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Posts Tagged ‘resilience’

I’ve just finished reading Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a sprawling, fascinating, maddening book that is badly in need of a copy-editor. But one of Taleb’s pet hates (he has many) is copy-editors.

antifragile

There is a simple and profound central idea. Think of anything at all: a person, an idea, a relationship, a business, a country, a piece of technology, an ecosystem.

Some things are fragile. When some kind of crisis occurs, an unexpected event, a systemic shock – then they break. It might mean a small bit of damage or the destruction of the entire unit. Fragile things are harmed by crises.

What is the opposite of fragile? Our instinct is to use words like robust, strong, solid, resilient, perhaps flexible or adaptable. Robust and flexible things do not break when a shock comes; they can withstand crises and shocks. That’s true. They are unharmed. But this isn’t the opposite of fragile. The opposite would involve something that positively benefits from a crisis or a shock, that comes out better rather than just the same. We genuinely don’t have a word for this, which is why Taleb invents one: antifragilility.

He gives a neat illustration. If you put something fragile in the post, like a teapot, you pack it carefully and put a big sticker on the outside saying, ‘Fragile: Handle with Care’. What is the ‘opposite’ kind of package? You are tempted to say this would be a robust or strong parcel. But if you send something in the post that is more-or-less unbreakable, like a block of wood or a stone, you don’t put a sticker on the outside saying ‘Unbreakable: Don’t Be Anxious About This’, you just send it without any warning signs. The opposite kind of package, with something antifragile inside, would have a sticker saying something like this: ‘Antifragile: Handle Carelessly, Drop Me, Be Reckless With Me, Try To Damage Me’.

What would go into such a package?

Taleb shows how many things in life and society are antifragile. They actually benefit from crises and shocks, at least within certain limits. The human body is one example, it doesn’t benefit from being pampered, it grows stronger through certain shocks and stresses – within limits. Some ideas only develop through challenges and awkward confrontations. Some businesses are perfectly poised to benefit from difficult and unexpected situations, because they are able to adapt and seize new opportunities. Some relationships are able to discover new depths and different kinds of intimacy through problems and difficulties.

What is it that makes some things fragile, some robust, and some antifragile? You’ll have to read the book yourself!

The other big theme is the nature of rationality: how we try to predict the unpredictable, and when we fail and are caught off guard we try to pretend we knew what was going to happen. It’s much wiser, argues Taleb, to admit that many things, especially future crises and disasters, are completely beyond our powers of reasoning (even though they may be rational in themselves). The trick is not to be ready for a particular unexpected event, which is by its very nature unpredictable, but to be ready for something unexpected and unpredictable to happen, so that when it does happen we are able to react in a creative and intelligent way, bringing an unexpected good out of these unexpected difficult circumstances (antifragility), and to create systems that are resilient to major shocks or at least not set up so that they will shatter when the first unpredictable jolt takes place (a certain kind of flexibility and robustness).

It was the perfect bedtime book for me. Easy to read, full of stories, provocative. And it genuinely made me rethink a lot of things I had taken for granted without question before.

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Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

In case you missed these, here is Alain de Botton’s list of ten virtues unveiled in his Manifesto for Atheists.

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.

2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.

3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.

7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

Why these? Why now? Robert Dex explains:

De Botton, whose work includes a stint as a writer in residence at Heathrow Airport, said he came up with the idea in response to a growing sense that being virtuous had become “a strange and depressing notion”, while wickedness and evil had a “peculiar kind of glamour”.

He said: “There’s no scientific answer to being virtuous, but the key thing is to have some kind of list on which to flex our ethical muscles. It reminds us that we all need to work at being good, just as we work at anything else that really matters.”

My own response, which I sent to the Catholic Herald last week:

I like this list of virtues. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s certainly helpful. It prods you into making a sort of ‘examination of conscience’, and reminds you that there are other ways of living and relating and reacting.

There are obvious borrowings from classical philosophy, the great world religions, English manners, and the self-help books that line the shelves at WH Smiths.

Apart from the obvious absence of ‘God’, they don’t seem to have a particularly atheist spin.

If both believers and non-believers lived by these virtues, the world would be a much happier place; there would be less shouting and more laughter; relationships would be more stable, and we’d get more done in an average day. That’s surely something to celebrate!

But Francis Phillips thinks there is an implicit Pelagianism at work here:

I understand why de Botton is preoccupied with the concept of a virtuous atheist and I do not mock him; indeed I take his yearning to counter the supposedly superior claims of Christianity very seriously. It is a noble ideal and society would indeed be happier and more civilised if more irreligious people of the “Me-generation” were to reflect on his ideas. But just as that selfless quiet heroine of the Great War, Nurse Edith Cavell, realised that patriotism was not enough, so a noble and enlightened atheism, however fine its aspirations, is not enough if individuals or society are to be regenerated or renewed.

The reason, as Catholic theology teaches us, is sin, original and personal, our own and Adam’s. We are not strong enough by ourselves to be good (as opposed to “nice”) without the grace of God. Politeness and resilience – indeed kindness and niceness – are not virtues in themselves; they are attractive characteristics of some people by nature; the rest of us have to fight against being “horrid”, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.

It is Pelagianism (and de Botton strikes me as something of a neo-Pelagian) to think we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve virtue on our own.

Do you like them? What’s missing?

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If, despite the Resurrection, you still need a boost, try these ‘Ten keys to happier living’ from the Action for Happiness campaign.

It’s easy to mock this kind of project (as banal, twee, patronising, ineffective, etc) and I don’t know what effect it will actually have – perhaps about as much as those posters on the buses that tell you not to eat smelly food or play loud music – but as you know I’m a sucker for these self-help summaries, and I like the fact that it’s an attempt to question why the materials gains we have made in the West over the last two generations have not increased our happiness.

It’s happiness as self-fulfilment by not seeking self-fulfilment; self-help by not seeking to help the self but by looking beyond the self; happiness as something that stems from your subjective approach to your situation and not just from the objective facts about the situation into which you are unwillingly thrust. Lots of truth here; together with the risk of Pelagianism – salvation by personal striving.

Take a look at the accompanying video: 

Here is their understanding of happiness:

We all want to live happy and fulfilling lives and we want the people we love to be happy too. So happiness matters to all of us.

Happiness is about our lives as a whole: it includes the fluctuating feelings we experience everyday but also our overall satisfaction with life. It is influenced by our genes, upbringing and our external circumstances – such as our health, our work and our financial situation. But crucially it is also heavily influenced by our choices – our inner attitudes, how we approach our relationships, our personal values and our sense of purpose.

There are many things in life that matter to us – including health, freedom, autonomy and achievement. But if we ask why they matter we can generally give further answers – for example, that they make people feel better or more able to enjoy their lives. But if we ask why it matters if people feel better, we can give no further answer. It is self-evidently desirable. Our overall happiness – how we feel about our lives – is what matters to us most.

In recent years there have been substantial advances in the science of well-being with a vast array of new evidence as to the factors that affect happiness and ways in which we can measure happiness more accurately. We now have an opportunity to use this evidence to make better choices and to increase well-being in our personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

The research shows that we need a change of priorities, both at the societal level and as individuals. Happiness and fulfilment come less from material wealth and more from relationships; less from focussing on ourselves and more from helping others; less from external factors outside our control and more from the way in which we choose to react to what happens to us.

See our Recommended Reading list for useful books which summarise some of the recent scientific findings in an accessible way.

And here is the motivation of the movement:

Action for Happiness is a movement of people committed to building a happier society. We want to see a fundamentally different way of life where people care less about what they can get for themselves and more about the happiness of others.

We are bringing together like-minded people from all walks of life, drawing on the latest scientific research and backed by leading experts from the fields of psychology, education, economics, social innovation and beyond.

Members of the movement make a simple pledge: to try to create more happiness in the world around them through the way they approach their lives. We provide practical ideas to enable people to take action in different areas of their lives – at home, at work or in the community. We hope many of our members will form local groups to take action together.

We have no religious, political or commercial affiliations and welcome people of all faiths (or none) and all parts of society. We were founded in 2010 by three influential figures who are passionate about creating a happier society: Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon.

What do you think? The last part of the ‘scientifically proven’ wish-list is especially interesting: ‘Meaning: Be part of something bigger’. Does it matter what that something is? Or whether it is true?

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