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  • Brendan Stec

Utopia, adversity, and the danger of fragility

Living in a perfect utopia would be great, right? A beautiful place with no warfare, famine, pain, or suffering certainly appears harmless. The utopia represents this popular ideal where problems don't exist, you don't have credit card debt, your friends and family are always with you, and (thank God) people email you back on time. In a world where problems cause much resentment and stress, and where there always seem to be more around the corner, the utopia beckons as a cocoon shielding you from the unending chaos of the real world.

As great as it sounds on paper, the utopia is flawed. Flawed: as in it's incompatible with being a human being, which inherently has involved - and will continue to involve - surviving and overcoming the harsh realities of the world, realities that originated with dangers on the savannah but have evolved to now include mortgage payments, mental health conditions, and other modern challenges. It's never fun to have these problems, as they can be harmful psychologically and physically, but in general, overcoming adversity is the what gives human life its meaning. Without adversity, there is no point to being a competent, responsible, and resilient person.

Demanding utopia is not only unrealistic, it's depressing. It's a place where there is no music, because the emotions of heartbreak, happiness, or true love either don't exist or aren't experienced genuinely. It's also a place where there are no new ideas or inventions, because there are no problems to solve or issues to explain. Think about it: all of the positive experiences in this world mean something only because there is a potential for negative experiences, namely failure, rejection, and malevolence. What is true love until you've experienced true hatred? What is genuine camaraderie until you've endured your fair share of lonely Friday nights? What is athletic success without competitors or parental success without the inevitable disagreements and headaches? Utopia doesn't have this. There is no Yin, just Yang. There is no variation in utopia - good or bad - so there is no real meaning. There are no opportunities to learn, challenge yourself, risk your life, or risk failure.

In The Twilight Zone episode "A Nice Place to Visit", Rocky enjoys endless money and parties after he dies and goes to "Heaven." It's only after he grows bored with his meaningless routine that he realizes he's actually in Hell. And he can't escape.


The second important issue with avoiding adversity and subscribing to the "utopia" philosophy is that it leaves you fragile to future, unavoidable problems. For example, it's thought that overprotective parenting - along with social media - has contributed to the rise in instances of anxiety, depression, and suicide among teenagers in recent years. The idea was that eliminating all forms of potential danger, like bullying or letting kids walk home from school alone, would boost their self-esteem down the road. But this only hurt them, because kids develop legitimate self-esteem by overcoming setbacks they can handle, not avoiding them. Bullying is certainly wrong, but there is some element of natural teasing and exclusion everyone must experience in order to mature into an independent adult. Just as sheltering children from all negative experiences kicks future pain further and further down the road, avoiding adversity as an adult is the equivalent of burying your head in the sand, a strategy that renders you even more vulnerable.

Let's nerd out a bit here and think about why natural ups and downs are good statistically. You properly train a statistical model by providing historical data with plenty of variation. The ups and downs provide different situations and examples from which to draw inferences. If you want to see if GPA is a good predictor of GMAT scores, you find people with good GPA's, bad GPA's, and everyone in between. Looking at just good students or bad students wouldn't give you the entire picture of GPA's relationship with GMAT scores. Likewise, you wouldn't back-test an investment strategy on U.S. equity returns from only 2011 to 2017, a time period with not a single economic downturn. Doing so would provide an overestimate (in absolute terms) of the strategy's effectiveness going forward, when times might not be so good. In general, natural variation is crucial for effectively learning about the world from experience, and negative stressors are especially valuable in exposing where vulnerabilities - in a model, investment strategy, or yourself - may hide.

This is the main interpretation behind Nassim Taleb's book Antifragility. He defines antifragility as the ability to gain from disorder, or, in layman's terms, the ability to get better from negative stressors. Your immune system is antifragile: it improves when exposed to different bacteria and viruses and other natural dangers of microscopic Earth. By contrast, coffee mugs are fragile: they don't like disorder (i.e. earthquakes) or else they shatter. Would you rather be fragile or antifragile? Would you rather be susceptible to randomness or would you rather get better from it? Taleb's idea is to design systems and yourself in a way that you actually benefit from downsides and not get crushed by them.

Of course, failures, tragedies, and other negative experiences are never enjoyable, because trying times can be insufferable both physically and psychologically. There are plenty of broken people, many of whom endured pain they didn't deserve, and they are almost rightly unable to comprehend how obstacles could ever have any value for human life. It would be incredibly presumptuous to lecture someone who has been paralyzed about the benefits of their situation. Surprisingly, though, people in this exact situation, like paralyzed former football star Eric Legrand, still manage a positive attitude with their condition. Individuals like Eric Legrand make peace with their permanent challenges, or as Ryan Holiday would say, accept that the "obstacle is the way." Moving forward, they are stronger because of this.

Although creating a theoretical utopia is impossible, it can still be tempting to avoid your problems and walk away from your responsibilities as you hope for some approximation of a stress free life. This strategy not only deprives you of the essential experiences that give you meaning, it also deprives you of the natural variation necessary to learn proper survival on Earth. This strategy works until it doesn't, until there is a life event so serious that you can't possibly run away from it or buy your way out of it. In that moment, you either go bust or face the facts. Your ultimate choice, as hard as it may be, is between fragility and antifragility.


Further Reading:

Antifragility by Nassim Taleb

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