Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Antifragile, A Magical Introduction, Part Two (Antifragile Divination)

In Part One, I started a basic overview of the concept of antifragility. Reading that will make this make more sense.

The Antifragile Mindset
What kind of life do you want to have?

If your family comes from the US or Western Europe, you were probably raised to desire a stable life. Indeed a stable life is the promise of Western Democracy. To be able to withstand shocks and keep things the same (or on a modest arc of generational improvement AKA the American Dream) was what our grandparents and great-grandparents were working for. It's what many of us work for now. In fact, many of our current systems were designed for this goal and still operate that way: education, university, the free market, housing, social contracts like marriage and procreation, media.

Do you want a fragile life that will collapse under the slightest shock? Probably not. Most people wouldn't. However despite craving stability, many people still have crazy fragile lives. Why? Because the world of our antecedents doesn't exist anymore.

If you predict that the world still operates the way it used and that there will be less change and chaos in the future, then a stable life should be your goal and a stable life should be attainable.

However, if you think life is full of random change and chaos and predict that these characteristics will continue to increase, then you would want to work on making your life as antifragile as possible. A life that's antifragile gets stronger through chaos. It doesn't crumble (fragile) and it also doesn't stay the same (stable). It may even require a certain amount of chaos to function at peak efficiency. As you might expect, I'm firmly in this group.

In order to build a more antifragile life, you need to cultivate a particular mindset and a particular form of magic. The goal here is to identify areas of weakness in your sphere of influence and deal with them. This will touch on risk mitigation, but will also head into new territory.

Here are the basic steps: define your sphere, analyze your risk, increase your antifragility (grounded, focused, versatile, balanced), and shake things up. That's your executive summary right there.

1. Define your sphere of influence
I like the term household. I like what it means, I like where it came from, I like how it can flex and morph. Your household can be you and the place you currently crash. It can include your pets. It can include your spouse and 2.5 kids or your poly-amorous triad. It can include your step kids or your aging mother or your hetero life-mate (or homo life-mate). It can refer to your coven (even if you don't all live together) or lodge. It can be multiple things to multiple people. All the living beings in your life, who you have a compact with to support one another -- that's your household. That's where you need to focus. I need to highlight this because if you are the only one in your household who does any kind of magic, you still need to consider the needs of everyone else as well. And if you have a household full of magicians, you still need to coordinate your working to all be focusing on the same goals.

Beyond just your household, you have to focus in your community. And I don't mean the global village or social media here. I mean your physical, local, community. This is critical. I get that the whole world is a mess (and I just need to rule it... sorry). I get that there are people starving/dying/etc. in other countries. If you're called to help those people, that's awesome. However in terms of creating a more sustainable, antifragile life, you have to focus locally. Shop local, bank local, eat local. How your town is doing has a far greater impact on your day to day life than how Syria is doing. You should still care about Syria, a lot, since it's a flashpoint. But how you deal with uncertainty has more to do with whether the farmers at the local market know you.

2. Perform Black Swan Risk Analysis
There are things in your life that are pretty stable (your house -- particularly if you own, your car, a pair of shoes). They are designed to withstand shocks and are only really harmed by massive amounts of chaos (difference between a fender bender and a highway accident, a wind storm and an earthquake). You can't do much to change the nature of these things. However, you need to make sure you are mitigated against the biggest shocks, the ones that can turn the stable into fragile. This includes things like having insurance to cover your house and your car. Putting storm windows or snow tires on. Or having backups, like extra pairs of shoes so that if something traumatic happens (bad dog!) you can still leave the house.

There are other things in your life that are fragile (teacups, the current economy, traffic). Again, there's not much you can do to change the character of those things. For example, you can adjust your schedule to avoid traffic and use apps to dodge it (though, remember you are the traffic). This avoids the risk of getting stuck, but traffic itself is still very fragile (one little problem in the morning and things will just be screwed all day). You can put the teacup in the cabinet and never use it. That mitigates the risk, but even in the cabinet it's still fragile. You can sell the teacup and buy a plastic tumbler. This eliminates the risk. Or you can just decide to use your teacups anyway because the enjoyment is worth the fragility. This is accepting the risk, not in any way changing the teacup. As long as you have a backup cup, that's a perfectly acceptable option.  For more on basic risk management, check this post out.

Note: There's another option for risks in your life that isn't covered in any of the writing so far. It's an interesting and in itself seemingly risky technique for dealing with fragility. Basically, if you have a fragile tea cup... you smash it. More on this to come in future posts.

3. Increase antifragile hallmarks
There are other places in your life where you are already antifragile. Your body for example. A source of income that increases when things get crazy. Your skillset (if you cultivate it correctly). The more antifragile your household is, the better off you will be. So you need to cultivate the antifragile elements.

How to you make things in your life more antifragile? Well, the best way is to always make choices that support these antifragile indicators:

Organic as opposed to mechanized. Overly automated systems are highly fragile. However, human interaction is antifragile, thriving where the system breaks down. You want your house fragile? Smarten it up. Sure, it's fun changing the temperature from your phone, until suddenly it isn't. So even if you play with technology, you have to have manual backup systems in place. Internet of things, I'm watching you. Because if I have to start worrying about my fridge getting hacked, I've got too damn much to worry about. When you make decisions in your life ask whether there's a backup option. See what the non-tech version looks like. Your mindset should be that automation is interesting, but only until it breaks down.

Personal example: when I fly my phone will allow me to show my boarding pass. This is cool, but I still always print them out. Because the day the system goes down or your phone gets lost or runs out of batteries... you will want those organic copies.

Magical example: some of the most powerful magical experiences in my life are physical, juicy, messy, wholly organic. From giving birth (which I had the option of doing completely low-tech) to sex to digging in the dirt. Ivory tower occultism is fine, but if you want magic you can rely on no matter where you are, then you have to be able to get your hands dirty.

Local as opposed to non-local. All sustainability is local. As I said above, the more you can operate in your immediate area, the better. This means supporting the local economy, making local connections, and understanding your local environment. Imagine yourself in the center of an interconnected web. Changes closer to you have a bigger impact.

Personal example: we dropped our big bank and now bank through a local credit union. That money makes an impact in my local community in a very direct way. Interestingly the company I work for is publicly traded, but all the employees get stock and the owners are local. Those are two more ways that I bring money into the local economy. Of course some of our clients are international, and that can be fragile, but it's also a great way to pull money into the local community from outside.

Magical example: Portland is a rare city in that it has a city patroness. Portlandia watches over the city and I make occasional offerings and do work to help make the city strong. Also leaving roses on the sidewalk below her statue makes people think your'e fucking Bruce Wayne, which is kind of an awesome side benefit.

Organically and locally: these two are really about how grounded you are in the place where you live (the planet, your body, the Earth). Stay grounded and you will be more antifragile.

Small as opposed to large. Systems get more fragile as they scale. What works for a frontier town doesn't work for a city. What works for a small business doesn't work for a corporation. I get a newsletter from one of my favorite local family farms. In a couple of recent messages, she talked about how her and her husband were scaling back their chicken farming operations (organic, free range, heritage -- best chicken I've ever had). As their popularity had increased, they'd started selling to local restaurants and groceries. Sounds great, right? Except that they'd done the ROI and discovered that 80% of the work was going into these large accounts, but was bringing in less than 20% of the profit. The Pareto principle at work right there. So they are scaling back, getting smaller, and focusing only on selling to the the local individuals who they have a relationship with through their farm store, farm stand, etc. To highlight, this isn't just to make their lives easier of for some personal ethical principle. This will make them more money for less work.

Personal example: we've been down-sizing our living space for the past 8 years, which has the nice side benefit of forcing you to have less stuff.

Magical example: in doing practical magic, focus your goals. Compress what you want into a small package, like a diamond. Keep the boundaries tight, be well-defined, and don't scope creep. You don't want 10 million dollars and a sports car and a big house and, and, and... no, you want prosperity in your life, to both stabilize your base and maximize your options.

Local and small: these two are completely anathema to the US model of capitalism and it takes a real shift in thinking to absorb them. Bigger is not better. Global is not better. -- or rather they may be "better" by some financial or practical metric, but they are also MORE FRAGILE. This is about how centered and focused you are. Stay focused and you will be more antifragile.

Agile as opposed to rigid. Agile in this context means flexible, not fast. And the opposite of agile here isn't slow, but rigid. Some very rigid things move very quickly (habitat destruction for example). And some agile processes can and should be slow (like building a flexible career skill set). Agile is your ability to change in response to changing circumstances. Throw tons of stuff at the wall and see what sticks. Try five different ways of accomplishing the same goal, and don't invest too heavily in any one of them. Make good plans and then keep adjusting them as you go. The more agile your life, the better you can weather and even benefit from shocks.

Personal example: we moved to four difference states in order to grow our careers and take advantage of better economic conditions. When I compare my life with those who stayed in my hometown, there's no contest (course I got nothing on Gordon, who's truly intercontinental).

Magical example: when I was needing do to that major uncrossing work, I spun up a huge multi-part effort. I banished, cleansed, consecrated, and purified. There was chanting, smudging, shielding, circling, and grounding involved. I used charms, oils, incense. I called on Deities, spirits, ancestors. After all that, something had to work... and it did.

Time-tested as opposed to new. Another one that flies in the face everything society teaches us. New things aren't necessary bad, mind you. They are just risky because their fragility isn't tested. Something that's been around a long time has had the kinks worked out. We're pretty hardcore technophiles, so I get the appeal of new shiny toys. However we've learned the hard way not to be too early adopters. Be suspicious of all new technologies, particularly ones that impact time-tested systems in an unknown way. Industrial food, I'm looking at you.

Personal example: in keeping with St. Taleb's mandate, I don't drink anything that people weren't drinking 500 years ago. However, that doesn't mean I don't enjoy inventing new cocktails. The goal is to allow experimentation (in keeping with the agile principle above), but just with a grounding in those items that have been tested by time.

Magical example: of course you can take this literally and only work from old grimoires and so forth. There's already a strong antiquarian strain in most magic. But again I think this is missing the mark. Experimentation is good and there are plenty of new techniques that are worth trying out. However, the good ones are usually all based in common and very ancient symbolism and properties or magical laws (like contagion). So when you try new things, base them in time-tested principles and they will be more likely to work.

Agile and time-tested: these two are interesting because at first they might seem to clash. But if you think of it in terms of experimentation within the scope of those things that are proven to work, it makes a lot of sense. They are both about being flexible, but intelligently so. Stay versatile and you will be more antifragile.

Embracing both extremes. This is the barbell strategy in action. The idea is to actively seek out the extremes and embrace both, avoiding the middle. This was discussed extensively in part one, so I won't repeat here. There are two parts to this. First, choosing to embrace both extremes at the same time (the classic example is taking a boring day job and starting a wildly risky side concern). Or if you have $1000 to invest, you put $900 in cash and invest $100 helping your friend buy online adds for a addictive new app. The goal is to avoid the middle. The Second part is balancing areas where you are already over-exposed on the extremes by focusing on the other. Maybe you have an extremely stable day job where your skills aren't readily transferable (you've worked for the same old-school bookkeeping firm for a decade). You balance that by staring up some crazy side dream like taking acting classes, getting into professional poker playing, or deciding write a novel.

Personal example: look around. This blog is a counterweight to my mundane corporate day job.

Magical example: So your house is filled with health and prosperity charms? Time to whip out some sigils for crazy luck and wonderful adventures and invigorating synchronicities.

By embracing the extremes, the goal is not stasis or stability or equality. No, you have to keep dynamic equilibrium. It's an active process of balancing the positive and negative risks against one another. That's why 90% cash and 10% wild speculation works. It's in balance in terms of the risk. In order to be antifragile, you have to balance (verb, not noun).

4. Shake things up
This all sounds good, but there's a catch. Things which are antifragile not only benefit from instability, but they often require it to function at peak performance. When you make a commitment to make your life more antifragile, you are also making a commitment to embracing a certain amount of shock and instability. For example:
  • Your body needs irregular cycles to run correctly. It needs times of stress followed by times of total relaxation. Times of gluttony followed by fasting. Times of overexertion followed by physical laziness. It needs you to burn the midnight oil and then nap all day in a hammock. Turn, turn, turn, dammit. Chronic anything is bad for your health. A regular diet and sleep schedule are as bad as having a consistently bad diet or being regularly sleep deprived.
  • We all know that the stable career (where you go to work for a company after school and then retire there after 40 years) is long dead. Having skills that work across multiple disciplines is one way to be antifragile. Another is a career that does better when things go wrong (the medical field comes to mind). An antifragile career is one that seeks out change. Even if you stay at the same job, you should always be on the lookout for new opportunities and responsibilities. If you have to learn a new skill to take on a different task or role, be the first one to say "me, pick me!" And if the chance comes along to try something new, take it.
Change generates experience / experience expands options / options support antifragility / antifragility requires change. You have to try new things, go new places, change things up. This will allow you to have more experiences which will then increase your options. This makes you more antifragile. And being antifragile means you need to change things up in order to feed or strengthen that state. So it's a nice self-feeding circle.

The Antifragile Divination
In the Black Swan Divination, the first step was to identify the major areas of your life (family, career, etc.) and label your reading area with those labels. This reading starts the same way. The goal then was to identify potential black swans, however now the goal is to help you identify what you should be doing to be more antifragile in those areas. I found laying three cards for each area gives a good overview, but let your intuition guide you. The first card might tell you to stop with one and move to the next area. As always, any woo you'd like to do is up to you -- the reading fits into any system or practice.

OK, results. If you see reversed cards here, read them as what NOT to do (which might be an important warning). Otherwise you are looking for guidance on how to be more antifragile, which is very different from just being more stable. If you just did a black swan reading and one of those cards comes up again in the same area, pay close attention because that area may need to be a priority for you.

  • Just as before, if court cards come up, it may be that there's someone you should talk to or listen to on the subject. Maybe in person and maybe through media.
  • For minor arcana cards, look first to the suit. Swords refer to enhancing your focus, cutting away the things that are extraneous or overcomplicated. This would mean applying the principles of being small and local. Pentacles suggest you ground yourself both by being more local, but also organic. Could you be overautomated in that area? Cups suggest being more versatile. Water* is a good metaphor for both agility and the consistency that comes from working within time-tested principles. Wands suggest the energy required to get to that point of dynamic equilibrium, keeping extremes in balance.
  • For major arcanum, consider the role of spirits, fate, core beliefs, magic already in play, Deities, and life lessons.
* Note, I'll be talking more about water and antifragility soon. I got some amazing insight on this from one of my deeper content readers (who has kindly kept me updated on their PMPM working). More soon.

So to wrap up, being more antifragile is a great goal. However it's not always easy to see how to reach it. By focusing on the principles of being more focused, grounded, versatile, and constantly balancing, you can make choices and perform magic that will move you to a more antifragile state.

For a limited time, I will perform a Antifragile Divination for any readers for free, in order to field test the technique. 

I've move into a more output-oriented space again and posts should be more frequent. I'm also suffering from a combination of jet lag and insomnia (it's 10pm at home, so why can't I sleep here?). It's been a crazy week, with rituals in hotel rooms and omens straight from the old country.

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At November 9, 2015 at 6:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to teach in a school that was connected to the global elites. One day I woke up and realized, "This is an incredibly fragile environment. This school may last a hundred years more, or it may fold next week, and all it takes is one military strike around the South China Sea to foul my employment opportunities for decades." Now I teach in a school for local elites... rich-ish people, to be sure, but people who are economically dependent on a thriving local business scene. Now I'm learning and teaching artisan skills like bookbinding, tinkering skills based on basic mechanics, practical skills like computer programming and the basics of bookkeeping.... Sometimes it's unbelievable to me: I'm being paid to become as much of a generalist as I can be, as much of a wizard or Renaissance man as it's possible to be.

And so, despite all the ruin and wrack in the profession these days, there's something to be said for being a teacher, especially if you have the life experience angle working for you, and you're willing to help shake things up. It's been tremendously beneficial for me to leap into a new stage of my career, walking a tightrope of teaching practical skills through teaching playful anti-fragility to young people (most recent post — totally part of the PMPM currently going on.)

At November 11, 2015 at 10:06 AM , Blogger Ivy said...

Yes, people will often generalize and say that this or that profession is bad or good... but in reality it depends on the details of the situation. I think that teaching at a private school gives you the most flexibility (I know that sending your kid to one does). For example, can you imagine a typical public school allowing you to have your maker lab? They would argue that it takes too much time away from standardized test prep.

The kid had a great class a couple of years ago called project lab. The class was almost entirely student driven. They would pick a project for the term and then approach it from as many angles as possible. So one term they invented a civilization (including social structures, alphabet, numbering system, language, religion, etc.) and then designed the houses, clothes, etc. for that society as well. Another term they made a Star Wars fan fic movie (and a very terrible movie it was too) including script, props, costumes, etc. Another term they delved into the Pythagorean theory and the golden mean in nature, using all kinds of techniques and different proofs.

I read an interesting book _The Diverse Schools Dilemma_ that talked about research that concluded that parents from different socio-economic groups want very different things for their children's educations. The upper SES is interested in exactly the kind of education you're providing -- multi-dimensional, creative, and designed to develop critical thinking and entrepreneurship. This was markedly different from the education that lower SES parents wanted for their kids. Obviously, these wants are driven by economic disparities in our system. It made me wonder whether there was even a time or place where different groups were really educated in the same way (one of the key components of the American Dream).

As the parent of a child for whom public education was a complete failure, I have a strong interest in this topic.


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