Be Agile & Antifragile: How to Find Strength and Happiness From Chaos

“Do not believe that the person who is trying to offer you solace lives his life effortlessly among the simple and quiet words that might occasionally comfort you. His life is filled with much hardship and sadness, and it remains far beyond yours. But if it were otherwise, he could never have found these words.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Life

That’s one of my favorite Rilke quotes, and a disclaimer that should be included at the start of every thought-leader’s book, course or keynote speech (at least of those I create). It is so damn easy to look at others and compare “our insides to their outsides.” We all intuitively know that comparison is a losing game and yet we do it anyway.

Why?

Because we are hungry for something. Whether it’s acknowledgment, affection, adoration or accomplishment — we want the essence and the impact that someone else seems to effortlessly effuse.

So we set goals! and intentions! and bucket lists! and affirmations! and we try to find and wrangle and tie-down THIS THING that will ease the discomfort of the tugging truth buried deeper still:

The only certainty is uncertainty. Change is the only constant. 

Mid- and quarterilfe crises are out; pivots are the new normal. And they will only happen more frequently as technology continues to transform our economy and our lives at warp speed.

Antifragile: Love Your Errors

The skill you need for the 21st century is NOT to learn how to set bigger or better goals.

It is to dive head-first into uncertainty, risk, and insecurity and understand that it is from these experiences that you become Antifragile.

It is from these experiences—the ones that rip you apart so that you can rebuild even stronger—that you collect a bank of insights to share with the world.

From Antifragile author Nassim Taleb’s prologue to the book:

Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos; you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.

We don’t want to just survive uncertainty, to just about make it. We want to survive uncertainty and, in addition—like a certain class of aggressive Roman Stoics—have the last word. The mission is how to domesticate, even dominate, even conquer, the unseen, the opaque, and the inexplicable.

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means—crucially—a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them—and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.”

—Nassim Taleb, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder

Embrace Your Neurosis

According to Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote (tied with Antifragile for my favorite book of the year) insecurity, goal-less living and worst-case scenario thinking can actually be great gifts, contrary to much pop-happiness advice.

For those of you who have racked up your own 10,000 hours of neurosis, worry not:

“The more radical possibility—the one that takes us to the core of the ‘negative’ approach to happiness—is that there might be something more fundamentally problematic about the goal of security; and that real happiness might be dependent on being willing to face, and to tolerate, insecurity and vulnerability.

(Quoting Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton) ‘The truth that many people never understand is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.’

Seen this way, it becomes clear that security-chasing is a large part of the problem with the ‘cult of optimism.’ Through positive thinking and related approaches, we seek the safety and solid ground of certainty, of knowing how the future will turn out, of a time in the future when we’ll be ceaselessly happy and never have to fear negative emotions again. But in chasing all that, we close down the very faculties that permit the happiness we crave.

. . . Trying to flee from insecurity to security, from uncertainty to certainty, is an attempt to find an exit from the very system that makes us who we are in the first place. This, then, is the deep truth about insecurity: it is another word for life.

—Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

Surf the Void: Find Meaning in Empty Spaces

“Periods of recovery are likewise intrinsic to creativity and to intimate connection. Sounds become music in the spaces between notes, just as words are created by the spaces between letters. It is in the spaces between that love, friendship, depth and dimension are nurtured.”

—Jim Loehr

The methods described in Antifragile and Antidote are not for the faint of heart. If we are to ditch pop-happiness psych and dive headfirst into chaos, we must release our grasp on the illusion of security and embrace the empty spaces between goal posts, relationship milestones and achievements.

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “that which you can plan is too small for you to live,” you’ll resonate with these words from Rilke:

“Each experience has its own velocity according to which it wants to be lived if it is to be new, profound, and fruitful. To have wisdom means to discover this velocity in each individual case.

. . . After all, life is not even close to being as logically consistent as our worries; it has many more unexpected ideas and many more facets than we do.

. . . How numerous and manifold is everything that is yet to come, and how differently it all surfaces and how differently it all passes from the way we expect. How poor we are in imagination, fantasy, and expectation, how lightly and superficially we take ourselves in making plans, only for reality then to arrive and play its melodies on us.

. . . We make our way through Everything like thread passing through fabric: giving shape to images that we ourselves do not know.”

Goals are mere hypotheses.

Be a scientist in your own life: try new things, gather data, observe and adjust. Come alive through the game of it all, and when you get knocked down, remember:

“Whatever is yet to occur does not fall from the skies at the last moment but resides always already right next to us, around us and within our heart, waiting for the cue that will summon it to visibility.” 

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Life

Celebrate Chaos

Sometimes the best thing you can do for a friend or loved one is encourage their leaps into the unknown without making any promises on the other side. Neither of you knows how things will turn out.

Encourage their exploration, their fumbling, their worry, their insecurity. Counter-intuitive though it may be, they don’t always need you to coddle, solve their problems, diagnose their neurosis or troubleshoot broken-down dreams.

They need you to help them embrace the living, learning and growing that is happening underneath all of that.

Help them see they are diving headfirst into antifragility, and maybe—just maybe—an even stronger sense of happiness that grows, like a lotus flower in mud, out of the chaos itself.

  • rickwilliamspga

    That’s the thing about chaos, embraced in a more positive light, is pretty fun (all situation dependent, obviously).

    There have been a handful of times over the past three years when I have realized/accepted/noticed a “thing” that was simple and obvious, yet so profound….I said to myself, “wow, you’re not crazy”.

    The “insecurity is another word for life” quote was one of those. There’s a number of ways I’ve found to turn that phrase into shapes. I created more “ease” than “dis-ease” when I did that. Kind of cool.

    • Rick – thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      I think what’s hardest about chaos is that it can still feel so damn challenging (and downright awful) in the middle of it. Even if we *know* it will eventually make us stronger somehow, it still doesn’t take the sting away while it’s happening. I think that’s the biggest paradox I have to make room for moving forward — that just because these theories all exist doesn’t mean we get to be rid of insecurity, doubt or fear — but as Burkeman says in the Antidote just realizing THAT is often the best medicine 🙂

      So glad the “insecurity is another word for life” lit up some lightbulbs for you — that line definitely jumped off the page for me too!

  • Lydia

    This is timely; I’ve been waffling a lot over my goals lately. Actually, I’ve been waffling over everything. Sometimes I try so hard to make the moments of my life meaningful and significant that everything falls flat from the effort. Odd but true: being mindful is exhausting. It freaks me out how fast time passes, and when a week has gone by and no obvious progress has been made, I feel short of breath, like I’m running out of time.

    A couple of months ago, I was having brunch with a friend at a local diner and an older man (at another table) had a really severe seizure from a brain aneurism. It was so sad — his daughter was crying and everyone felt powerless to legitimately help until the paramedics arrived. These moments always make me think… often harder and longer than I think is healthy because I end up talking myself into “go big or go home” commitments, not wanting to leave a stone unturned while I’m alive and healthy.

    If you could offer any tips on how to avoid this kind of grandiose logic, it would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,
    Lydia

    • Thank you so much for the incredibly thoughtful comment, Lydia! I really appreciate it — I can’t believe the story you shared — so intense and thought-provoking indeed.

      Being mindful IS exhausting sometimes! As is being aware of our own mortality (and for me, that of others who I love). I find what’s helpful is to just take deep breaths when I find myself getting overwhelmed/exhausted by those thoughts, and coming back to a place of gratitude. I’ll say something to myself like, “Wow, I’m really scared of losing XYZ in this moment. All I can do is be thankful it’s here today and keep going.” And know that you are resilient enough to handle what comes your way, even if it takes time to work through.

      As for not reaching your goals or big dreams yet, that’s okay! All in due time — I love Lao Tzu’s quote: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” I know the same will be true for you — just keep taking one small brave step each day 🙂

  • Fab

    WOW! This is one of the best posts you’ve written, Jenny. I love the ideas in it, it’s so so true… I still don’t know how to start to, for example, stop thinking that I will attain happiness if I stop suffering… But your post was a nice start, thank you.

    • Aw, thank you so much for the kind words! Just as you’re saying, I found the reverse to be most helpful: stop putting pressure on myself to feel HAPPY, and just let myself feel whatever shows up that day/week/month. That was a huge relief, and while it didn’t automatically make me HAPPY to do that (again, not the point!) I felt a big burden lifted 🙂

  • Ted Sperides

    Jenny- Fantastic post! This is something I needed to hear. I have been looking around for “answers” a lot lately and have been frustrated by those who I seek, not having them, or, not giving me the time I desire. It is so true, we are all fighting our own battle and we all have things other people wish they had. Thanks for writing! – Ted

    • Thanks Ted! I’m thrilled to hear this post resonated with you — and that Rilke quote at the top is always a great reminder for me too 🙂

  • Helen

    Absolutely wonderful post, Jenny. Thank you so much. [iwillbloom.wordpress.com]

    • Thank you so much Helen! I appreciate you reading and taking the time to comment 🙂

  • Jenn

    This is a great post, and something I need to consider more in my own life. Thanks for writing and putting together the Speak Like a Pro conference, I learned a lot from it!

    • Thanks so much for reading Jenn! And for taking the time to write AND be part of the conference — you rock!!

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  • Sim Campbell

    Jenny, this is a great post! I love how you brought together quotes from different sources to paint a broader picture of this elusive state.

    In my humble opinion, life is all about playing the long game. It’s all about who will be the last man standing. On a long enough timeline, the person who can crystallize and turn into an antifragile individual will steer the ship of their own life and be on the royal road to an ideal life.

    I have had experiences that have made me more resilient… but I still have a long way to go until I reach that upper pinnacle described by Taleb. Antifragility is so rare, that’s why when you see it, you instantly *know*.

  • Virg Lewis

    Anti-fragility. Interesting term. Jenny – as others have noted, you pulled together some diverse quotes and excerpts to pull this idea of chaos and instability being okay and necessary to growth. Gratefulness helps instill happiness on an everyday level.

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