Anti-Fragility as We Train Ourselves to Improve

There are several ways to make sure our difficulties lead to strength rather than stagnation
August 13, 2020 Updated: August 13, 2020

As I’ve been diving into my Fearless Mastery mastermind program, with some of the most amazing people, I’ve been introducing some key ideas for training ourselves.

These are ideas I’ve been developing in my Sea Change and Fearless Training programs, as I’ve trained thousands of people to shift their habits as well as the patterns that get in the way of our meaningful work.

Here’s the problem when we try to train ourselves to change:

  1. We set out to do something regularly—exercise, meditate, write, create something, etc.
  2. We fail at it.
  3. Then we fall apart. We might beat ourselves up, get discouraged, and give up.

This is a fragile, non-resilient approach. Maybe we try this half a dozen times, and eventually, we think something is wrong with us.

There’s nothing wrong with us. The problem is with the fragile approach of falling apart when we fail.

Instead, I’ve been training people with the idea of anti-fragility built into our training system.

Anti-Fragility, in Short

The idea of anti-fragility comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “Black Swan”: The basic idea is that many human-made systems are fragile. Something comes to stress the system, and it falls apart. Some systems are robust or resilient, which is much better than fragile.

But even better is the idea of being anti-fragile: stress makes the system stronger.

Human systems are anti-fragile—when we exercise, we’re stressing the system, and after we recover, we’re stronger and better able to handle that stress. Bones get denser with impact. Lots of natural systems have anti-fragile mechanisms built-in.

We can make human-made systems more anti-fragile by designing ways that stress will make the system better able to handle stress. Failure helps the system get stronger.

Let’s look at how to apply this idea into our training—any kind of learning, habit formation, physical or mental training, anything where we’re trying to improve something.

Key Ideas for Anti-Fragility

Before we get into specifics for training systems, let’s look at some key ideas I’ve found to be useful:

  1. Expect stress, failures, crashes.
  2. Design the training system to not only be resilient but to get stronger with stresses and failure.
  3. Remove fragility from the system. Examples: smoking, debt, having too many possessions, or being super hurt or mad when you meet with criticism or failure.
  4. Take small risks often; small experiments designed to help us learn from failure. Example: Every day, I try to get better at doing hard work, with each day being a mini-experiment. I fail often, which means I learn often.
  5. Embrace uncertainty, risk, failure, discomfort. These become things to help you grow, rather than things to be avoided, complained about, or collapsed over. Embrace variability, noise, tension.
  6. The attitude is to always learn and get better from failure. Don’t bemoan it, embrace it and learn, improve, and grow stronger. Love error. When your system gets stressed, how will it respond in order to get stronger?
  7. Intentionally inject stress into your life—do sprints, lift heavy weights, fast, take cold showers, take on challenges, experiments, and adventures.

Now let’s apply this to our training systems.

Anti-Fragile Training Systems

Some ideas to use in training:

Do small experiments designed to help you learn from failure.

Small is good. Big and bulky leads to failure when big stressors happen. Instead, small means you’re lean, easily adaptable and can shift easily. For training, this will mainly apply to how we practice—we can intentionally do small experiments, small training sessions, instead of massive projects or very long sessions. Experiment with small exercise sessions, limited changes to diet, or short bursts of activity in a project you’ve been procrastinating on.

Adopt the attitude of embracing uncertainty, risk, failure, and discomfort.

Instead of being afraid of these and avoiding them, push into them and get better and better at dealing with them each time. In this way, every failure, every moment of uncertainty or discomfort becomes a wonderful opportunity to practice and get better. This turns these difficult moments into something to celebrate.

Do weekly reviews—use them to learn, adjust, and continually improve.

Each daily experiment should be logged—how did you do that day, what went well, what got in the way, and what can you learn and adjust going forward? Then take a little time to review each week, and use the data to learn and adjust. This is the kind of structure we need to use the stress in our lives to grow.

Use accountability and support.

Report every day or every week to people so that they can support you, hold your feet to the fire, and help you see your patterns that are getting in the way. Reporting to other people helps us to learn from our mistakes and failures. Having a group support you also gives you a net that you can fall back on when you fall, so that you don’t have to completely collapse.

Build in redundancy.

If you have a single point of failure, it’s easy to collapse when things go wrong. For training, I recommend having multiple ways to be held accountable, multiple reminders and check-ins/reviews. These might seem a little tedious until we realize they are making us more likely to stick to our training.

Reduce things that make you more fragile.

Smoking makes you more fragile, as does unhealthy eating. What makes our training more fragile? Complaining, resentment, and similar negative thinking habits. While we might not be able to avoid these completely, we’re going to try to reduce them, to improve our overall resilience and anti-fragility.

Intentionally inject stress into your life.

We don’t want to constantly seek comfort because it trains us to be fragile. But too much stress and pain can destroy us with burnout and depression. So we want to give ourselves just enough stress that we can handle and grow from it. Regularly. So training ourselves to accept uncertainty and discomfort regularly, when we have the capacity to handle it, can help us grow. Stress, recover, grow.

Be kind to yourself—but overcome your tendencies.

Beating yourself up doesn’t help. It only makes you more fragile. It is tremendously helpful to learn to be compassionate with yourself. That said, it’s easy to let yourself off the hook. So it helps to bind yourself, when you’re in your best frame of mind, in a commitment contract. Tell people, “If I don’t meditate every day this week, I owe you $100.” Or something like that; it doesn’t have to be money. Don’t let yourself make the training or challenge easier for anything in the coming week—you can only change your training for days that are further than a week.

See opportunities in everything.

It’s an anti-fragile idea to take advantage of opportunities. When good opportunities arise, be able to take advantage of them. For training, it’s good to learn to see opportunities to practice in everything, and then take advantage of those practice opportunities as much as we can.

Questions to Ask Ourselves

With those things built into the system, it’s good to ask ourselves questions such as:

  1. What are the things that are making me (or my business) fragile? Some examples might be smoking, unhealthy foods, negative thinking, inability to receive feedback, too much debt, too many possessions, etc.
  2. What is mission-critical that would cause me to fail if it failed? How can I create redundancy there. Do I have two of an essential item or safeguard? Can I create a Plan A, B, and C?
  3. What kind of support network can I create (or do I have) that can help me recover quickly when a stressful event or failure happens?
  4. How can I optimize for the worst-case instead of the best? How can I support my effort to resist seeking comfort all the time?
  5. How can I see an opportunity in every difficulty?

I highly encourage you to build these ideas into whatever training and self-improvement efforts you’re taking on.

And I strongly encourage you to check out my Sea Change and Fearless Training programs, and of course, the Fearless Mastery mastermind when it opens up again.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net