“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.
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.”
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
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.