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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Self-Help for Self-Help Hacks

Forget the Dummies irony. If like me, you scoff at the self-help genre for overly accentuating the positive at the expense of falsifiable evidence and other critical habits of mind, I offer solace via two self-help titles.

The first, “Surviving on the Streets” by Ace Backwords, is part field-guide, part memoir from an emotionally savvy, homeless habitue of the streets of San Francisco. You never know—the author’s advice may one day help you to make sound decisions about provisions, sleeping arrangements, territoriality, the elements, hygiene, substance abuse, and mayhem avoidance.

Mr. Backwords is insightful about territoriality:

Each street situation is unique. Like I said, there is no rule book - you just have to react to each moment as appropriately and as spontaneously as you can. You must be firm, and you must draw certain lines in the sand, otherwise you'll just get run out of one spot after another. But you must be flexible, too.
And he's adept at reading material remains:

. . .the litter will give you a good idea of the history and the habits of the place. It doesn't hurt to play at being an archeologist sifting through the ruins, or a detective searching for clues.
And in the spirit of  The Graduate, he favors plastics:
PLASTIC BAGS! PLASTIC BAGS! PLASTIC BAGS! They will save your ass in a hundred different ways. At the very least, a plastic garbage bag can be made into a make-shift poncho in case of an emergency.

Deep (Antifragile) Thoughts

Nassim Taleb—a self-help inspiration?  I’d never fancied that, but the ground shifted after the author of The Black Swan paid a visit last month to my campus. Lecturing on “Risks, Black Swans, and Fragile Markets," he touched on antifragility, its opposite depicted via the image of a dainty tea cup projected on a screen.

That evening I began reading his book, Antifragile, which I had egregiously neglected. Most members of our species, he observes, consider the opposite of “fragile” to be “robust” or “resilient.”  Not so: those qualities occupy middle ground between fragility and antifragility, the latter which Taleb coined for the book. Robustness, he notes, holds fast to stability, the status quo. Antifragility pushes convexly—often against resistance—with positive nonlinear outcomes. The dynamic thrives on volatility, randomness, errors, uncertainty, and stressors.

“If you want to become antifragile,” he writes, put yourself in the situation ‘loves mistakes’ . . . by making these numerous and small in harm.” In the fragile category, he says, “mistakes are rare and are large [with large consequences], and hence irreversible,” [when they occur].

As a writer in a large, bureaucratic organization, I suddenly realized that my career-long resistance to evolving into an editor of writers or a manager of editors and writers has been an antifragile stroke. That’s to say that writing new stories two or three times a week from scratch is an uncomfortable, rewarding learning experience. All I need to do now is transfer that M.O. to the rest of this exasperating incarnation (i.e., this life).

 Fragility You Don't Need