Anti-Fragility, Identity & Stage Fright

Fighting stage fear with antifragility and self deprecation

Shopify, an ecommerce platform, is considered to be one of the fastest growing internet companies in the world today.

They have 1 million businesses using their platform across 175 countries¹. How does Shopify keep their customers satisfied? One of the things they do is to optimize for trust. Here is Shopify’s CEO Tobi Lütke²:

We’ve designed Shopify very well because resilience and uptime are so important for building trust.

How does he ensure servers that are critical to Shopify are always up and running? By shutting down those critical servers.

I would just log in and shut down various servers to teach the team what’s now called chaos engineering.

What was he trying to achieve by deliberately shutting down the servers? Antifragility.

Anti Fragility

Fragility is when something incurs damage due to shocks, faults and mistakes. Fragile systems break down in the face of pressure, chaos and volatility.

Anti fragility is the opposite of that. The concept was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s and here is how he defines it in his book³:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.

The Greek mythological creature Hydra, a snake with multiple heads, is a perfect example of something anti-fragile. If you chop off one of its heads, two grow back in its place.

Image Source: Chargebee

You can put all the controls in the world and try to plug all the holes and gaps to ensure that Shopify’s systems don't go down. Until one day they do. When that day arrives, how would the team react?⁴

Thanks to Tobi deliberately causing chaos, they have had practice dealing with unexpected disruption. If their systems actually go down one day, his team would know how to respond (as opposed to react).

Fragility is to ensure that the servers never go down. Antifragility is to ensure your team is adept at recovering from a downtime.

What does this have to do with stage fright?

Perfection is Fragile

As a victim of stage fright, you would do anything to ensure you look competent and capable in front of a crowd. What you dread is humiliation.

So, how do you avoid looking like a fool? You chase perfection. You practice enough to ensure that you can regurgitate the material word for word. That way there would no space for any screw ups and thus, no space for embarrassments. Mission accomplished.

Right?

Nope. Quite the opposite.

By aiming for perfection, you set yourself up for fragility. Because, god forbid, if you happen to make a mistake during your speech, you are going to be completely thrown off. A minor deviation from the material and you fumble, which in-turn causes you to forget your next line and before you know it, your speech snowballs into a disaster.

As a strategy, obsessing over perfection is fragile.

Disclaimer: I am no expert. I am a noob trying to become better at public speaking. I put together this approach when I was preparing for my first speech and it has been tested only in two speeches so far. It is very much in beta. This blog-post is an effort to make it a Public Beta so that anyone can try it and suggest improvements.

Recovery is Antifragile

Fragility is to ensure you make zero mistakes. Antifragility is to ensure you become adept at recovering from mistakes.

If you can learn to recover from mistakes quickly, making mistakes will no longer be a big deal. Why would they be? If you know how to get back up, falling down isn't so daunting.

If you can master the art of recovery, you can use mistakes to your advantage i.e you can be antifragile. Because mistakes present you with an opportunity — you get to display your wit and your ability to quickly craft clever comebacks. And a good unscripted comeback is one thing that the audience will surely dig.

However, it is really hard to put this in practice. Because we humans have an evolutionary predisposition to avoid mistakes⁵. We equate making mistakes with failure so we do everything in our power to ensure we make none.

On the other hand, to be antifragile is to benefit from mistakes. If you ensure there is no space for mistakes, then how can you be antifragile? So, the first step is to be okay with mistakes. How do you do that? By changing how you identify yourself.

Your Identity

Paul Graham in his essay⁶ explains how identity affects an individual’s thoughts and behavior:

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?…..I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.

For example, in politics, it is left vs right; in tech, it is iOS vs android. You can easily find discussions around these topics that are characterized by mud slinging, trash talking, people getting extremely defensive and people getting offended. Why do conversations around these topics evoke such strong reaction in people?

It is because these people associate political leanings with their identity — I am a “Leftist” or I am a “Rightist”. It is because they consider the OS or the company that makes the OS to be a part of their identity — I am an “Apple Fanboy” or I am an “Android Enthusiast”.

The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

- Paul Graham

However, this does not directly help us in our battle with stage fright. What does help us is its implication: we are in control of how we identify ourselves.

You Suck

Your stage fright and your tendency to avoid mistakes stem from you identifying yourself as a perfect orator. Why else would making mistakes be so problematic for you? You feel like you cannot afford to slip because you identify yourself as someone who gives a flawless, confident and eloquent speech.

Instead, identify yourself as a pathetic speaker and there is nothing to be worried about. Making mistakes is perfectly alright because you are a shitty speaker.

Such self-deprecation lets you take back control from the Social Survival Mammoth⁷. Here is an introduction to the Mammoth:

Source: Taming the Mammoth by Wait but Why

The Mammoth is in complete control of you in the above example.

Tell yourself that you suck and you render the mammoth powerless:

My forked version of Taming the Mammoth by Wait but Why

Similarly, identify yourself as a terrible speaker and you no longer have to bear the burden of being perfect. You have more degrees of freedom and you can screw up all you want. No one is going to complain.

And voila — you are no longer averse to making mistakes.

All of this sounds great. How do I apply it?

1. Mistakes are your friend

One simple but effective application is when you are rehearsing your speech, don’t hit the reset button; if you happen to make a mistake or if you happen to forget the next line, don’t go “Ugh I screwed up, I need to redo it”. Remember, you are a terrible speaker. You cannot “screw up”. To commit a mistake is to be in your element. So, try to recover from the mistake.

2. Quantity over quality

Nothing can explain this better than the Parable of the Pottery Class⁸:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Hunt for avenues to fall down (compromise quality) so that you maximize opportunities (quantity) to practice picking yourself up⁹.

Join a public speaking club or participate in Open-mics. Once you join, do not hold back. Spam (speeches). Spam your way into mastery.

Summary

In a nutshell —

  • learn to be okay with making mistakes by identifying yourself as a shitty speaker
  • learn to recover from mistakes quickly by rehearsing and delivering as many speeches as possible

Focusing on the above is a far better strategy than obsessing over perfection. The former is antifragile. The latter is fragile.

Be antifragile. Be a kick-ass Speech-Hydra.

Footnotes

[1] Reference: Wikipedia

[2] Quote from interview of Tobi Lutke by Sriram K

[3] Quote from the book Anti Fragile: Things that gain from disorder by N N Taleb

[4] One could argue that this is what ‘Disaster Recovery Plans’ and ‘mock drills’ achieve. While that is a valid argument, they have their downsides. DRP playbooks are theoretical. And mock drills are planned activities with low stakes. They do not teach the skill of dealing with truly unexpected situations where the stakes are high.

[5] In case you want to know how exactly we have this evolutionary predisposition, Tim Urban explains it briefly here.

[6] Its amazing how versatile the concept of keeping your identity small is. I used it in my last article on Unknown unknowns and now I find myself using it to become a better at verbal communication.

[7] The concept of Social Survival Mammoth as developed by Tim Urban in his blog-post

[8] The parable as quoted in this blog-post

[9] I fall down and practice picking myself up at Toastmasters Intl. They are present all over the world and you can find your nearest club here.

Writer. Reader. Philomath. Optimist. Figuring out life one article at a time at bitsoveratoms.substack.com