Don’t Be Afraid of Pain

Ingenium mala saepe movent
“Difficulty is what wakes up the genius.”
– Ovid

I’ve been going to the gym for nearly 2 years now. In the first year, I stuck to relatively easy cardio routines – walking and running on the treadmill, stationary biking, the elliptical. I had a good channel to relieve stress, but I didn’t see a lot of difference in my physique or fitness level.

In the 2nd year, I decided to change things up. I mixed weight-lifting in my routine, starting with easy exercises at first and then working my way up. Weight-lifting was definitely harder, required more motivation – I couldn’t just plop into a treadmill and watch Netflix – and was just downright painful. But months into this, I started seeing a lot more improvements in the way I looked and the way I felt about myself.

In this particular case, harder is better.

The process works because the body is a smart system. Muscle gain is a process of breaking and then rebuilding; the body undergoes pain, repairs itself, then prepares you not just for present stressors but for future worse ones. To an extent, the body is antifragile.

Antifragility

The concept of antifragility is owed to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American scholar of risk, randomness, and probability, who burst into the mainstream with his book, “The Black Swan” (more on this later).

In his words from the book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder”, “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. ”

Especially seen in the context of muscle-building and vaccination, bodies are antifragile because “a system that overcompensates is necessarily in overshooting mode, building extra capacity and strength in anticipation of a worse outcome and in response to information about the possibility of a hazard”.

The concept also applies in an unlimited number of things: economic systems, finance, nation-states, scientific research, businesses, and more. Antifragile systems consistently experience small pains, failures, and errors and learn to come out stronger – and better.

One metaphor for antifragility is the Hydra of Greek mythology. Cut off one head of this many-headed serpent, and two will grow back in its place.

lernaean_hydra_getty_villa_83.ae_.346
The Hydra in Greek mythology, here seen in Etruscan pottery circa 525 BC

Antifragility in Learning

Taleb in his book takes a swipe at the education system for reducing students’ exposure to risk and randomness. Instead of training students to prepare for the real world (which is really the only world there is), they are often being taught in an environment where they are expected to follow rules, swallow concepts wholesale, and generally stay on the “safe” side.

We could do better.

Taleb certainly believes so, saying, “As a child of civil war, I disbelieve in structured learning… Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all those things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.”

In my own experience, my communication skills – writing, speaking in public – improved drastically not because I wrote a hundred essays to be graded or because I signed up for several public speaking classes. I learned, instead, in a bloody arena instead of within a classroom’s safe four walls.

While working in a non-profit organization in university, it was part of my job description to constantly beg donors for money and support or ask volunteers to sign up. This meant having to be darn good in speaking to audiences, presenting pitches, or writing proposals wherever I could be and whoever I was speaking with.

I had my share of pains: rejection and dismissals, noisy audiences, embarrassing errors, writing speeches that turned out to be incredibly boring. But the little pains were useful. The little pains were signals pointing to areas where I could improve. The little pains made me more immune to failure over time, such that I could just keep going and going. The little pains told me I was swimming in the thrashing waves of the water, rather than safely parked on the shore.

In many other areas of my life, I admit that I’m still afraid of pain and rejection and am far from being antifragile. But if my experiences at the gym and begging for money are any indication, then antifragility works.

Take it from Taleb: “Remember that food would not have a taste if it weren’t for hunger; results are meaningless without effort, joy without sadness, convictions without uncertainty, and an ethical life isn’t so when stripped of personal risks.”

Simply put: If you don’t go through pain, how will you know how strong you can really be?

 

(This is my first essay in a 30-day writing challenge. If you haven’t read Antifragile, please do.)

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