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Build your antifragility and turn stress into strength

Written by Eric Partaker on Monday, 18 January 2021. Posted in Wellbeing, People

No matter the extent of our planning or strength of execution, things will still not go to plan.

Build your antifragility and turn stress into strength

No matter the extent of our planning or strength of execution, things will still not go to plan. Handling setbacks is a natural part of life and work and resilience has topped the charts as a buzzword in recent times. But to reach your full potential, you need something more than resilience—you need antifragility.

My life changed when I read Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. Antifragility represents the realm beyond resilience. Resilient people survive stress and stay the same, while antifragile people thrive specifically because of the stress. They don’t stay the same; they come out stronger.

I am lucky enough to count some former US Special Forces operatives among my coaching clients. These men are masters of antifragility, and there is quite a lot we can learn from them. They don’t see stress as something just to survive, but also as a benefit, as an opportunity for growth. They lean into discomfort, welcome it even. They’re trained to expect the unexpected and still deliver with excellence.

Just as elite warriors are trained to run toward the sound of gunfire, we, too, must train ourselves to step into fear, hardship, and uncertainty. Discomfort then transforms from something to be avoided into a magnetic force that beckons our call. Moments of unease suddenly become signposts that say, “Step in this direction.” As the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius put it, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Even your body has something to teach you about antifragility, and it practices it all the time. In small doses, UV radiation repairs tissue and generates vitamin D, which is essential for every single cell in your body. Exposure to germs and bacteria builds up your immunity. Stressing a muscle by working out causes it to grow. In all of these ways, your body isn’t just surviving a stressor (radiation, germs, overload), but using it to grow stronger. It’s transforming stress into strength.

So I challenge you to reframe your view of stress.

And on that note. I’d like you to think of three groups of people. The first group lives a relatively stress-free life. The second group experiences stress and views it positively. The final group experiences stress and views it negatively. Which group do you think lives the longest? According to researcher Kelly McGonigal, in her book "The Upside of Stress", it’s the second group. 

The problem isn’t stress. It’s you.

We need to reframe stress in a positive way. With this in mind, I like to envision life as one big mental gym. Every moment of adversity, unexpected event, or thing that doesn’t go our way can suddenly become an exercise in the gym of life. You don’t become physically stronger by going to the gym one time. You have to go regularly and get your reps in. So it is with antifragility. Every challenge can become an opportunity for growth if you choose to see it that way.

In his personal journal, Aurelius wrote, “When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.” He was reminding himself that he would be knocked down in life, and that he must stand back up and regain his composure as quickly as possible. The more he bounced back, the better he would become at it.

Pursuing a stress-free life should not be your goal. Your goal should be to step into discomfort and challenge, expecting stressors as a natural part of that, and to use those to make you stronger and better.

McGonigal explains “the best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.” It is indeed our perception of stress that will determine its impact.

Her research demonstrates that an antifragile mindset actually enhances performance and productivity. A person with this mindset believes that stress improves health and vitality, while also facilitating learning and growth. They believe the effects of stress are positive, and a force to be utilized. A person with an antifragile mindset is “more likely to view stressful situations as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem.”

Most people don’t believe any of the above. They view stress negatively, and stressful situations as threatening.

So how do we equip ourselves to respond to stress positively? Here are some of my favorite mindset shifts:

  • Acknowledge your personal strengths—perhaps you’re nervous about stepping out on the stage, despite having spoken to groups of people many times before.
  • Imagine the support of your loved ones—as if your partner, spouse, or children were at your side, enthusiastically encouraging you to step ahead.
  • Remember times in the past when you overcame similar challenges—you may not have experienced that exact same situation before, but you have most certainly thrived through a similar level of challenge.
  • Summon the most courageous version of yourself, and then follow your own advice—we often find it’s easier to give advice to others than follow our own, so bring this outside wisdom into the picture.

In working on both myself and with clients, I find the last point, summoning your most courageous self, to be the most powerful. Within us all lies a wise presence, unconditioned by past experiences. When faced with fear, uncertainty, and discomfort, summon this presence instead of trying to handle everything alone.

As Marianne Williamson wrote, "...we are powerful beyond measure."

About the Author

Eric Partaker

Eric Partaker

Eric Partaker is a high performance coach for business leaders and captains of industry, helping them and their companies to scale-up. He advised 50 CEOs while at McKinsey & Company, and was a key player in building Skype’s multi-billion-dollar success story.

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