An Anti-Fragile Life Demands Setbacks

The great wildfires of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park destroyed over one third of the park after it had been long overdue for a large fire. As a result of the lessons learned, fire management has changed dramatically since then: Natural fires are usually only monitored since they are considered helpful in reducing dead underwood and therefore large-scale fires. People realized that Yellowstone NP has the ability to self-regulate and that the park even gains strength from natural wild fires sporadically occurring.

The analogy to nature

A few species of trees have adapted themselves perfectly to bush fires. In particular conifer trees can withstand small fires by growing deep roots and thickening their trunks over time. Unlike faster growing bushes and trees, conifers consume a lot of energy and time before they outpace their «competitors» eventually. Some conifers, such as Sequoias in Northern California, grow as high as one hundred and twenty meters and get as old as thousands of years (see the picture at the start).

Once a bush fire hits the forest, conifers will endure longer periods of suffering than other plants. Having taken a longer path to growth – the «roundabout approach» – has made them firm and lasting. And they won’t tap into their reserves until they are forced to do so due to suffering. Coniferous trees are the epitome of «anti-fragility» – growing stronger because of bad events.

Life is suffering, and even demands setbacks

Some things in life will not always work out as planned – sometimes for the time being, often for good. This is part of «being». In fact, the subject of suffering is not only a central motif of all major religions and thus cultural inheritance, but it also embodies a deep understanding of life beyond religious beliefs.

There will be days when we have to withstand tragedy and loss, just like conifers do when strong winds and even lightning strike them. As a matter of fact, there is some truth in Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote «What does not kill me makes me stronger». Nature illustrates that anti-fragility is a reality; and since we are all part of nature, that insight, while it may not give us a deeper meaning of life, can at least supply us with more strength to overcome the hardship of life and to flourish again eventually. The conifers standing upright in a manner that defies any catastrophe may serve as an example of how one can achieve that.

A Story About the Humble Gardener

Confucius reportedly said that true wisdom is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. In negative terms, a lack of wisdom exists where people consider themselves all-knowing experts, or as Hayek famously put it in his Nobel Prize speech in 1974: «The Pretence of Knowledge». He concluded his lecture with a warning:

«If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. […]

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.»

You find self-proclaimed experts everywhere today. It is a matter of a quick Google search and you will have access to would-be expertise in a myriad of different fields. However, there is good scientific reason to believe that expert knowledge is much scarcer than we dare to think.

Instead of claiming (and wanting) to be an «expert» in everything, we should humble ourselves. While still being aware of the fact that we may find new knowledge about reality, we should be cognizant of the more likely outcome that we will fail in doing so. We humans are imperfect beings, both compared with the infinite space of the universe and with regard to our less than perfect intellectual faculties.

Exercising modesty and effacing ourselves – not expecting that beautiful flowers will regularly spring up from parched soil, and conversely, not assuming that fragile flowers can (and will) ever be old and mighty trees –, that’s true wisdom. So, let’s be humble gardeners in our own dealings, and beyond that!