Antifragility/Resilience 2.0

(Inspired by Tal Ben-Shahar)

Teaching our children what really counts

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to meet one of my personal heroes, Israel-American author, thinker, teacher, and psychologist, Tal Ben-Shahar. He is a happiness researcher. One of his most recent works, ‘Happier, No Matter What’, written in the middle of the pandemic, is a truly worthwhile read.

Tal conducted an exercise with a large group of educational leaders, and I encourage you to try the activity yourself.

Ask yourself, ‘What do we want most for our children?’

Then ask, ‘What do children spend most of their time learning about in school?’

 ‘Why is there so little overlap?’

What we want most for our children, most people would say: fulfilment, purpose, happiness, connection, healthy relationships, resilience, grit, emotionally well rounded and healthy individuals, success (however we define success) etc. How much of these things are we actually focussed on at school? Even more extraordinary is that if we focus on what we want most, the purpose, connection, kindness, good character etc, how much more successful will our children be in all other areas of life and school?

What is antifragility?

Tal spoke about the concept of teaching our kids and modelling for ourselves ‘antifragility’. It’s not actually his idea, rather an idea from a colleague of his, Nassim Taleb, who authored a book with that title. ‘Antifragility’ – the opposite of fragility, or as Tal calls it, Resilience 2.0, is a very simple concept. ‘Resilience’ is the ability to bounce back, and ‘antifragility’ is not only the ability to bounce back, but the ability to bounce back further, to grow bigger, or to become stronger from the experience.

When we challenge ourselves physically, when we exercise our muscles in a healthy way, they don’t just bounce back and recover, they bounce back, recover, and become slightly bigger and stronger, that is ‘antifragility’. The concept applies in our own lives, when we experience a crisis, challenge, or healthy stressor, it’s not just about us or our children being resilient, it’s about growing, being enriched and becoming stronger, from the inevitable challenges in life.

Tal quoted a famous quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l. The Hebrew word for crisis is mashber. It is also the biblical word for a ‘birthing-stool’, for every crisis contains within it the birth of opportunity.

Many schools and school communities rose to the challenge of the COVID crisis. It was even traumatic in many ways, yet many schools, like ours, leveraged the crisis to grow and become stronger. With the right ingredients any crisis can turn into growth.

This is a theme that Tal speaks about a lot, and in fact he runs a course for psychologists on this concept. It’s called ‘Post Traumatic Growth’ (PTG). He said, “if you play your cards right, PTG is two times more likely than PTSD”. There are three simple conditions when inserted into the equation that almost always, unless the person is still experiencing the trauma, will lead to growth.

Condition # 1 for antifragility: feel

The first precondition is ‘Permission to be Human’. Permission to ‘feel your feelings’. Allowing the feelings to just flow through you, both positive and negative ones. How many of us, when we have a negative feeling, try to suppress it or push it aside. “I don’t want to feel that emotion now”; “I don’t want to feel anger, frustration or resentment”; “I don’t want to feel hurt or negativity; I can’t afford to feel sad right now”. We sometimes don’t allow ourselves to feel those negative emotions. We are okay with the positive ones, but often we don’t allow ourselves to feel the negative ones.

Tal says there only two types of people that never feel negative emotions. Only two.

The first category of people who never feel negative emotions are psychopaths.

The second category that never feel negative emotions are dead.

So it’s not a bad thing for us to be able to allow ourselves to sometimes feel negativity or pain, to allow it to flow and pass through us; only then can we opt to experience the real intensity of our positive emotions.

There is a famous quote from the fourth Prime Minister of Israel (1969 to 1974) Golda Meir, who said, “Those who don’t know how to weep with a full heart, don’t know how to laugh with one either”. Weeping with a full heart allows you to laugh with a full heart. To feel those emotions that are negative (or maybe we deem them to be negative) and allowing them to pass through is very healthy. Accepting those negative emotions, will allow ourselves to better experience the positive feelings and to have more control over our own feelings and subsequent actions. If I reject my emotions and push them aside, then I am in danger of those emotions lingering, overpowering or overwhelming me.

If an experience or emotion makes us feel like crying, then cry. Crying is such a release. We feel better after we have a good cry as it releases oxytocin. Talking about our feelings with friends, or with a therapist, or even writing about them is very powerful. Tal says spending  20 minutes, four times, writing/journaling about your emotions is a powerful form of therapeutic practice and makes a significant difference.

Condition # 2 for antifragility: recovery

The second precondition for antifragility is recovery, and it’s such a simple thing. Tal says research has traditionally focussed on stress, stress reduction, managing stress etc. Now researchers have realised that although it is interesting, much of the stress research was a waste of time. You can’t eliminate stress from your life, it doesn’t work, at least not for most humans.

In fact, stress can be a positive, and coming back to the exercise example, exposing your muscles to healthy stress causes microtraumas, which in turn can lead to strengthening of the muscle fibres. However, if you don’t allow your body to recover, and you go for that 10km run without allowing your muscles to rest in between, your muscles don’t go into hypertrophy (when the body repairs and rebuilds the muscle fibres stronger and thicker than before), but rather into atrophy, (when the muscles deteriorate, decrease in size), and it can lead to injury. The same is true of any stress, trauma or experience, not just physical activity. It will only be a catalyst for growth if we allow ourselves adequate recovery.

Today, many of us are connected nearly all the time (bear in mind the healing and recovery power of Shabbat). Connected, connected, connected. I remember reading Jonathan Beramann’s book, ‘Flip Your Classroom’, written a decade ago, when it was revolutionary to use flipped or blended learning. I was surprised to read in the final part of the book that Beramann advocates for a day in which we are disconnected or unplugged. He was advocating for a ‘Shabbat’, or in Tal’s words, a recovery. And that was before 98% of the adult population had a mobile phone on their person, most of the day.

We are always ‘on’. We are going at such a hectic pace of life; now more than ever, we need to give ourselves time to recover.

Tal worked with one of the largest trading firms in New York. They found high levels of burnout and staff turnover and they didn’t feel they were maximising productivity. Tal said “Okay guys, I need you to commit every day, in the middle of the day, to stepping out of the office, off the trading floor, and take a 15 minute break”. The traders said that was impossible, as world markets could crash and change in 15 minutes. After discussion, they negotiated it down to 30 seconds, a few times a day, when they stepped away from their desk, and did mindful breathing; they did it religiously, three or four times a day. They found a dramatic drop in absenteeism and staff turnover, and a huge uptick in productivity. Recovery, even 30 seconds, makes a big impact.

Think of that annoying reminder on your smart watch that pops up reminding you to make time for mindful breathing – maybe the watch is smart after all! Over time, those 30-second micro recovery breaks had measurable health impacts on the traders. It’s extraordinary what a small amount of recovery can accomplish, whether it’s mindfulness, meditation, breathing; whether it’s prayer or 30 minutes of exercise three times a week (which is the minimum recommended); whether it’s regular breaks throughout the day, it doesn’t matter; even G-d needed a day of ‘recovery’.

There’s a famous quote from JP Morgan, the founder of the famous, multinational consulting firm. It’s a powerful quote, “I can do a years’ worth of work in nine months, but I can’t do it in 12!”

Without a break, without recovery, we are like a racing car that just goes round and round the circuit; eventually it will either run out of fuel, or its tyres are going to explode, something not good is going to happen.

We have to stop, pause and recover.

As parents, grandparents or educators, we are givers. Sometimes we just keep giving and giving. We need to have that recovery time, that self-care so that we can continue to give. Once we start to practise recovery ourselves, we can help spread the habit to our loved ones, our family and friends, and we can teach it to our children.

Condition # 3 for antifragility: giving

The third condition for antifragility, which is so simple and intuitive, is kindness or giving. Giving to others.

You know when Carrie Bradshaw from ‘Sex in the City’ goes on a shopping spree and buys a pair of shoes? I’m sure she feels happy on the day. In fact, research does show that when you buy something like a pair of shoes, you do have a bit of a high on the day of the purchase, but zero or near zero impact 24 hours later. You could buy a pair of shoes every day, but the novelty would probably wear down after a while. There has got to be a better way. However, if you spent the same money and bought a present for somebody else, if you put some thoughtfulness and feeling into it, research shows there is a neurological impact for at least four or five days.

Tal says his research concluded we should aim to do five simple acts of kindness a week. They don’t need to be big acts, even small things that just brighten up somebody’s day.

He also concluded that giving someone your time, and creating an experience with them, is even more powerful and has a longer lasting impact than giving them an object. Try to create experiences for the loved ones around you.  The giving of our time or energy, even just listening to somebody, is very powerful.

The Hebrew word for giving is natan. It’s a palindrome. That’s because when you give you receive. It’s two way, and it’s automatic. It’s not why we give, but it’s an automatic result of giving.

These are the three conditions for antifragility – feel, give and recovery.

There are givers and there are givers

I am sure many of you know Adam Grant, and I enjoy reading his research. He did an interesting piece of research on three kinds of humans. Most people fit into all three categories a little bit, but generally they fit into one of them:

The first category is givers.

The second category is takers, which is the flipside of givers;

and the third category is matchers – you scratch my back, and I’ll do something for you.

It is a reciprocal, almost transactional relationship.

Thinking about givers, takers and matchers is interesting but the next part of his research is far more so.

Adam studied organisations, schools and many others. He noticed three kinds of performers:

Top performers, middle performers, and low performers.

He studied staff members who were represented in the top, middle and low performers of the organisation.

In the top performers category, there was a disproportionate number of givers;

In the middle performers category, there was a number of takers and matchers.

But here comes the most interesting part of the study. In the lower performers category, there was a disproportionate amount of givers. That’s correct, low performing givers!

Some givers are top performers, and some givers are in the underperforming category. Some givers have high impact and others low impact.

What is the difference between them?

They found the difference is that top performing givers, give to themselves as well. They practise self-care and recovery, and they religiously take care of themselves. They don’t just give, give and give like those selfless people that never take care of themselves, and end up burning out. They end up at the bottom of the totem pole; they end up being underperformers.

As givers we need to ensure that we look after ourselves. We give as parents and educators, all day.

As the famous Talmudic Sage Hillel said, and this makes so much sense now with the concepts of positive psychology on antifragility, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; but if I am only for myself, then what am I; and if not now, when?”

Now, at the start of the new school year, is the time to decide to give to ourselves.

Coming out of COVID, or any trauma or stressor in our lives, we can have Post Traumatic Growth and be antifragile with the three key conditions: permission to feel and be human; making recovery a practice, and making a habit of giving to others.

I look forward to all of us being and modelling antifragility, and helping our children to do the same.

Have a wonderful year ahead!

Copy of Copy of Untitled (20)About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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