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Weekly 3: Resilience: its promises & limits

Summary: Think like a turtle. Visualize the worst case to appreciate what you have. Be "antifragile."

Idea Journal Weekly 3

March 22 · Issue #131 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Think like a turtle. Visualize the worst case to appreciate what you have. Be “antifragile.” (~6 min read)

#1. Resilience is a competitive advantage in business
Author and researcher Josh Kaufman writes in his book The Personal MBA that because the world is a fundamentally uncertain place, your ability to change your strategy and tactics as conditions change can mean the difference between survival and failure.
Kaufman argues that resilience is an underrated quality in business: “Having the toughness and flexibility to handle anything that life throws at you is a major asset.”
For Kaufman, these are the seven qualities that make a business resilient: 
1. Backup systems for all core processes
2. Flexible workers who can handle many responsibilities well
3. Low (preferably zero) outstanding debt
4. Low fixed costs, operating expenses, and overhead
5. Multiple independent products / industries / lines of business
6. No single points of failure
7. Substantial cash reserves for unexpected events
He admits that these aren’t the sexiest business practices. But when unexpected negative events happen, being sexy is less important.
Kaufman uses an analogy from the animal kingdom to illustrate the importance of resilience. 
Turtles aren’t the sexiest creatures. They can’t fly. They can’t run fast. And they don’t have sharp teeth or claws. 
But what turtles do have is a set of protective strategies. They can use camouflage, swim quickly, snap with their jaws, and if all else fails, retract into their shell and wait for the threat to pass. 
Most other creatures are in trouble if they’re cornered by a predator, but turtles have a fighting chance. Turtles can also eat a variety of foods and go into hibernation during tough times. That’s why they live so long. 
All of this makes turtles “the armored tanks of nature.”
On the other hand, tigers rely on their power and speed to chase down prey. When times are good, they thrive. But if prey becomes scarce, or if a tiger loses its ability to hunt effectively because of age or injury, death takes them mercilessly.
Kaufman acknowledges that resilience is never optimal if you evaluate your business solely on a measure like dollar throughput: how quickly you create a dollar of profit.
The flexibility that resilience brings comes at a cost. 
Similarly, a turtle’s shell is heavy — it could certainly move faster without it. But giving up the shell, “would leave the turtle vulnerable in the moments when moving a little faster isn’t fast enough.”
#2. Building emotional resilience
Philosophy professor William Irvine writes in his book The Stoic Challenge that we can become more emotionally resilient by using a technique from ancient Stoicism called “negative visualization.”
Imagine you receive a phone call telling you that a close friend has died. Give yourself a few seconds for this possibility to sink in. For instance, think of attending their funeral. 
Now go back to your daily business. 
As Irvine notes, when you next see this friend, you will likely feel a small burst of delight in their continued existence. 
Because for a brief moment in time, you stopped taking their existence for granted.
For Irvine, what’s so effective about negative visualization is how simple it is to do: “You need not study with a guru on a distant mountaintop, nor practice for years to become proficient.”
It only takes a few seconds. 
Yet it’s easy for us to take what we have for granted. 
During a long period in which nothing bad happens, we might forget to do negative visualization. Irvine admits that he himself has at times become complacent. 
But life has a way of shaking us out of such complacency by presenting us with setbacks. With the right frame of mind, we can do our best to view such setbacks as a kind of favor. They can trigger in us a renewed appreciation for our life and circumstance. 
As Irvine puts it, with some cleverness you can find a bright lining to nearly any cloud you encounter: “Almost regardless of how bad things are, they could be worse, and this alone is reason to give thanks.”
#3. Beyond resilience
Author Buster Benson writes in an essay called Live Like a Hydra that we can do more than simply be resilient in the face of setbacks. 
For Benson, being resilient means that you can bounce back from some disturbance. For example, a bridge that can withstand a strong earthquake, or how your body repairs itself after it’s bruised. 
But Benson argues that it’s possible not only to withstand such a disturbance, but to benefit from it. He gets his inspiration from statistician and writer Nassim Taleb, who coined the term “antifragile.”
Being antifragile means benefitting from adversity or negative events. For example, how bacteria becomes resistant to antibiotics, or the way venture capitalists learn from failed investments to make smarter investments in the future.
As Benson puts it, an antifragile way of life is about finding a way to gain from inevitable disorder: “To not only bounce back when things don’t go as planned, but to get stronger, smarter, and better at continuing as a result.”
Benson offers the following ten life principles based on Taleb’s concept of antifragile: 
1. Stick to simple rules
2. Build in redundancy and layers – avoid single points of failure
3. Resist the urge to suppress randomness
4. Make sure that you are fully committed to your work
5. Take many small risks – experiment and tinker
6. Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
7. Don’t get consumed by data
8. Keep your options open
9. Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
10. Look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time – respect what lasts
Other Weekly 3 issues about resilience
Quote of the Week
“In December the New York Times Magazine published an essay called ‘The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience.’ It pointed out that the word is now used everywhere, often in ways that drain it of meaning and link it to vague concepts like ‘character.’ But resilience doesn’t have to be an empty or vague concept. In fact, decades of research have revealed a lot about how it works. This research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught. In recent years, we’ve taken to using the term sloppily—but our sloppy usage doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been usefully and precisely defined. It’s time we invest the time and energy to understand what ‘resilience’ really means.”
- Author Maria Konnikova in her essay called How People Learn to Become Resilient
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