Author: Martin Trust Center

by Chris Keshian MBA ’22, MIT delta v Program Manager

The Martin Trust Center recently presented an 8-part “Antifragile Speaker Series” in response to the COVID-19 crisis. This is the fifth and final in a series of blog posts that are meant to shed some light on what it means to be antifragile, and why it so important for entrepreneurs.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb describes himself as a “rational flaneur”:

Someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision opportunistically at every step to revise his schedule (or his destination) so he can imbibe things based on new information obtained. In research and entrepreneurship, being a flaneur is called ‘looking for optionality.’ A non-narrative approach to life.

In entrepreneurship, this open-minded directionality allows us to stay present to the myriad potential paths we could take. This approximate directional focus allows one to learn by trial and error, and benefit from the asymmetric optionality of “bumping into” an alternative, positive solution.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who recognized and named the psychological concept of flow, describes the critical creative importance of this open-minded, opportunistic perspective:

Almost every situation we encounter in life presents possibilities for growth. But these transformations require that a person be prepared to perceive unexpected opportunities. Most of us become so rigidly fixed in the ruts carved out by genetic programming and social conditioning that we ignore the options of choosing any other course of action. Living exclusively by genetic and social instructions is fine as long as everything goes well. But the moment biological or social goals are frustrated — which in the long run is inevitable — a person must formulate new goals, and create a new flow activity for himself, or else he will waste his energies in inner turmoil.

The process of discovering new goals in life is, in many respects, similar to that by which an artist goes about creating an original work of art. Whereas a conventional artist starts painting a canvas knowing what she wants to paint, and holds to her original intention until the work is finished, an original artist with equal technical training commences with a deeply felt but undefined goal in mind, keeps modifying the picture in response to the unexpected colors and shapes emerging on the canvas, and ends up with a finished work that probably will not resemble anything she started out with. If the artist is responsive to her inner feelings, knows what she likes and does not like, and pays attention to what is happening on the canvas, a good painting is bound to emerge. On the other hand, if she holds on to a preconceived notion of what the painting should look like, without responding to the possibilities suggested by the forms developing before her, the painting is likely to be trite.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, summarizes this concept as having a “system instead of a goal,” and argues that systems-oriented thinking creates long-term success. In his book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big, he writes:

…one should have a system instead of a goal. The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

For our purposes, let’s agree that goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life. Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction. My proposition is that if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals…

This open-minded, approximate directional approach allows entrepreneurs to think more creatively when they encounter obstacles.

Thank you for reading this series of articles. I hope you have found items of value and interest that you can apply to your own career and life.

This is the fifth in a series of five posts. Read the others here: