Dealing With The Unknown

If you’ve endured a few bumps and detours in the game of life, don’t be disheartened – these events might just make all the difference.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

If you’ve endured a few bumps and detours in the game of life, don’t be disheartened – these events might just make all the difference.

When Katherine Prani got cancer in her first year of university, it turned her plans upside-down. However, surviving Hodgkin’s lymphoma also cultivated skills for her to deal with challenges that would prove crucial in her later years.

Like Katherine, who is now 40 and working as a freelance copywriter in Sydney, most of us experience unexpected trials – with our health, relationships, finances or career. While most of us probably prefer a smooth-sailing life, life rarely works that way. However, we can benefit from disruption and thrive.

In 2012, scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb released a book detailing why things benefit from randomness and risk. Called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim’s work describes anti-fragility as beyond resilience or robustness. “The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the anti-fragile gets better,” he writes.

“The anti-fragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means – crucially – a love of errors. Anti-fragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them – and do them well.”

The idea of “anti-fragility” has been applied to various fields, including economics and engineering. In psychology, it describes a way of thinking and living that, in an uncertain world, allows people to recover from mistakes and grow stronger because of them.

Benefit of taking risks

Taking risks is how we grow, says Sydney-based clinical psychologist Dr Heidi Heron. “If we never got outside our comfort zone, we would still be crawling around, eating baby food; we wouldn’t have the technology that we have,” she explains. 

“Nobody that I know of that’s highly successful has ever stayed in their comfort zone. Even though it might be uncomfortable for a while, being outside of our comfort zone is how we create a new level of comfort.”

For Katherine, coping with discomfort continued when she purchased a property in her late twenties. Although she had learned meditation and positive thinking during her cancer recovery, she says, “I was almost naively positive to the point of not acknowledging the things that were going on for me.”

Getting a mortgage meant that her maladaptive coping tool of shopping was no longer an option. She started yoga, which “trains you to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.” This helped Katherine through a second bout of cancer and an unplanned career change.

Sydney-based psychotherapist Charlotte Stapf notes that doing anything new entails risk. “If we can’t live with uncertainty and a certain amount of risk, we will live in a very tiny box,” she says. “We have the choice of living in a controlled environment – knowing that you’re going to be disappointed because no environment can be completely controlled – or we take the risk and venture out of that tiny box.”

On the upside, stepping out leads to a life that is richer and allows you to fulfil your potential, she says.

Dr Heron describes a woman she worked with who wanted to start her own business, but was fearful, and lacked support from friends and family. “For years she was stuck in that space, but she realised that she was kind of drowning,” says Dr Heron. “[It came to a point where] there was not much reason [for her] to get up in the morning. It was bordering on depression. So, without the support of her family or her husband, she jumped [right into her business venture].”

Even though it might be uncomfortable for a while, being outside of our comfort zone is how we create a new level of comfort.

She started her business while keeping her full-time day job. Within 18 months, it grew large enough for her to leave her job. Dr Heron adds that having the support of people around you is helpful, but “sometimes we have to be our safety net”.

Growing by taking risks

Learning to take small risks is a crucial principle of anti-fragility. Charlotte notes that most people are conservative when it comes to emotional risk-taking. “I think we are sparing with sharing our true feelings,” she says. “We protect ourselves because we’ve all been hurt.

“We hope and expect others to read our minds rather than coming out and say, ‘What I would really like is this.’” She adds that the outcome of expressing your feelings is rarely as bad as you anticipate. 

Rather than people thinking you are “weak”, they’re more likely to think, “Thank goodness, another human being like me.” And hence, the connection will be stronger.”

When it comes to assessing risks, she advises looking at the worst possible outcome and how likely it is to happen, while also considering the upside. Travelling by plane, for example, involves a tiny risk of crashing, but also means you can travel to beautiful destinations. 

It is important to note that part of the anti-fragile philosophy is avoiding risks that could completely wipe you out, like putting all your savings into a dicey investment. 

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Permission for imperfection

One major barrier to healthy risk-taking is perfectionism because learning from mistakes is crucial to growth. Charlotte explains that it’s only when things go wrong that we must look at how we could do them differently or better. “I don’t think there’s a shortcut around that.”

For instance, you can tell a child hundreds of times not to touch the hotplate, “but when they burn themselves, they learn not to touch it again,” she says.

“I think we learn through our mistakes more than we learn through other people’s examples. In therapy, people have to come to their solutions by themselves. If someone just tells them [what to do], it doesn’t work. They don’t even want to hear it.”

Dr Heron agrees that learning by trial and error is vital for growth. “When we make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, we can surpass our dreams, because very often, we find ways of doing things even better than what we thought possible.”

She notes that perfectionism always comes back to fear – of not being good enough or what others think of us – but “life is way too short for things to be perfect.”

“Nature is not perfect. We shouldn’t be perfect either,” says Dr Heron. “Give yourself permission to be an imperfect person.”

Playing the long game

Another key to anti-fragility is learning to play the long game, which Dr Heron notes, can be challenging in a culture used to instant gratification.

She recommends fostering patience and breaking big goals into chunks of smaller goals. “We need to focus on what is the next small step that will make a difference.”

Charlotte advises getting clear on your goals. “Work out what you would like to go for in an ideal world, and what you think you can go for in the real world; then, set your goal halfway between the two,” she says.

“[The thing is] we tend to be a little bit conservative and not necessarily put our aims high enough.”

She adds that having big goals doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to be rich or becoming a neurosurgeon. Focus on what you want out of life, like a stable home or taking an overseas holiday each year. 

She recommends strategies for keeping your goals in mind. You could use a screensaver on your computer or phone that reminds you of your goal, like setting your computer password around your goals. “It could be ‘work-lifebalance7238’ or ‘myhousewithapool’. Then, every day when you log on, you’re facing it.”

Katherine adds that you never “arrive” at anti-fragility. It’s a daily practice that fluctuates with your circumstances. 

“If you need that vase of flowers, or to go for a walk by the ocean, do those things that replenish you. [This way], when life gets you down, you’ve got something in the positive bank to draw from.”


Dr Heron recommends:

Concentrate on how you will feel and what life will look like when you achieve your goals. Believe in yourself and what you want. If you struggle to change your beliefs, she suggests getting help from a coach, counsellor or psychologist. “More and more people realise that it’s okay to ask for help, and the status quo doesn’t have to be fear, or getting stuck. The norm can be to follow our heart and be okay with it.”

Charlotte Stapf recommends:

Consider the worst thing that could happen and whether that fear is justified. “It’s very rare that it would involve death or maiming.”

Compare the fear of what could happen with what you are hoping will happen. “Are we willing to not go for it just because there’s fear to hold us back?”