I finished Antifragile on Monday, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s quite fun, playing around with the ideas — thinking about how these concepts can apply to real life in a real homeschool with real kids. For today’s post, I’ve pulled some more of Taleb’s brilliant gems as I promised last time. In fact, if you haven’t read Part One, you should probably do that first. With that said, let’s have some fun.
1. “[H]eroism is the exact inverse of the agency problem: someone elects to bear the disadvantage … for the sake of others.” —p. 375
The “agency problem,” just so you know, is defined by Taleb as:
the malignant transfer of fragility and antifragility from one party to another, with one getting the benefits, the other one (unwittingly) getting the harm …Antifragile, p. 375
A good example of this is the mass bailouts that happened in 2008 when President George W. Bush signed that awful law from Congress, The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. This allowed wealthy corporate executives to give themselves bonuses, even after they had completely mismanaged their companies, while taxpayers footed the bill for businesses deemed “too big to fail.” The fragility was on the part of the companies, which were disasters waiting to happen — but the Act transferred all liability — all their fragility — to the taxpayers, exchanging it for antifragility paid for by people like you and me.
I could go on, but I think you get why he’s calling it a “malignant” transfer.
So what does this have to do with kids?
Well, one way we help our kids become truly antifragile is simple: we allow causes to have effects in their lives.
We mothers can be very quick to step in and protect our little darlings. It’s easier to stop once we realize this usually makes them weak rather than strong, especially when we protect them after they have disregarded our very good advice. I mean, yes, we must protect them from dying or being kidnapped. But we often save them from much smaller dangers, and we do it for a variety of reasons — from not wanting them to feel bad or be injured to not wanting to be embarrassed that, yes, it was our kid who did that stupid thing.
Mothering can be humbling at times.
But Taleb isn’t just talking causes and effects, he’s talking about heroism. In heroism the transfer is the exact opposite — rather than the strong taking advantage of the weak, this is the strong sacrificing to protect or save the weak.
How do we train this?
There are a variety of ways (not the least of which is reading lots of books to inspire admiration of heroism as an ideal), but might I suggest pet ownership? I have talked about the benefits of pets before. What applies here, I think, are two ideas. The first is not protecting our children from their consequences. When we acquired new pets when our children were younger (and we have had many — ducks, rabbits, goats, tortoise, dog, cat, quail, etc.), I trained the children in their care and feeding. I helped them build habits. I explained what was necessary for each creature’s survival.
And once they were trained, I turned it completely over to them. I did not nag them. I did not monitor them. I did not ask at every meal whether they had done what needed to be done. It was their pet and they were going to reap the consequences of the care they gave to it.
(I also modeled being responsible. The flock of goats was mostly mine, and I was up caring for them every morning at 5:30 am for years.)
This was hard at times. A couple rabbits died because someone forgot they couldn’t survive prolonged direct sunlight. That was devastating. One child had to give a pet away and lost pet privileges for a while — I do not tolerate poor animal care when I see it. (If you want a pet, you better take care of it.)
So where does heroism come in? When a child loves an animal, they will do amazing feats to save it when it’s sick or in danger. I have a daughter who rescues baby birds. She feeds them around the clock each spring until they are strong. I have another daughter who slept next to a sick puppy to give it medicine every hour. I have a son who stayed home from something that mattered because his pet needed his help.
These are small things, but they are the first lessons in self-sacrifice. They are built-in opportunities for small heroism. If you can’t have pets, it pays to think through other ways to provide consistent opportunities for self-sacrifice and service.
2. “[F]orcing researchers to eat their own cooking … solves a serious problem in science.” (p. 395)
It’s not just science. The statue quo for the elite in our society is to try to use legislation to require something of the masses they are unwilling to do themselves. Taleb gives the examples of rich people who want other people to pay more in taxes, while spending a lot of time and money making their own wealth as untaxed as possible. I’m sure we all remember when Congress passed Obamacare but exempted itself and kept its own limousine health insurance intact? Or what about the politicians traveling around preaching on carbon credits and pollution, who think we little people shouldn’t drive cars or fly on planes, but have no problem putting a million miles a year on their own private jets.
Never listen to a leftist who does not give away his fortune or … live the exact lifestyle he wants others to follow.Antifragile, p. 396
The examples go on and on but the elitist mentality is always the same: they think they know what is good for us much better than we could possibly know for ourselves, and what they expect of us is almost entirely uncoupled from how they are willing to live their own lives.
This type of hypocrisy has reached abhorrent levels in our culture, but like many things, it’s best combated at home.
When little Johnny tells his sister she ought to eat her peas, he darn well better be eating his own. When little Susie explains how the neighbor girls ought to be acting, she better be practicing what she’s preaching.
We have the power to call our children to a high standard, yes, but let us not forget that we also have the power to expect our children to live up to their own (sometimes ridiculous) standards.
I have met moms who have done all sorts of things (which generally result in good stories to tell for years afterwards) just to reinforce this idea.
The general principle is this: if you don’t want to raise an elitist snob, make them eat their own cooking from the time they are small.
3. “[F]or the fragile, a single loss can be terminal.” (p. 390)
In context, Taleb is talking about financial risks. Lots of small losses are fine when you win big, but lots of small wins are almost instantly wiped out by a big loss, and that’s the main difference between a fragile and antifragile situation.
If we just take the idea that fragile means you can’t handle loss (or defeat, or disappointment), then we see that if we want antifragile kids, we have our work cut out for us.
A couple thoughts on this:
- Small losses prepare us for big losses. This is another benefit of having pets, I think: they die. Generally, pets live much shorter lives than persons, which means children with pets may suffer multiple losses before they are grown. In many ways, this is a school that teaches them to handle death and sadness. The daughter who sobbed in my arms when a dog killed her rabbits handled the death of her great-grandmother far better than I expected, and I wondered if it was because she had had practice in heartbreak and loss.
- Some losses can be practiced through literature. Most of us don’t live devastating lives. Our kids are raised in an almost pain-free environment if you compare them to, say, colonial children during the American Revolution. Reading books not about loss directly, but featuring heroes who have experienced loss and handled it virtuously can go a long ways. It communicates that loss is normal (we live in a fallen world, after all) and doesn’t have to destroy you forever.
What about the child who has experienced loss? I know some of you are widowed or divorced and some of you have foster children, and there is more I’m sure I don’t know about. What about that?
This is just my opinion, but in brief I think we bathe them in love, and seek to help them not define themselves by their losses. It is always hard when the loss comes and we have not had time to prepare the strength for it. Thankfully, Christ has sent us a Comforter.
4. “[I]n the long term, social and economic evolution nastily takes place by surprises, discontinuities, and jumps.” (p. 391)
If we admit surprising things happen with regularity, it will go well with us.
I have been watching the homeschool community for a long time now, especially the California community. When we started out, everyone who homeschooled was independent. Resources and programs were set up for that situation. They often didn’t charge and worked on a co-op model instead.
Then, public charter schools took the stage. It was frustrating and annoying on some levels: it caused huge inflation for all sorts of programs, making it very hard for independent homeschoolers to afford to participate. (Government money pretty much always causes inflation.) Most of the resources during this time were set up to collect as many of those government dollars as possible.
This year, Covid hit. In-person programs were shut down. Government money dried up because the charter schools wouldn’t pay for “unauthorized meetings.” If you wanted to fly under the radar, you had to return to the co-op model, or something like it.
On and on it has gone and will go.
It’s easy to get annoyed and rage against the government for starting programs that cause inflation, only to turn around and rage again a few years later for the government shutting down those inflation-caused programs.
The people and businesses who survive are the ones led by creative thinkers who are flexible, nimble enough to adjust to whatever changes come their way.
We know this. Anyone who has been around entrepreneurs and farmers know that being able to react and adapt is important for flourishing.
The question is how we can help our kids get this mindset — how can we help them become creative thinkers who can adapt to changes?
I have a couple ideas:
- Teach them principles. People who think in rigid systems don’t adapt well. They get it in their minds that certain things are permanent and unchangeable when they are not. A solid classical education built on a foundation of great, living books teeming with ideas is just the ticket for this endeavor.
- Give them opportunities to adapt. Life does this naturally if we don’t protect them too much. How do you handle when the car breaks down? When you’re stuck in a traffic jam? When something important is canceled? Having a small business can also work wonders. My youngest realized that certain things sold at his vegetable stand (and certain things didn’t) and he adapted his planting as he learned.
Highly Recommended Reading
I give Antifragile 5 stars and recommend it to any of you willing to read it. It gives so much food for thought because, as you can see, the principles apply well beyond business and investment. There is so much more I could say, but I’ll end with this: we are all fragile.
We may feel strong, and we may even follow all of Taleb’s advice and seem, objectively, to become strong in reality. But God’s ways are beyond ours and Black Swan events are His specialty for the proud.
We are physically fragile and we are fiscally fragile — we can do things to build both up, to increase our odds, but we are not gods that we can control such things.
The more I have thought about antifragility, the more I think of it in terms of the mind. We do not have to be victims of our circumstances, and as a Christian I have a great secret to hold on to: the kingdoms rage in vain because God has already won the war. We already know how the story ends.
We want to make our children strong, yes. As much as possible. We don’t want to graduate fragile sissies who have zero heroism pumping in their blood. But we must teach them that their strength is a gift of the Lord, to be used in service to others and not the glorification and preservation of self.
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