatest problems for us. As I said, we can usually see massive danger and steer clear of it most of the time. “Medium risks” on the other hand seem completely fine, and it’s also easier to take these risks far too often. Let’s imagine we have a jump; reasonably challenging for you, but not beyond your abilities. It looks something like this:
You can hear some ominous gnawing sounds coming from the darkness beyond the jump - “_can’t overshoot it” _you think to yourself, knowing “bad things” are lurking there. The drop between the two walls isn’t so bad though; you could easily take that landing for hours without apparent issue. You do wonder what’s up with the lone bunny, but it’s just a sleeping bunny. No. Big. Deal. You get to work on breaking that jump, taking a sizable drop every time you miss. With every drop there’s a chance you’ll wake up the bunny, but so far so good (“it’s just a bunny, where’s he going with this?”). About an hour into training you finally stir the bunny from its deep reverie. Feeling bad for waking it you begin to walk over with a snack, what a nice guy. Little did you know, but that’s no ordinary bunny, it’s the Bunny of Caerbannog! The bunny’s once charcoal eyes glow red and with a terrifying squeak (is that even possible?) it lunges for your jugular. And so ends the tale of a once brave and kind hearted traceur.
(Okay okay, if you want to be all realistic, and ruin the fun technically you’d most likely just end up with busted knees, but bunnies don’t like your bony knees. Deal.)
Holy hand grenades
Death to cute critters aside, we don’t perceive those “medium” risks as near as dangerous as they really are. The problem is compounded by the fact that because they don’t seem that dangerous it’s easier to do them often, far too often. Taking a couple of moderate risks occasionally isn’t likely to get you in trouble, but the more often you take them the higher the odds of “bad stuff” happening (oh, probability). Remember, with path dependence, all you need is one instance of “bad stuff” to ruin all progress, either temporarily or permanently. Unlike killer bunnies, there are no holy hand grenades to completely eliminate all medium risk, which means we have to be aware enough to avoid it as often as possible.
We can’t use barbell strategies for absolutely everything, but it is a potent tool for any situation where we are dealing with uncertainty. I used movement and training as examples, for obvious reasons, but also because there is always an element of risk and uncertainty with them. You can easily apply it to financial risks, personal/social risks, and any number of other arenas (gladiatorial combat? Okay, not that) in life. Just remember never play catch with Cyclopi (too much stress/risk) and stay away from deceivingly cute bunnies (medium stress/risks) as often as you can. Now that you know about those sneaky buggers at worst they’ll bite you in the ass as you’re escaping. It’s okay, the teeth marks will just serve as a permanent reminder. Best keep those to yourself though, good luck explaining them otherwise. :P
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