Episode 53: Resiliency & Anti-Fragility for College Students

October 25, 2016
  • New microphone!
  • Week #8 of the semester
  • Looking for college students who want to tell their stories of success
Topic of the day from r/college
Today’s Topic: Resiliency and Anti-Fragility for College Students with Mental Health Issues
First we will tackle Resiliency, what does it mean?
Dr. Martin Seligman helped discover learned helplessness, is also the “Father of Positive Psychology”, which triggered a memory in me as to why I remembered his name. I interviewed Dr. Dan Tomasulo back in Episode 32, who completed the Master of Applied Positive Psychology at UPenn degree program that Dr. Seligman founded.
Another UPenn program that is closely affiliated with positive psychology is the Duckworth Lab, home of Angela Duckworth’s research on grit. I also did a podcast about Grit using interview snippets from Ms. Duckworth in Episode 36.
Harvard Business Review article written by Dr. Seligman:
Master Resiliency Training
  • Build mental toughness – CBT techniques
  • Build signature strengths – strengths-based focus overlap with PSR
  • Build strong relationships – communication techniques
Now the real reason I chose to talk about this topic this week. I just finished Anti-Fragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Anti-Fragile: “It’s an admittedly awkward word, but that’s because it is easiest to understand first what it does not describe. It refers to something that is unbreakable, yes, but not because it is impervious to assault. Something that is antifragile, Taleb explains, actually grows and flourishes because it is stressed and then allowed to order itself in response. Antifragility allows an entity not merely to withstand all the black swans coming its way but to absorb their forceful volatility and emerge only stronger. Fragile things have their real opposite not in durable things, Taleb says, but in “things that gain from disorder.”
Examples of Anti-Fragility
  • Evolution (trial and error, natural selection)
  • Broken bones, building muscle
  • Hydra
  • Post traumatic Growth
Asymmetric Optionality: Accepting the idea that we should use the majority of our assets to protect solidly against the downside, how do we decide to invest our money, time, or energies to maximize the upside?  Taleb’s answer is to create asymmetric options.  An option is not just any “investment” — it is something you can chose to act on, but have no obligation to act upon.  Taleb’s idea is to seek out or create options that have a strong upside, but very low cost or downside. He cites the example of the Greek philosopher Thales, who bought the rights to use idle olive oil presses for a very low fee.  When an unusually good olive harvest came, he reaped a fortune by renting out the oil presses to growers who had to come to him.  Look for asymmetric options in areas besides just investing.  For example, if you can secure a rent-controlled apartment, you are protected against rent increases, but if rental rates go down elsewhere, you are free to move.  In your contracts, insist on the option to cancel at will without cost. (Don’t sign up for long term phone contracts!).
Skin in the Game: One can, for instance, rely more on trial-and-error processes and less on the assessments of experts when it comes to acquiring knowledge. Those calling the shots at the highest levels of an organization, or offering consequential opinions, Taleb advises, should have “skin in the game” and be held accountable if they get it wrong. We should also cultivate a greater reverence for failed entrepreneurs, as the personal risks they assume leave the entire economic system better off
Heuristics: According to Taleb, a good way to achieve both aims is to adopt a heuristic approach to decision-making:
  1. If we know that it is impossible to predict the character and size of future events, it is safer to use fuzzy predictive systems that are known to be useful most of the time, and perhaps more importantly are not prone to occasionally produce catastrophically wrong predictions.
  2. Hence, the role for heuristic “rules”: they don’t try to be perfectly accurate, but to simplyguide our decisions in the right direction, minimising the chances to get it spectacularly wrong. At the same time, it is possible to adopt rules that are designed to sacrifice a little predictive precision in favour of the desired asymmetry of outcomes: when we’ll choose the wrong option, the downfall will be minimised, when we’ll get it right, the advantage will be comparatively bigger.
  3. In this way, one maximises antifragility: finding out rules of thumb that prevent catastrophic errors and at the same time maximise the chances to score spectacular wins is possible even in an unpredictable world. More: it is desirable because it transforms unpredictability into an advantage.
The Barbell Strategy.  One of the hallmarks of fragility is that the downside is much worse than the upside. Taleb realized this as an options trader and developed a bimodal investment strategy, using the image of a barbell as a metaphor for pursuing the extremes instead of the average.  Rather than “diversify” into areas of average risk, he advises putting the majority of assets into ultra-safe investments like cash, and a small amount–say 10%–into some investments that are riskier but have a disproportionately huge upside.  This is an “asymmetric” or lopsided strategy which protects on the downside and has the possibility of great gain on the upside.  The barbell strategy is not limited to investment, but can apply to psychology and health. Another way that Taleb suggests to apply this strategy is to choose a “safe “career, and supplement this with a wild, creative or fun avocation like writing, skydiving or playing in a rock band.
How does the barbell strategy apply to health?  A great example is combining occasional, high intensity weight lifting or interval training, alternating with long stretches of rest, recovery and  “doing nothing”.  The intermittent stress of lifting an extreme weight pushes the body to overcompensate and prepare for an even greater future challenge, but the interlude of rest and recovery is restorative and avoids the downside of chronic overuse.   We can extend this idea of a bimodal “barbell” strategy to practices such as intermittent fasting or cold showers.  The barbell strategy is the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom to engage in moderate  aerobic exercise on the treadmill every day, or to eat regular small meals throughout the day.   Periodic intense stressors build antifragile resilience — but chronic stress without rest and recovery only wears us down.  By alternating between “extremes”  of intensity and rest, feast and fast, luxury and poverty —  we become more resilient because we increase our range of responsiveness to environmental variability.
Post-Traumatic Growth: The best example of anti-fragility in mental health
Dr. Seligman’s Army Training for building resiliency has a mandatory module on post-traumatic growth:
Created by Richard Tedeschi, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and the Harvard psychologist Richard McNally, it begins with the ancient wisdom that personal transformation comes from a renewed appreciation of being alive, enhanced personal strength, acting on new possibilities, improved relationships, or spiritual deepening. The module interactively teaches soldiers about five elements known to contribute to post-traumatic growth:
1. Understanding the response to trauma (read “failure”), which includes shattered beliefs about the self, others, and the future. This is a normal response, not a symptom of PTSD or a character defect.
2. Reducing anxiety through techniques for controlling intrusive thoughts and images.
3. Engaging in constructive self-disclosure. Bottling up trauma can lead to a worsening of physical and psychological symptoms, so soldiers are encouraged to tell their stories.
4. Creating a narrative in which the trauma is seen as a fork in the road that enhances the appreciation of paradox—loss and gain, grief and gratitude, vulnerability and strength. A manager might compare this to what the leadership studies pioneer Warren Bennis called “crucibles of leadership.” The narrative specifies what personal strengths were called upon, how some relationships improved, how spiritual life strengthened, how life itself was better appreciated, or what new doors opened.
5. Articulating life principles. These encompass new ways to be altruistic, crafting a new identity, and taking seriously the idea of the Greek hero who returns from Hades to tell the world an important truth about how to live.
Home Exercise
  • Figure out one way to build resiliency and anti-fragility in your life. (My example)
  • Is there any way that the goal you’re working on will make you more resilient or anti-fragile?
Previous Week’s Home Exercises
  1. Write down you goal for this semester. It should be one single goal, something you really, really want, and something you can achieve in 3 months.
  2. Now that you have a goal, it’s time to map it out. Begin to break the goal down in chunks. Each chunk can be broken down further into steps (not all at once if you don’t want). Give at least one chunk a deadline.
  3. Take something you’ve been procrastinating on, and “put it to bed.” Either do it, or figure out why you’re not doing it, and take care of that issue. Or don’t do it, and be fine with the fact that you’ve changed directions, or it’s really not due yet.
  4. How does online learning relate to your goal this semester? It might not currently, but is there a way you can leverage any low cost/free online resources? Think about the lifelong learner.
  5. Pick one of the Wealth-Building Principles and determine how it can help your goal become a reality. This might be more of a long-term play for many, but consider these principles and which ones you might want to better embrace as you focus on your goals.
  6. Take stock of where you’re at with your goal progress so far. Make adjustments as needed.
  7. Evaluate your need to seek help. Do you need help with your goal? Where would you expect to find that help? Write down your possible solutions and make a plan to get that help.
If you have mental health issues and a success story to tell (current college student or former), I’d like to interview you about your goal achievement quest, the struggles/adversity you faced, as well the recovery strategies you learned, let me know!
Are you a college student who is brand new to online learning? Or maybe you struggled in your first go-around with your online course and can’t figure out the mindset behind online learning? Please be sure to check out this course I made: https://aceyouronlineclass.thinkific.com Price is now $19, podcast listeners may email me for a coupon code for an additional $9 off, so get at me!
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Thanks to Rob Cavallo for today’s music. For more information about him or the music you heard today, you can email: peloquin17@yahoo.com

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