How to be an antifragile writer

Image by Ssire, CC BY-SA 3.0

Writing is a demanding activity that takes a lot of focus. If only we would never get disturbed, if only we could always stay in the flow! Does your productivity suffer when you don’t have the perfect conditions for writing? Then you are a fragile writer. But don’t worry, this can be changed.

Nassim Taleb coined the term “antifragility” to describe an interesting property of complex systems that improve under moderate stressors, or, as he wrote in his book Antifragile, “gain from disorder”.

To explain the difference between fragility, robustness, and antifragility, he used three ancient myths: about Damocles, Phoenix, and Hydra.

Damocles is fragile: his life depends on a thin hair which holds a sword right above his head. So any little stressor to the thin hair might end his life.

Phoenix is robust: whenever he dies, he arises again from the ashes. So Phoenix doesn’t care about stressors—they can’t really harm him.

Now compare this to Hydra and her many heads. Whenever one of her heads gets cut off, two new grow back. Thus, Hydra is more than robust—she is antifragile. She is not indifferent to stressors, she actually loves them, because they help her become stronger.

So we see that being antifragile is a good thing in a world full of random, non-predictable stressors, full of incidences that influence you, that attempt to change your trajectory.

Nassim Taleb argues that complex systems with many interdependencies such as living organisms, ecosystems, social or economic systems are antifragile by nature. And that they actually suffer and perform much worse—up to a collapse—when they are denied (mild) stressors.

For example, let’s consider the immune system of human body: It needs regular contact with pathogens to stay “fit” and capable of defending the body in the case of a serious infection. If it is denied this contact early in life, it can become hypersensitive and react even to harmless substances—and allergy develops.

What would an antifragile writer do?

Now, let’s move back to the everyday reality of a writing scientist. Let’s say you are sitting at your desk and work on your manuscript. Usually it won’t be for long that you will get interrupted: a colleague knocks on the door, he needs to talk to you. When you get back to your writing, you realize you forgot what you wanted to say and can’t finish that sentence. Oh no! You know you had a perfect statement in mind, so precise and clear! And now it’s lost, damn it! You get nervous, jiggle around and try to force yourself to remember. And maybe it will work out and you can continue. Or you just give up and go do something else. At the end you lose some time and maybe even get grumpy—if you are fragile.

If you are robust, you would maybe tell your colleague: “Hang on a minute, I’ll just finish my sentence and get back to you.” And you would take a little note to yourself to remember what you wanted to say.

So, then, what would be an antifragile reaction? Let’s say you didn’t jot down your thought, and realized you are lost. But you know how to handle such a situation: you could, for example, set up a timer and freewrite on the topic for 10 minutes. As you would dive into your stream of consciousness, you will likely hit the lost thought. And possibly even more: you might realize that the thought was not that great at all. Or you figure out a new twist to it. Or a continuation. Or see a new connection with some other thing you write about. This would be antifragility: using the disruption to make something good out of it.

Here is another situation: you are, again, writing, when you hear loud screaming from the outside. You go check it out and sure enough: a group of kids and some adults are spreading their picnic just below your windows. It looks like a birthday party, oh gosh!

If you have to grin now, thinking “What crazy examples is she bringing up!”: this was a very real nightmare when I was writing my PhD thesis. You see, our campus is beautiful, and locals refer to it as “park”. Sigh… So, what did I do in this situation? Only fragile things, I’m afraid: I got upset and nervous, asked them to be more quiet, then shout that they should be quiet otherwise I call the security guy (no, I am not proud of that). At which moment they would move a bit further away from our building. But I would stay outraged and would need some time to calm down before I could continue writing.

A theoretical robust answer would be to shut the windows and use some ear plugs. I say theoretical because, if you ever tried it, you know that little kids’ high-pitch voices go through walls and ear plugs, down to the marrow of your bones.

But what might be an antifragile reaction to this disturbance, one that could potentially bring further benefits? You could move to another place, say, to the library located at the opposite end of the building, far away from the screaming kids. By changing your place you might get an additional kick of creativity, or a sudden insight. (Because place provides a strong context for your thinking, thus changing the place is a good method to change perspective, for example, when you feel stuck—but more on that in another article.)

OK, I hear your objection: “Well, that’s all good and nice, but what if I can’t go anywhere else? What if there is no library nearby or any other place I could hide? What if it’s too early to go home or I will have a meeting with my supervisor soon so I can’t go working to a cafe etc.? And I have to continue writing because the deadline is approaching?” Well, then… you are stucked with your fragility. Because—you can’t always turn antifragile by will.

Options make you antifragile

What you need to be antifragile are options. And there are situations, like this one with screaming kids, where you might not control your options. But I think that in most situations you could get yourself some options. Here you could, for example, ask your supervisor to shift your meeting. Or, after experiencing such a helpless situation, you might prepare a plan if it occurs again. Like asking for a key to the seminar room, so you can go work there. OK, these are external options; in the previous example, we saw an internal option: the freewriting technique.

And there are many more writing techniques and exercises that can help you with sorting out your thoughts, finding a main point, or unstucking yourself. In my workshops, I focus on letting the participants try out various techniques and learn to evaluate them: do I like this? Does it work for me? What does it do exactly with me and my writing? This blog has the same ambition: to present you options, thus helping you become an antifragile writer.

A general method to increase your options, and, hence, make yourself antifragile, is meditation. A regular meditative practice enables you to pause and think for a moment before you react to a stressor. It opens up a little window that makes you free from your reflexes, from your habitual responses, and allows you to consider alternatives. This will hugely profit your writing—and much beyond.

When feeling stressed: breathe

So the next time you are freaking out about a dangerously approaching deadline, a disruption, or any other trouble, try this: Take few deep breaths, noticing the bodily sensation of your stress. Maybe your stomach feels contracted, or your heart is beating like crazy. Maybe you are sweating, or your hands are trembling. Then notice how your body moves with the breath. Inhale: the body expands, the tension in the body increases. Exhale: the body relaxes. Now focus on this natural relaxation that comes with exhalation—it will calm your mind as well.

Then you are prepared to consider your options. What can you do now to benefit from this negative situation? Be creative and look for ways, not for reasons why it is not possible. Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—if you allow it. If you deliberately exercise your antifragiliy 😉

I hope I could convince you about the importance of antifragility. Learn to live with uncertainty, don’t try to eliminate all randomness from your life—because that would take away your options…

How do you cope with stressors and disruptions during writing? Can you leverage them to something positive? Can you stay largely unaffected? Or do you struggle, and your productivity suffers? If you have any tricks that help you in such situations, please share them with us in the comments!

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