Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile gives us a framework for understanding how small challenges can make students stronger and better equipped to overcome obstacles in the future.
If you spend a little time working with adolescents, the word “resilience” is sure to make its way into your vocabulary. Considered a major determinant of success, resilience refers to a person’s ability to face adversity and come out the other end no worse for wear. At Oliverian, we don’t discount the idea of resilience — but we also don’t want our students to simply “bounce back” from obstacles. That’s why we’ve come to value the concept of “antifragility.”
According to economic philosopher Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, antifragility is a characteristic of those things which “benefit from shocks,” “[thriving] and [growing] when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.” Though Taleb writes about antifragility in terms of human health and global economies, we apply his framework to illuminate the benefits of an education that gives students the chance to fail upwards.
While this concept may sound provocative, Taleb doesn’t outright praise stressors so much as view them in a productive new light, arguing that a certain degree of adversity and unpredictability in life is unavoidable, but, with the right support system, we can learn from difficult or novel situations, accumulating experience and gaining strength.
At Oliverian, we want more for our students than to manage to stay the same. We don’t just hope for students to return to their baselines after a setback. We hope that they acquire a greater ability to cope with stress, that their confidence increases, and that they can celebrate all they have accomplished through and despite hardship.
According to Taleb, a hallmark of the antifragile is “a love of errors” — which, in many ways, is also a hallmark of the Oli experience. As educators and parents, it’s tempting to take a protective stance toward our students and children, but a more attached style does not always prepare our kids to become durable adults equipped to cope with the real world.
Just as the immune system system needs exposure to a moderated amount of pathogens to produce the proper antibodies to fight off illness, children must face difficulty to develop the skills they’ll need to manage stressful situations. Humans are designed to handle stress, and we thrive when we’re exposed to limited amounts.
Weightlifters, for example, stress their muscles to grow stronger and lift heavier weights; similarly, the popularized clinical method of exposure therapy helps people overcome anxiety by introducing a stressor in specific, methodical doses.
Of course, the key to growing from challenging situations is regulation, and we recognize the crucial distinction between controlled, pro-growth stress and disproportionate, damaging stress. At Oliverian, we believe in our students’ ability to rise to the occasion, but we respect the challenges of this developmental stage. For that reason, we provide individualized support where and when our students need it.
This safety net is why we encourage students to take risks that might result in small mistakes, like trying something new and getting a bad grade on the first test. Lucky for us, here we have a “love of errors,” and we know that this process of encountering stumbling blocks — and getting back up with the help of a welcoming, intellectually curious community — helps students fail upwards. At Oli, we are antifragile, and we are proud of the challenges that have made us strong, helped us develop our passions, and led us to our people at the place to find our place.