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Be the anti-fragile Singaporean worker

Be an anti-fragile Singaporean worker.

by Daniel Yap

RESILIENCE is overrated. The real winners in today’s challenging global economy are not those who are resilient.

Sure, having resilience is better than collapsing into a quivering heap at the first sign of adversity. But can’t we do better than merely bracing ourselves against the many shocks and shifts in the global economy?

“Resilience” is a word that describes things that last, but doesn’t distinguish between things that last because they endure change, and those things that last because they grow from change.

Economist and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term “anti-fragile” (in a book of the same title) to describe the things that actually benefit from chaos or disorder, instead of merely surviving them.

Before this, there was no specific word to describe things that want to be exposed to shocks and volatility.

What does the anti-fragile Singaporean worker look like?

How well will he or she survive today’s uncertain economic climate of plateauing growth and discouraging labour reports? Will they survive and prosper (taking the country along with them)?

Or will they wither?

The phoenix or the hydra

Mr Taleb gave the example of the phoenix and the hydra: the phoenix is resilient because every time it dies, it is reborn in the same form. The hydra, on the other hand, is gleefully waiting for someone to strike it down – cut off one of its heads, and two grow in its place.

Although neither of these creatures will be destroyed by conflict, the hydra comes out more powerful after a battle with a foe. It looks forward to adversity.

On the other hand, there is the fragile – the antithesis of the anti-fragile. In mythology, this is Damocles, waiting for the sword to fall on and kill him. Maybe not now or not even soon, but eventually.

A fragile worker is someone who knows only how to work as a salaryman in a given industry or group of industries. Their only fear is losing their paychecks.

One day, when technology advances, or if war breaks out, or one of 100 unlikely or unprecedented events happen to bring about change or disruption, he will find himself in ruin.

The ponding of Singapore

Are you prepared for your job to disappear? I can’t say when (or whether it will be in your lifetime), but what you are doing now for work will eventually become redundant. You may not even see it coming.

It’s like ponding. A few years ago, it was an event that happened “once every 50 years”.

Until it happened every year.

Such “black swan” events are unprecedented and unexpected and the only thing we can guarantee about black swan events are that they will happen eventually. When they do, everything changes.

Every time we rely on the past to secure our future, we expose ourselves to the fallacy that our current experience is complete.

But as fund managers like to warn us: Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.

To become anti-fragile, we must first shed the assumptive mindset that the worst is over, and that the patterns of the past will remain.

Think of the worst recession. Think of the longest period that you have been out of a job. Then prepare for something worse.

We need to stop fearing the negative or the unknown and simply assume that it will always come for us. But it won’t kill us.

Redundancy is anti-fragility

The best preparation for the Next Big Shock (after an open mind) is redundancy. In this respect, anti-fragility looks like resilience. Buffers are built in to ensure that the initial shock doesn’t destroy you.

Understanding how business works, training, reading up on current affairs, following industry trends, building networks, and learning new skills outside of your job scope may seem like redundant activities.

But redundancy is the key to survivability.

Some people (foolishly) think that these efforts are a waste of time – that it is inefficient to put in effort to build a broad skill set in an economy of specialised labour.

Why chase a broad base of skills when you can chase the next step in your narrow career ladder (that offers more pay)?

The answer is that people who put all their eggs in one basket are risking a lot. This may be a fine strategy if you can afford to lose the game (if you have a trust fund, for example, or other kinds of “F you” money), but most of us don’t have this kind of a backstop in our working life.

This also applies to our assumptions about retirement. Yes, you may have investments and savings that will allow you to retire at age 62, but remember that they are based on today’s assumptions about inflation and returns.

Are you ready to change if that event happens in your lifetime and the world as you know it is gone?

Live and learn

So once you have survived the initial shock of disruption, you, the anti-fragile Singaporean worker, need to grow a new, second head.

“It is much better to do things you cannot explain than explain things you cannot do.” – Nassim Taleb 

If you’ve internalised everything so far, you’re on your way to becoming better with every adversity. You’ll already know that adversity builds character and therefore won’t be hesitant to shout “bring it on!” or try in vain to shield yourself from trouble.

You will know what to do when you get a truckload of lemons, because you are hungry. Stay hungry, embrace the unknown, eschew helicopter parenting. Be suspicious of comfort because comfort makes us weak, like muscles that don’t ache from exercise.

Remember – the anti-fragile worker doesn’t have to be the best at his work, but in the long run, he is the best kind of worker. He is always relevant and always reinventing himself.

When hard knocks come, he doesn’t break – he gets stronger, and so does everything he is a part of.

This article was first published in The Middle Ground on 7 October 2016 as part of a series to build a resilient workforce.

Featured image by Sean Chong.