Turning Chaos into Growth: Leveraging Adversity to Become Antifragile

May 27, 2020

Policing a pandemic has proved very stressful and the uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 outbreak has demanded the adoption of novel policing strategies. While we can’t choose to completely avoid the stress and volatility associated with this crisis, the way we frame it can help determine its ultimate impact.

The philosopher Nassim Taleb introduced a helpful concept in his book, “Antifragile—Things that Gain from Disorder.” Taleb wrote that most things, including people, can be characterized as either fragile, resilient, or antifragile, depending on how they respond to disruption and unpredictability. Fragile people and objects are easily harmed by unforeseen circumstances and stress, while those that resist external stressors are robust or resilient. However, some transcend volatility and improve under stress, making them “antifragile.”

Antifragile systems and people benefit from harm and disorder. Consider the immune system, which is a learning system. A vaccine—essentially a fragmented virus—is injected into the body. In response, the body generally develops an immunity to the virus.

Likewise, the process of learning to walk involves internalizing negative feedback. Children learn to walk by failing. An aspiring toddler will fall repeatedly, learning from each failed attempt and making slight adjustments until they can eventually walk across the room. The child benefits from failure, using the experience to become stronger and more independent.

Our men and women can do more than merely persevere during this crisis; they can flourish.

We begin by honoring the core truth about those we serve: Everyone we meet is a person with hopes and fears, just like us. In our most fragile moments, we tend to lose sight of this fundamental truth, causing us to lack patience and understanding. While we can’t dictate how other’s respond to stress, working to control our own responses helps increase our productive influence and build antifragility. 

The “dichotomy of control” can serve as a practical framing strategy. The ancient Stoics taught that most things fall into one of two categories: things that are up to us, and things over which we have no control. For instance, we can’t control the weather, but we can often take steps to limit our exposure—like wearing gloves or using an umbrella.

We can’t control the moods and attitudes of others, but we can control our interpretation of their behavior, which will help inform our consequent emotional reactions. The wisdom to understand the difference between the things we control and the things we do not control is the basis for personal freedom.

The famed neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl tested this philosophy in unimaginable conditions while imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Frankl observed that everything we have can be taken from us but one thing—our freedom to choose our response to anything that happens to us. Accepting what we can’t control and taking responsibility for our response to challenging people and situations helps develop antifragility. While we can learn to benefit from stress and disorder, we must remain aware of our inherent limitations.

We should regulate our exposure to stressors so we aren’t overwhelmed. All stress and no rest can break us, just as intense physical training without recovery is counterproductive and harmful. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills….”

We are capable of growing stronger when stressed…up to a point. In order to benefit from antifragility, we must be intentional about our respites from stress and chaos. Taking a walk, reading, or breathing deeply can help us reset. Much of our technology tends to work better when we unplug it for five minutes; perhaps the same is true for people.

Suffering and chaos are inevitable—they are woven into the fabric of existence. While we can’t choose not to suffer, we can often choose “how” we suffer. This current crisis is unfortunate, but it presents us with a unique opportunity to adapt, grow, and become better for having had to contend with it.

Policing is a highly complex undertaking. By working to become antifragile, we can better prepare for the next unforeseen challenge.


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