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Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)


Why trauma may be just what you need Add to ...

It is said that the best horses lose when they compete with slower ones, and win against better rivals. Undercompensation from the absence of a stressor, inverse hormesis and absence of challenge degrades the best of the best. In Baudelaire’s poem, “The albatross’s giant wings prevent him from walking” – many do better in Calculus 103 than Calculus 101.

This mechanism of overcompensation hides in the most unlikely places. If tired after an intercontinental flight, go to the gym for some exertion instead of resting. Also, it is a well-known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second-busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy and unmotivated – the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks. Overcompensation, here again.

I’ve discovered a trick when giving lectures. I have been told by conference organizers that one needs to be clear, to speak with the fake articulation of TV announcers, maybe even dance on the stage to get the attention of the crowd. Some try sending authors to “speech school” – the first time it was suggested to me, I walked out, resolved to change publishers on the spot. I find it better to whisper, not shout. Better to be slightly inaudible.

When I was a pit trader (one of those crazy people who stand in a crowded arena shouting and screaming in a continuous auction), I learned that the noise produced by the person is inverse to the pecking order: As with Mafia dons, the most powerful traders were the least audible. One should have enough self-control to make the audience work hard to listen, which causes them to switch into intellectual overdrive.

This paradox of attention has been a little bit investigated: There is empirical evidence of the effect of “disfluency.” Mental effort moves us into higher gear, activating more vigorous and more analytical brain machinery.

Consider this remarkable ability humans have to filter out noise at happy hour and distinguish the signal among so many other loud conversations. So not only are we made to overcompensate, but we sometimes need the noise. Like many writers, I like to sit in cafés, working, as they say, against resistance. Consider our bedtime predilection for the rustle of tree leaves or the sound of the ocean: there are even electric contraptions that produce “white noise” that helps people sleep better.

Now these small distractions, like hormetic responses, act up to a point.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I am certain that it would be hard to write an essay on the runway of Heathrow airport.

Something flashed when I heard “post-traumatic” during that London visit. It hit me right there and then that these antifragile hormetic responses were just a form of redundancy, and all the ideas of Mother Nature converged in my mind. It is all about redundancy. Nature likes to overinsure itself.

Layers of redundancy are the central risk-management property of natural systems. We humans have two kidneys (this may even include accountants), extra spare parts, and extra capacity in many, many things (say, lungs, neural system, arterial apparatus), while human design tends to be spare and inversely redundant, so to speak – we have a historical track record of engaging in debt, which is the opposite of redundancy ($50,000 in extra cash in the bank or, better, under the mattress, is redundancy; owing the bank an equivalent amount, that is, debt, is the opposite of redundancy).

Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens – usually.

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