This post is a follow up to the previous Antifragility post. After the NYC Agile meetup on Antifragility, I found a number of things resonated, and/or I had a perspective I wanted to air before I dive into researching all of this further. I want to do this because, as someone with an extensive technical training background, I like having a record of what people encountering new information think initially - where do things resonate and why (which is usually where they are most enthusiastic), where they may misinterpret, etc. It reminds me of how confusing first encounters can be, augments and reinforces my understanding, and if I am later teaching this material, it makes my training delivery stronger.

At the start of the meetup, the speaker Si Alhir asked: "what brought you to this meetup?" An immediate response from the audience (same as mine): the title, Antifragility: Beyond Agility. I've always seen this surface chaos and used it as input to elucidate deep principles which apply regardless of those surface changes. (Si suggested substituting the word "heuristic" for "principle".) I find when I do this and distill the chaos down to its essence, over time I am more immune to life's stresses. The stresses and rollercoaster rides don't go away, but they're replaced by different challenges. It becomes harder and harder to trigger stresses that will throw me off track, whereas "what you resist persists" and if you resist reality and truth, you will often remain stuck.

In other words, my brain looks something like this:

Here is one example of distilling the essence in the technology industry: "Identify and decouple logically unrelated functionality". Without this, every time you encounter a new concept, there is a lot to figure out. Why object-oriented concepts like objects, classes, inheritance, polymorphism? Why would try/catch be useful? I remember the first time I saw LayoutManagers I was completely confused. But once I saw this common theme "identify and decouple logically unrelated functionality", I learned things faster and understood them more deeply because I grasped the underlying "why" up front. This is the core reason why object-oriented technologies became mainstream (and why Scala and functional programming / reactive in general are now becoming mainstream - this will likely be the subject of a future post).

Why try/catch? So you can decouple error handling from pure business logic in a rosy day scenario where things work perfectly (which could mean the difference between a developer looking at 3 lines of code vs. wading through 100 lines of code to pick out the 3 lines of business logic). Why LayoutManagers? Because rendering a parent container widget (foreground/background color, coordinates, size, etc.) has nothing to do with how the child widgets are laid out. In the post Using OO as a Learning Efficiency Mechanism, this can make a developer's job much simpler by removing unnecessary complexity and side effects from code and making it easier to pinpoint where problems lurk.

When I first saw the design patterns book and more abstract concepts like LayoutManagers back in 1997, I was frustrated because I could see the brilliance that went into coming up with these patterns but not how to discover them myself, until I grasped "identify and decouple logically unrelated functionality".

The important thing once you grasp a core essence is not just in applying this to new concepts you're learning, but to invert the process and look for areas where this is not being applied. Now you're coming up with your own design patterns and solutions. This is one aspect that directly reflects how some of us who are innovative do what we do.

To tie back to the previous posting, if you regularly attempt to distill complex systems into core essential concepts, then inject antifragility into the picture by taking a list of priorities and flipping them - this may still stress you out but you will likely recover much more quickly than if you aren't able to distill, validate, filter, and prioritize your world.

Si asked: "have you ever known VPs who constantly change their minds?" Yes, definitely. I admit I change my mind all the time as well, I seem to be in constant transformation. I find the context for changing your mind constantly is important, though. If you're changing your mind constantly because you're pushing the edges of the envelope, learning, realizing you've outgrown your current approach, tweaking your direction, pushing the edges of the envelope again, etc. that's healthy. The chances that you will someday hit some sort of pay dirt are good. I do know of two cases where a manager was changing their mind constantly and it wasn't healthy.

In the first case, this manager simply enjoyed ruling through fear, so any time the team was starting to become productive, everything would change. In the second case, while the development teams were always held accountable through agile processes, the person in charge of product strategy would constantly change direction, to a point we felt the intent was to avoid being held accountable for delivering results.

I think the greatest way to stress teams out in a negative way is to introduce changes with no productive purpose, in such a way that the teams feel they have no control over their direction. I think the greatest way to stress teams out in a positive way is to show them: "wow, look what our initial research has showed, we were on the wrong track, but what if we are able to do this instead? It's a stretch but the potential payoff is huge. Are we all in?"

At the meetup, Si talked about Black Swans being large scale, unpredictable events of massive consequence, where it was impossible to calculate risks and consequences, and predict outcomes. Instead, he said it's easier to figure out if something is fragile, rather than trying to predict the endless occurrences of events that might harm it.

A comment that I have currently is that he's right, you'll probably never have a complete list of risks. What I've tended to do in the past is think of risks not at that surface level that is more chaotic, but at deeper levels. That way, the risk management that you do encompasses more scenarios. For example, let's say many of your clients create demos for a yearly convention in January, meaning you're likely to get last minute integration requests close to the holiday season. Instead of thinking of all the ways things can go wrong (and will), and taking a possible crisis management stance should 5 clients simulaneously request help in December for upcoming demos, start earlier in the year by reaching out to partners, letting them know you're here to help with demos, and that having their requests in by October will likely maximize their chances of having a successful joint effort to demo at the convention.

Interestingly, having a bad short term memory is both a greatest weakness and greatest strength as this forces me to organize and distill my world to be effective. My husband is a walking dictionary of facts and solidly wired into the world as it is (including keeping up with the latest technological innovations). He can do just about anything you ask him to, but he sometimes complains he himself is not particularly innovative. Whereas I can easily start with a blank slate and make new connections. We're like two halves of a jigsaw puzzle. (Incidentally, once again context is important. I'm not saying to make yourself miserable focusing on all of your weaknesses. But if you have weaknesses that create considerable problems in your life, finding a way to turn those weaknesses into strengths is an effective way to reframe this challenge. Think of the yin and yang symbol. I suspect within our most problematic weaknesses lie the seeds of our greatest strengths, and vice versa.)

I've wondered at times if this is why some companies have a two-CEO model. Even the roles tend to be divided, e.g. into President and CEO. One person is often the visionary, and the other is the operational brains behind executing that vision. I would suggest that the traits needed to do both are often contradictory and can rarely be found in one person. When I see annual review processes asking if employees have... (list of values) and many of those values are contradictory, I feel as if that annual review process may work against the company. I often hear that the best teams encourage a high degree of diversity, yet in reality we often still fear that which is different from us.

As time passes I tend to lose details, and what remains is whatever essence keeps getting reinforced. While that essence is constantly pruned/refined and smaller than the ever-changing details at the surface, over time it covers an ever-growing combinatorial explosion of scenarios. I also think in terms of associated probabilities for those various scenarios. Most of the input coming in from the surface world of chaos gets labeled "noise", not because it's noise in the general sense of the word, but because it is already accounted for in this deep, distilled layer. The only time I will poke my head up in surprise, and with curiosity and interest, is when a new piece of input floats in from this surface world of chaos, that is not yet accounted for within this distilled layer. As I process this new information, the combinatorial explosion, with its associated probabilities, will shift ever so slightly. This means rarely is there trauma and drama or crisis management in my life, and the bar for truly stressing me out continues to get higher and higher over time.

I've been distilling information down my entire life because I am a polymath - someone with a varied background in technology, music composition, real estate investing, etc. Even within the realm of technology, I've done software development, technical training, business analysis, engineering management, etc. Domains have included telecommunications, healthcare, insurance, banking, brokerage, B2B, B2C. I've traveled to over 20 countries and over 35 states in the US. A person who actively puts themself into this sort of situation will encounter many different experiences, but over time will notice that the same challenges seem to recur again and again, regardless of the many surface variables such as the type of domain. Someone firmly anchored by a distilled set of core concepts will tend to be more antifragile and could be magnitudes more productive than someone who is not.

Say someone in the legal profession has spent time working with plaintiffs, and now switches over and works with defendants. People in this situation must learn to hold different perspectives in their mind simulataneously, and it likely enriches their world. Thesis and antithesis can produce a balance that leads to synthesis.

Here is one last core concept that I live by: I believe every choice we make (or don't make) in life entails a set of tradeoffs. We will all leave this life with regrets. I have decided to actively choose the regrets I will leave this life with and own them.