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 third 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 boxing, fighters are taught to keep their eyes open when they are getting punched in order to see their opponent’s other hand and to counterstrike. This cuts against our natural reflex to flinch and shut our eyes when a punch is thrown at us.
Similarly, whenever a situation blew up in one of my startups, my knee-jerk tendency was to shut my eyes or numb myself to the pain or loss. I am still learning how to stay awake and aware during difficult times because it is NOT my default setting.
Whenever I go through a period of pain and suffering, I have a choice:
- I can numb myself to the pain (pick your drug of choice: alcohol, television, junk food) and I can white knuckle the experience and just endure it, waiting for the end.
- I can stay present, feel the pain, and use it to learn and grow.
Everyone encounters pain and suffering in life, and especially in entrepreneurship. We have no choice in the matter. Suffering is a fact of existence.
We cannot choose whether we suffer, however we can choose how we suffer, and herein lies opportunity, and ultimately, true freedom and growth.
Victor Frankl, who not only endured the hellish Nazi concentration camps, but grew through its brutality, writes:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
We get to choose how we deal with pain and suffering.
Will I wall myself off from the world and wallow in self-indulgent self-pity? Will I numb myself so that I don’t have to feel? Will I whine to my family and friends about the injustices of the world?
Will I choose to treat this difficult time as an opportunity? Will I ruthlessly look at the part that I played in this misfortune and learn from my mistakes? Will I truly feel the pain and use it as a tool for growth?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian-American psychologist who recognized and named the psychological concept of “flow.” In his book Flow, he writes that one factor that separates people who are weakened by stress from those who gain strength from it (i.e., who are antifragile) is their ability to “focus attention on the world” rather than on their own pain.
It is difficult to notice the environment as long as attention is mainly focused inward, as long as most of one’s psychic energy is absorbed by the concerns and desires of the ego. People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings.
Achieving this unity with one’s surroundings is not only an important component of enjoyable flow experiences, but is also a central mechanism by which adversity is conquered The person whose attention is immersed in the environment becomes part of it; she participates in the system by linking herself to it through psychic energy. This, in turn, makes it possible for her to understand the properties of the system, so that she can find a better way to adapt to a problematic situation.
In a threatening situation it is natural to mobilize psychic energy, draw it inward, and use it as a defense against the threat. But this innate reaction more often than not compromises the ability to cope. It exacerbates the experience of inner turmoil, reduces the flexibility of response, and, perhaps worse than anything else, it isolates a person from the rest of the world, leaving him alone with his frustrations. On the other hand, if one continues to stay in touch with what is going on, new possibilities are likely to emerge, which in turn might suggest new responses, and one is less likely to be entirely cut off from the stream of life.
Nassim Taleb (who coined the term antifragile) refers to this same concept as “post-traumatic growth” (the inverse of post-traumatic stress), where traumatic experiences actually make us stronger and more capable humans. I would add that these experiences only make us stronger if we are able to stay awake and learn from them.
This is the third in a series of five posts. Read the others here: