With a mile left from the peak of Mount Washington, we found ourselves surrounded by a storm and less than 20 yards of visibility. As an indoor cat myself, I clenched onto mother nature’s awkwardly placed boulders and inched up this seemingly insurmountable climb. At that very moment, all the anxieties that I’ve dreamt about our climb came rushing into my mind. What if we’re actually lost? What if someone gets seriously injured? What if we have to resort to cannibalism? Then, in the midst of all my exasperation, my crew screamed at us, “Look! I see cars and people!” We’ve reached the apex, everything was gravy, and there was even a cafeteria serving clam chowder.
That next day as I’m recounting the seemingly disastrous conditions we climbed through with my parents, they gasped in horror and insisted that I never act so foolishly again. But what’s more interesting was that the experience had likely elevated my risk tolerance for larger and bigger summits. In other words, this stressful encounter has somehow made me… less fragile?
Nassim Taleb (in)famously described the concept of antifragility as any system that thrives under stress and becomes better as a result. The human body is an example of such system where application of stress (in the appropriate form and frequency) can induce growth. Interestingly, the world is littered with these antifragile systems. In the airline industry, every plane crash makes the next one less likely. In silicon valley, for every x number of failed startups/ventures, an enormously successful company is propped up. And as I sit here conversing with my semi-retired mother about this trip, I can’t help but recall all the antifragile experiences that my Fujianese parents had inadvertently integrated into my upbringing and how over the years these lessons which I’ve held to be unintelligent were simply unintelligible…. Or just cannot be explained with my pedantic goggles on.
Sinking and Swimming
My dad often tells this story about how he and his brothers learned to swim back in China. There weren’t any lifeguards or safety harness or instructors in Maoism. My grandfather would take him to the waterfront and unsuspectedly push him into the deep end. Literally forcing him to sink or swim. Now, I do have to preface that my grandparent are extremely caring people but these were the language of love passed down to my parents. My situation were infinitely better but no less stressful. Being the only person in the family who spoke any English, random administrative tasks piled on my to-do list. In 5th grade, I was disputing our real estate tax bills with the town clerk. I accompanied my dad to the court for his myriad of parking tickets and violations. I had to resolve two cases of identify theft all before I finished high school. Now, this pales in comparison to post cultural revolution China but still, I abhorred every minute of these encounters.
These feelings of resentment and disengagement went on for years. I still cringe every time I have to translate a 500 page life insurance policy. It wasn’t until I fully stepped into adulthood that I learned to appreciate these stressors. Graduating into a recession, I see many of my millennial colleagues struggle in their transition to independence. The irony is, they were going through all the same shitty stressors of life (bills, parking tickets, disputes, court orders, taxes, legal confrontations, etc.) that I’ve dealt with for years. Being exposed to heavy responsibilities at a young age (by necessity) has taught me to learn and act quickly. And that, I believe, made all the difference.
Art of the Start
Being able to take calculated risk is an essential element of innovation. Many Fujianese immigrants in the 80s and 90s took the enormous risk to come (often through a treacherous journey) to the United States and set up shops along every corner of this country. There’s nothing elegant or pedantic about this Fujianese movement. It wasn’t as if a Fujianese PhD student published a dissertation on the ROI of the American fast food industry and caused a subsequent influx of general tso’s chicken. The growth (and success) of many Fujianese business ventures stemmed from the art of starting and pivoting.
This is a central theme in Taleb’s argument, that starting and learning through trial and error is the reason why America is still the largest producer of innovative products/services. The magic ingredient here isn’t just higher education but includes a healthy appetite for risk.
The ultimate irony is that despite experiencing enormous entrepreneurial successes, many Fujianese parents would harp on the importance of good grades and a 9-5 desk-job. This is the hallmark of a fragile system that can’t withstand rare duress. During the recession, countless employees with good grades were laid off. Even government employees were furloughed because lawmakers were too busy playing politics. Here is a rare instance where you should contradict your Fujianese parents to do as they DO and not as they SAY.
Unintelligent v. Unintelligible
The beautiful thing about life is that you’re constantly learning. And we’ll all continue to discover that we know much less than we think we do. Most situations and opportunities won’t be delivered to you in a nice package with instructions. Heck, most things can’t even be put into words. And here lies my biggest revelation (and your main takeaway): don’t confuse unintelligible with unintelligent. My 5th grader self did not understand the importance of stressors and replaced that with unintelligent frustration. It only took a few decades to realize the grittiness that my Fujianese parents were instilling into my upbringing. You may commiserate with this sense of tough love and felt that the world is acting against you but you’ll realize that you’re absolutely stronger because of it.