How to Thrive on Chaos Beyond Breakfast

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The future is tough to swallow. There are laws for physics and seasons to come, but there is no guarantee your world can't be flipped upside-down at any minute.

You want a good example? A elementary school classmate of mine rode his motorcycle off a bridge this past week and survived! He was lucky. Unfortunately, his mother was not, years ago, when she was hit and killed by a tractor-trailer that never stopped.

Life can be cruel, but we forge on. As author Alfred Montapert instructed, "Expect problems and eat them for breakfast." The reality is our days are unpredictable and we need to carry on, thriving on chaos beyond breakfast.

McGonigal's Honest Mistake

And this is the problem. We made a huge mistake thinking problems are not something to devour.

Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal is the first one to accept blame for this haunting. After “a decade of demonizing stress”, McGonigal explains how everyone, including herself, got caught up in the hype during her TED talk - How to make stress your friend. Whereas it's true that chronic stress can harm your body, and specifically your heart, new research into the belief of stress is starting to show something else. 

If you believe stress is harmful, it is. If not, you're golden, Pony Boy. It could be as simple as that. A University of Wisconsin study of 30,000 adults over 8 years found a 43% increase in the risk of dying for those who had stress in their lives and the belief that stress was harmful. The people who believed stress was not harmful had the lowest risk factor for death than anyone else, even those with little stress in their lives.

"When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body's response to stress," said McGonigal. It's a choice: to believe or not to believe. Redefining stress as your body's response to readying itself for a challenge makes the event much less detrimental. Blood vessels in your heart actually calm down and it seems people tend to live longer.

We're ridiculous for even thinking we can control stress. The only control we can have is how we react. And this might be the deeper problem. Dean Karnazes explains it well in his book Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner: “Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness.” 

We were so ready to pick up our pitchforks and torches, and run stress out of town. We gladly jumped at the clinical reason to avoid hard work and instead eat bon-bons on the couch (if we even had the drive to find out if they still made those things). We thought we'd be better off avoiding stress and it turns out it's not that easy. 

Stress is a matter of fact. It will happen. Even if you think you can control your group of friends and your job and your health, the big, bad world is still out there, ready to deliver surprises. Stress can be a catastrophic natural disaster or something so much smaller, like dealing with the weather, your commute, a drop in the stock market, a fractured femur, bugs in your carpet, or the slow crush of time.

This is not pessimism speaking, this is real life. Stress, disorder, and unpredictability have brought us here, you can't deny that. But you can be more ready for it.

Antifragility - The Tea Cup and The Package

Because the world and the future are so unpredictable, deciding to thrive from the randomness and chaos can put you on a whole other plane. Nassim Taleb saw the forest through the trees this way when he wrote Antifragile - Things That Gain From Disorder.

There was no term for the opposite of fragile before Taleb came along. Often people assume the opposite of being fragile is being sturdy, solid, resilient. But it's not that. A tea cup is fragile. A block of wood is resilient. Neither are antifragile because stress upon a tea cup or wood does not make it function better, only worse. Something antifragile will not only absorb shocks and stress and time, but it will make it better.

To picture antifragility, imagine mailing something not with "Fragile" stamped on but with the message - "Please Mishandle This Package". (teehee)

We are the antifragile packages. Where the simple and inorganic suffer from disorder, stress, or chaos, the complex and organic, thrive. Only if we step back and allow them to. Between our bodies, our governments, cities, economics, and evolution, Taleb argues that stress is something to embrace. There is no equilibrium to keep. We need to roll in it.

Escape the Bubble

To be a tea cup is simple. Stay safe and locked away as long as you can. Avoid cracks and stains. Life is not so simple for the rest of us. Stress arrives in style, through time, or disorder, or unpredictability.

Eleanor Roosevelt may have held the antidote when she said "Do one thing every day that scares you." You don't even need to look far. 

Small variations in your day can keep you on your toes, so nothing can force you to crash and burn. You can reap the benefits of extreme heat or cold with saunas, hot yoga, or cryogenic chambers. More evidence is starting to show the benefits of high-intensity workouts and intermittent fasting. Our world is now thriving in the chaos of confronting institutional racism, subtle homophobia, the blurred lines of gender, and swirling economic models. 

In Antifragile, Taleb illustrates the benefits of variation with the fictional story of two brothers, one taxi driver and one banker. The taxi driver spends his day hunting down fares while the banker works a steady 40+ hour week for a regular paycheck. The banker's position may feel more safe in terms of security, but the taxi driver can thrive in the randomness of each day's profits. It may not be a consistent income but he can ride out a bad day or week. The banker can be cut from the pack when he is fifty-five, unable to find a new job in a crowded, younger market. 

Forget control because you don't have it. And I don't mean to vilify ambition or speak ill of security. What you want to take from seeing the world for its nature is that to push this thing forward, we need to be flexible, variable, and aware. 

Soon I'm moving across the country to a town outside of San Francisco called Redwood City. And people can't help but ask why. I get it, they're curious. People don't often just get up and go somewhere. The reasons are many. To challenge myself. To be among new people and a new environment. To enjoy consistent weather amidst a terrible drought. To be roommates with an experimental cookie baker and an adult nerd bound to change the face of education.

What's most exciting is the challenge of carving a new life. It's unpredictable, just like everything else. And I'm down for the ride. You should be too.