Becoming Anti-Fragile

Nassim Nicholas Taleb  is an author who specializes in studying uncertainty.  He’s a Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. His main theme is how to cope with “decision making under opacity”, or “how we should live in a world we don’t understand.”

In his latest book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, he talks about the three classes of things (and by extension, systems and people) in the world:

  • Fragile: vulnerable to unforeseen shocks
  • Robust: indifferent to shocks
  • Antifragile: thrive on shocks, at least in some way.

In a 2012 Fast Company article, he discusses how foolish we are when we seek order in chaotic world; we are comforted, but not smart, to do so. “You get pseudo-order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness.” he’s quoted as saying.

He thinks it’s cool he’s featured on a calendar.

The idea that your career can be fragile is not a new one. There are times when you feel fragile – when the company is struggling, for example, or management changes. It’s the unseen dangers lurking around the corner that are more frightening. If you don’t think you’re at risk, you won’t be prepared.  Taleb likens people who don’t prepare for randomness to turkeys in mid-November; they’re happy, but not likely to survive.

Moving from fragile to robust take three things: nimble skills, a great network, and a sideline gig.

Fragile careerists wait for their employers to train them in what they need to know; they consider learning a necessary evil, and they resist change, which always means starting over at getting good at your job. Robust careerists stay one step ahead of what their job, their company and their industry is demanding. They consider learning to be their job. Having nimble skills means that you are ready to pick up new tasks, new technology and new ideas quickly – you’ve positioned yourself to be in a learning mode all the time, not just when you’re expected to be “in training.”

Fragile careerists don’t enjoy networking – they consider it to be something to do when you need help. Robust careerists know that a great network needs continuous care and feeding, A great network is made up of people who understand your skills and can champion them to others.  It’s the difference between someone saying “I know Candace”  – and saying “Do I know a great writer who never misses a deadline?  Yes – you should talk to Candace.” That takes time and excellence – you must build a reputation and stay connected with people, even when you don’t need a job or a favor. (By the way, staying connected means that you may be helping others with jobs or favors, building good career karma.)

Fragile careerists depend on their job to provide all their income and opportunities.  Take a moment to read that sentence again. If you have only one source of income, opportunities, and chances to grow your skills, it takes just one call to put you out of work. If you have other gigs, you’ll always have another source of income that you can grow when you need it. I’ve been talking and writing about gigs for years, ever since a professor of mine suggested to me that every professional should have a sideline that was under her control. Whether it’s buying and selling on EBay, owning rental property, creating art or crafts for sale, freelance writing or seasonal tax preparation, your sideline helps supplement your income and may even become your fulltime job when you need it.

Some jobs are designed to be a series of gigs, and the people who work in them are constantly working on what’s next. They also have to be very, very good at what they do, because their continued employability depends on their skill set, and not simply on inertia on the part of their employer. The jazz musician who plays a weekend gig doesn’t feel pain and anguish when the gig ends; he’s already lined up his next gig. He may even have an agent in place who’s out there lining up new gigs for him.  Contrast that to your neighbor who just got laid off from his job at an office.

Being robust means that you can depend on yourself to survive unforeseeable events. You can give up the fear of uncertainty that makes so many people risk averse. They stay in terrible jobs working with people they don’t like because they are afraid of change. Becoming robust means you can say: “I have something better than job security; I have talent.”

Next: Move from robust to anti-fragile.

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