Facing challenges……exploit them

“Difficulty is what wakes up the genius” ― Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Last week, one of my ex-colleagues called to inform me that he got promoted to the next level in the organization. He felt that I played a role in his career growth and hence wanted to appraise me of this good news. When I hired him into my team, he was relatively junior. He was still learning the basic ropes. In 8–9 years since then, he went through three promotions and has now moved into leadership cadre. This is extraordinary growth by any standard. I was always enamored by his potential because he was unafraid of taking on complex and “red” status projects and had turned them around through ingenuity and tenacity. He was and is not one of those smooth talking corporate leaders — but he had chutzpah and street smartness. A natural but not an obvious leader — if that makes sense. When I reminisced his career journey, he did not just help the organization through many tough spots (stressors) but also strategically used such opportunities to progress his career as well. He consciously sought out projects that are causing stress to the management and took care of them.

Fixing a problematic situation does not just help one build their problem solving skills but also builds mental strength, expands comfort zone, provides visibility with management and helps build right kind of reputation. Working hard on (complex) situations that are not on your management’s radar or priority does not help you with visibility and hence may not be good ROI effort for you. This does not mean you shun all regular or non-visible work and only seek out special projects — it just means that you strategically manage your energy and time by balancing regular work with opportunistically taking up “problem” projects.

In the present context, suitable synonyms for stressor are volatility, uncertainty, chaos, variability and even randomness and errors.

As Nassim Taleb rather eloquently puts in his book “Anti-fragile”, nature and biological systems thrive on stressors. For example, when you lift weights, muscles get bigger and stronger — the stressor of lifting weight makes the body prepare for bigger stressors in the future by building bigger muscles. Bones also get stronger with weight lifting.

Disuse of the muscles leads to atrophy and apparently, after 3–5 weeks of bed rest, almost half the normal strength of a muscle is lost.

Evolution of life is a great example of a system thriving in the face of stressors (evolution is possible only because of errors in gene replication during reproduction).

Hormesis is another way nature demonstrates its exploitation of stressors. Small doses of snake venom consumed over a period of time makes one develop tolerance for large venom doses from real snake bites.

Other examples:

A car left in the garage is more prone to issues and break-down than a car which is driven often.

Value investing in stock markets is founded on the potential to exploit volatility in the market. Volatility in stock markets gives astute investors, opportunities to buy at lower than warranted prices, time and again.

However modern human society and institutions constantly try to reduce volatility and make us feel comfortable. Unfortunately, these attempts at taming uncertainty work only in the short term — if you expand your timescale suitably, it seems like in our endeavor to reduce stressors, we are actually increasing their magnitude — albeit with a lesser frequency — and increasing overall adverse impact.

“Comfort makes you weaker. We need some variability, some stressors. Not too much, but just enough.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Ok — stressors could help one on the path to extraordinary (is there any other kind?) success — how does one incorporate this in their lives?

  • By constantly reminding yourself that falling into comfort zone is bad for your life — health, wealth, career, etc and constantly getting out of this zone
  • By not resisting stressors/volatility/uncertainty — embrace them, get comfortable with them
  • In fact, strategically seek them so that you are mentally and physically prepared when the big opportunity (stressor) knocks your door — as in, positioning yourself to successfully exploit those rare, big opportunities when they come your way
  • Create systems in your lives which enable you to face and get comfortable with stressors — e.g., once every few months, take up a learning course — not those ones that give you a certificate just for attending but ones that thoroughly test your understanding with a rigorous test or a project at the end; once a week (random chosen day), pick an alternate route to work or alternate running route etc
  • Things that hate stressors are fragile and require a lot of care….. visualize a porcelain cup — it looks good but can easily break — do you want to become like that cup that can break easily?

Design one’s life in ways such that random stressors of life can create occasional but open-ended upside while the downside is strictly capped. Mohnish Pabrai (Investor and author of the book “The Dhandho Investor”) positions himself in bets where “Heads he wins; Tails he does not lose much”.

“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

PS:

  1. Non-negotiable aspect when you are dealing with a stressor is that you survive the stressor….. avoid those stressors that could end the game altogether, so to speak. E.g., if you can help it, avoid projects that are doomed to fail (yes, every organization has a bunch of them), don’t lift such heavy weights that you die of cardiac arrest right there
  2. Much of the above concepts are essential learnings from “Anitfragile” by Nassim Taleb. Please read “Anti-fragile” for comprehensive understanding of Antifragility

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