Winter has not yet lost its hold in where I live, but it is slipping. Slipping enough that I woke up to a garter snake who inexplicably found its way to the center of my floor. It was so small and straight I thought someone lost a shoe lace. And then, because I was so stunned by its presence (I have no love for snakes), my next thought was that this shoe lace looked remarkably like a small garter.
Let's break away from my story for a moment and recall Nassim Nicholas Taleb's assertion about antifragility. He tells us the opposite of fragile is not resilient. "Resilient" means that somehow an object came through the fire, the mauling, or the destruction, and survived. Resilient does not mean robust, just that something isn't dead. Taleb coins the word Antifragile in his book to note the true opposite--someone or something that grows stronger because of the difficulty, and again with each subsequent difficulty.
Back to the snake and my response because I find it to be an illlustration of the concept.
Fragile -(What my instincts scream) Run away! Scream for someone braver than I to take care of it. Get stuck in my kitchen, unable to function until I am rescued.
Resilient - (What I did not do) Make sudden moves to try to shoo the snake out of the house. It quickly slithers under the couch. I lift the couch, it disappears under the entertainment center, then behind some book shelves. This continues, until by my persistence, it finally decides going out the open door, returning to the snow is its best route of escape. By this time I am full of sweat, experiencing heart palpitations and need a nap. My day is shot but the snake is gone.
Antifragile - (What I actually did do) The snake was clearly enjoying its newfound warmth and had stretched out its body to absorb all it could from our warm carpet. I gave myself a moment (just a moment) to think and recalled that a warm and happy snake is a lethargic snake, especially when emerging from hibernation. That's why it didn't move when I walked into the room.
I went to the kitchen, grabbed some tongs and an empty box. The snake lifted his head just a little as I got closer, like a child waking from a stupor-inducing nap. I made no sudden moves, squatted down slowly and parallel to the snake, while I used my left arm to slowly maneuver the tongs into place from behind. A quick move and I had it dropped into the box and quickly out the door to one of the first bare and muddy patches I could find. I returned to my castle having dispatched the great, fire-breathing dragon, braver than ever should such an adventure come my way again.
Truthfully, this was a first for me. It is the sort of thing that just to think of it before would have left me shuddering and panicky. No longer.
While I'm being light-hearted in writing this, antifragility is a serious matter for organizational leaders. We have to face fears, unforeseen circumstances and desperate times, learning all we can while we can. Not only does it build competitive advantage, we are far more likely to rebound with strength should we find our current efforts a losing proposition.
Along the way we might discover:
1. new uses for old tools (snake removal tongs! A new product at Home Depot?)
2. a capacity to apply valuable knowledge we gained long ago in new and life-enhancing ways (e.g. elementary school biology. And notice, please, I did not stomp the snake into my carpet and pronounce victory -- another significant temptation I fought back. This snake will live to see another day and perhaps remove a chipmunk or two from my stone walls).
For even more on resiliency and antifragility, consider this interview with Laurie Ferguson