By Peter Laburn
Resilience fatigue has hit. Global economic upheaval, the climate crisis and social turmoil — to say nothing of our local experiences of load shedding, water cuts and political instability — have made the expectation and experience of being resilient exhausting.
And yet there’s no doubting its ongoing relevance. The challenges of the day are showing no sign of abating. In fact, they’re likely to continue to morph into ever-more complex scenarios. We still need to be resilient (or something like it), even though we feel increasingly disinclined to do so.
As we look forward to a new year — and hopefully a better one at that — how do we reframe resilience?
Defining resilience, and seeing its pitfalls
Resilience is the ability to go back to a previous state of equilibrium — to where you were before a current challenge or crisis hit. It assumes that you have already experienced an optimal or balanced state, that you want to return to it, and that you will recognise it when you come across it again.
The ability to be resilient requires several key ingredients. It requires self-compassion, an understanding for who you are and what you’re capable of, and support from people who know you and whom you trust. And it takes the ability to be creative and innovative, to set goals, and to try new things.
While the business world is often better at resilience than many of us are in our personal capacities — thanks, in part, to the risk assessment and disaster management plans many have in place — this does not make them immune. And even large companies require mentorship, coaching and advice, especially when it comes to large and unpredictable events, as the pandemic taught us.
In most definitions, resilience implies an element of regression, though this is often considered a positive occurrence rather than a negative one. You go back to a previous position. You return to your former health after an operation. Your business recovers from a setback and becomes what it was before.
But this assumption is counterintuitive, even dangerous. Perhaps you don’t want to go back to how things were before, or can’t. Perhaps part of the reason you’re in the current predicament is because what came before simply wasn’t working. Rather than resilience, then, isn’t there an alternative? A way of moving forward through the crisis and into a better, more robust future?
Looking to antifragility for answers
It was Nassim Nicholas Taleb who developed the concept of antifragility and introduced it to the world of systems in his 2012 book. Taleb identified systems that thrive on shocks or volatility, and use these stressors to improve themselves so that they can withstand further changes.
Since then, the concept has found relevance in a variety of contexts and industries. And as we shrug off resilience in favour of a characteristic that feels more fitting and sustainable, perhaps it is antifragility we should be turning to.
Antifragility goes beyond resilience. It’s about adapting so fast, learning so quickly and improving so consistently that obstacles become less of a hindrance and more of a learning opportunity — in the best case scenario, they serve as a launchpad to greater things. Antifragility is not about going back to, returning to, or restoring the status quo, but about using what has happened as a propellant.
There’s an element of rule-breaking to it, of not doing what is expected but rather what is necessary, even if that decision seems bold or reckless.
Entrepreneurs are typically the most antifragile of all business people. They’re largely unencumbered by bureaucracy and institutionalised ways of doing things, and they’re typically less risk-averse. Their processes are often relatively rudimentary, too, which helps them to be more malleable. This makes them more nimble, and more willing to take a chance on something new, which corporate executives or employees are seldom able to do.
Having access to the right field of play is an important contributing factor here. If we give people the space — the field of play — to be experimental and responsive, they have the latitude to build a culture of antifragility. Large businesses don’t often facilitate these unencumbered environments.
If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that we cannot control external events. What we can control, however, is our responses to these events. And by creating an antifragile environment that is receptive to the inevitability of the unknown, these responses are more likely to be productive and we’re more likely to thrive.
Whether we’re looking for new ways of doing things in our personal or professional lives, there’s hope to be found in antifragility. Acknowledge, understand, and adapt. Be curious about new possibilities. Move forwards.
Peter Laburn is the founder of the transformational leadership movement, Lead with Humanity, and the author of the pioneering book, Leading with Humanity.