In a December 1817 letter to his brothers George and Thomas, the poet John Keats set out in a single sentence his now-famous concept of Negative Capability: “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
While Keats was writing about artistic achievement and not struggling through a global pandemic and lockdowns (although he did suffer from tuberculosis), whenever I’ve found myself in times of uncertainties, mysteries and doubts I’ve always found this concept to be helpful.
Learn to live in uncertainty is not advice you hear too often from the self-help gurus, Twitter pundits, or Instagram and YouTube influencers. Most people want certainty. Most people crave certainty. Many people fall apart when faced with uncertainty. Uncertain about the future, uncertain about tomorrow, uncertain if the world will fall apart even more, uncertain about this, uncertain about that, to mask or not to mask, to open or not to open, where’s that goddamn vaccine!
Because nobody can predict the future (doesn’t matter whether you’re an economist or an astrologer), we live in uncertainty every single day, whether you choose to ignore that fact or not.
Uncertainty is a motherfucker. And yet…
Some people actually thrive in times of uncertainty. Nassim Taleb came up with concept of antifragile, that is “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”
If you’re fragile, you break under pressure, if you’re robust you can survive under pressure, but if you’re antifragile you actually gain under pressure. As UFC fighters like to say, pressure makes diamonds.
Airbnb is an example of fragile. Once the worldwide lockdowns and travel bans were implemented, lots of Airbnb hosts found their little empires of short-term rentals collapsing.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called “’A Bargain with the Devil’: Bill Comes Due for Overextended Airbnb Hosts,” detailing various anecdotal examples of people who basically mortgaged their futures for a portfolio of mortgaged rental properties. Fragile, because most of them couldn’t pay their bills without a month or two of full bookings and are now losing their properties, because how could any normal person with $22,000 of mortgage payments a month suddenly cover that debt out of their own pockets?
Many financial gurus advise both individuals and businesses to have a buffer of at least six months for uncertain times. How many people do you know that have savings that can cover six months or more of uncertainty? A $1200 stimulus check works out to $200 a month. How about businesses? So many corporations spent their cash reserves buying back stocks in order to raise their stock prices so that CEOs and executives could get their yearly bonuses that they can’t even survive a month or two without holding their hands out for taxpayer stimulus money. Subsidized fragility.
Robust would be an individual or company that can survive those six months under times of uncertainty, pressure and stress. If you’ve got that six months of buffer income socked away, you’re robust. Like the phoenix, you’ll be reborn in the same state as before after those six months, except you’ll have to build your buffer once again.
Antifragile would be individuals or companies “that thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.” Silicon Valley giants like Apple or Google or Microsoft would be examples of antifragile companies. Taleb uses the example of the Hydra for antifragility: cut off one head, two grow back.
Joe Rogan would be another example of antifragile. Under a time of stress and uncertainty, threatened with demonetization and censorship or cancellation from YouTube, he actually gains from this pressure by signing an exclusive deal to move his podcast to Spotify before YouTube bluestockings decide to delete his channel.
As Taleb points out, “Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up.” This is what happens to artists and writers who become comfortable and successful. Volatility, randomness and stressors are removed from their lives, they lose that Negative Capability and you wind up with shit like novels written by MFA professors or NYTimes bestsellers.
If you’ve set up a life full of debt, mortgage payments, car payments, credit card payments, student loan payments, a house of cards that collapses after a month or two of income loss, you’re not antifragile. You will not thrive in uncertainty. Your life is fragile.
So, how to thrive in uncertainty?
1. Embrace negative capability.
2. Make sure your life has a buffer.
3. Get rid of your debt.
4. Stop worrying about what other people think about you.
5. You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to what happens to you.
6. If it’s outside your circle of control, then let it go.
7. Learn to say no.
8. Read more books. Watch less TV.
9. Laugh at politicians, pundits, journalists, and anyone addicted to attention getting. Better yet, ignore them.
10. Make decisions out of joy and happiness, not out of fear.
Life is uncertainty. Embrace it. Or as Henry Miller so beautifully put it, “no hope, no despair.” All of this madness will eventually be a footnote in the history of the species. Until even the species is no more.