Work Futures Update | Learners Inherit

The learned fall behind

Beacon NY 2021–01–13 | I am experimenting with a shift in my writing: more frequent, but shorter, and focused on a single thread.

And returning to publish on Substack as well as Medium.

My focus today is how learning strategies can counter fragility and make us more resilient.


Quote of the Moment

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

| Eric Hoffer


Beyond resilience: Toward ‘antifragile’ urbanism | Michael Mehaffy is nominally writing about urbanism, but his points have greater impact than that:

Key to this antifragility is the ability to fail in small doses, and to use that failure to “gain from disorder” over time — paradoxically producing a greater order. Muscles get very small tears and strains, resulting in strengthening; a few cells get infections and die, but not before sending out markers that identify the invaders to many other cells. So keeping things “small enough to fail” (as opposed to “too big to fail”) is key. So is the ability to transmit lessons from these small failures, so that the structure can develop new strengths.

But getting “too big to fail” is precisely what’s going on in too many places today. The 2008 financial crisis, and its “too big to fail” banks, was a case in point. Modernity, [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb says, is dominated by a culture of specialists who are rewarded for excessive intervention, and for predictions that are routinely inaccurate. The big reward for them is not in creating antifragility or even resilience, but stability — or rather, the temporary appearance of stability. Then, when disaster strikes, these specialists, who have very little “skin in the game,” pay a very small price, if any.

The result of this dynamic is that there is very little learning within the system, and we go right back to making structures that are more unstable over time. In evolutionary terms, we are not advancing into greater resilience, but lesser resilience.

Thus, instead of creating a world in which the most destructive Black Swans are more survivable, all the emphasis is on preventing such Black Swans, and creating an unsustainable state of normality. The inevitable result is that these Black Swans come anyway — with ever more catastrophic results.


Resilience vs. Efficiency: Calibrating the Tradeoff | Martin Reeves, Simon Levin, Sasi Desai, and Kevin Whitaker look into the role of learning strategies to build resilience:

One learning strategy is to assess the firm’s resilience to past crises. Crises provide leaders with valuable intelligence by shining light on poorly calibrated tradeoffs. Leaders should use every crisis to critically evaluate their company’s tradeoffs and adjust their approach if needed: Was the firm sufficiently prepared? Which resilience mechanisms worked better or worse than expected? To this end, organizations can institute reflection sessions as part of their planning processes to conduct post-mortems on crisis performance and diagnose what they should do differently. For example, certain East Asian regions such as Taiwan studied the SARS epidemic and used the learnings to recalibrate their pandemic response plans. As a result, they were better prepared when COVID-19 struck.

Another learning strategy is to understand the distribution of historical shocks. Of course, historical crises will not cover all potential shocks, as evidenced by recent crises that were without precedent. But for threats that follow power-law distributions, such as stock market crashes, the likelihood of shocks of unprecedented magnitude can be roughly calibrated, even if specific events cannot be predicted. For example, while individual earthquakes are unforecastable, their distribution of intensity and frequency follows a power law. So regulators can assess the likelihood of an earthquake of a certain magnitude when designing building codes. Similarly, business leaders can calibrate the required level of investment in resilience by using power-law distributions to identify the likelihood of shocks one or two orders of magnitude greater than those experienced in the recent past. Of course such an analysis should also not be taken as an absolute guarantee — circumstances and distributions can change.


Opinion | How to Protect Your Mental Health During the Coronavirus | Emily Esfahani Smith shares insights on why it’s important ‘to learn to suffer well’. Victor Frankl believed we need to adopt a perspective of ‘tragic optimism’ to become resilient:

The term was coined by Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist from Vienna. Tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.


It may seem inappropriate to call on people to seek the good in a crisis of this magnitude, but in study after study of tragedy and disaster, that’s what resilient people do. In a study of over a 1,000 people, 58 percent of respondents reported finding positive meaning in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, such as a greater appreciation of life and a deeper sense of spirituality. Other research shows that benefit finders grow not only psychologically but also physically. Heart attack survivors, for example, who found meaning in the weeks after their crisis were, eight years later, more likely to be alive and in better health than those who didn’t.

This doesn’t mean that people should endure adversities with a smiling face. In fact, Mr. Frankl specifically said that tragic optimism is not the same thing as happiness. “To the European,” he wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”


How Autonomy Creates Resilience in the Face of Crisis | Howard Yu and Mark Greeven provide background on Haier’s management with attention to autonomy of microenterprises and how important that has been to the company’s capacity to rebound from coronavirus-caused plant closures.


Final thoughts

We’re going through many crises at once, particularly the coronavirus and its impact on us personally, societally, and organizationally. A few lessons to learn from these writings:

  1. Learning strategies, which systematically try to examine where things fall apart, lead to greater resilience. This, in particular, should include looking back at historical examples.

  2. Greater autonomy makes people and organizations more resilient.

  3. The most important key to resilience is developing a mindset of tragic optimism, where we seek to find hope and meaning even in the darkest days and to not yield to despair.