Why We Do Better

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

In his essay on the wisdom of lifting barbells, Nassim Taleb applies the principle of tail risk to strength training. Our bodies get stronger not from the monotonous humdrum of routine activities (rising from bed, sitting in a car, sitting in the middle row at team meetings, walking to our car, etc.), but from exposure to infrequent extremes: lifting weight off the ground at the very edge of our muscular and skeletal capacity.

He uses the analogy of weight-testing a bridge:

“You will never get an idea of the strength of a bridge by driving several hundred cars on it, making sure they are all of different colors and makes, which would correspond to representative traffic. No, an engineer would subject it instead to a few multi-ton vehicles. You may not thus map all the risks, as heavy trucks will not show material fatigue, but you can get a solid picture of the overall safety.”

Frequent, trivial insults chip away at a system (low back pain, carpel-tunnel, etc.). Rare, intense shocks may strengthen them.

For the past decade, Millennials have faced a glut of minor knocks but, outside of the 2008 U.S. recession, relatively few cultural hammers. Despite being the savviest participants in social media, the most connected and technologically capable, and having the broadest access to education and global impact, commentators describe the average Millennial as sheltered, anxious, and timid.

It makes sense that a generation insulated from failure and conflict would popularize the concept of microaggressions: frequent, trivial insults that chip away at self-esteem and dignity. And, like a overactive immune response, the battle against microaggressions has not strengthened Millennial political or social clout.

To the majority of voting Millennials, the election of Donald Trump was a tail event: an unthinkable catastrophe, an existential threat made concrete.

A macroaggression.

What if that was exactly what the generation needed? An extreme event that would organize, mobilize, and strengthen the entire system? What if the most connected, most educated generation was also the most politically engaged?

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

Why We Talk

On long train rides, I consider the helplessness of Superman.

The public has, perhaps unfairly, concluded that Superman’s powers are limitless. Therefore, when a problem – any problem – goes unsolved, the point of failure is obvious: Hostage situation? Capsized pleasure cruise? Unexpected volcanic eruption? Superman problems.

Systemic racial bias in policing? Hidden debt in derivatives markets? Mounting threat of mass extinction due to global climate change?

Alas, Superman’s abilities end at the boundary between quick disasters and slow disasters.

Quick disasters are events that erupt in moments. They tend to be single-factor, physical, objective, observable incidents. Falling planes. Speeding cars. Aggressive drunks. Catastrophes that can be averted by lifting, swooping, blocking, catching, and most thrilling of all, punching.

Slow disasters brew and unfold for decades or centuries. They are often complex, contextual, informational, nonlinear systems. Regional political disputes. Behavioral norms and biases. Environmental and economic degradation.

In the age of Buzzfeed, I imagine strongly worded Open Letters to Superman, penned daily by representatives of communities obvious and obscure, decrying his inaction on the amount of GMO grain in chicken feed, and the shrinking of Australia’s coral reefs, and the development of commercial properties on tribal lands, and, and, and.

Not Superman problems.

Clark Kent problems. Clark Kent, the journalist.

The power of the written word: to snake through the boundary between quick and slow disasters, to lift hearts and minds instead of overturned school busses. To inspire mass action, to salve (if not solve) a generation of sectarian divide, to plant vision and ethics and seeds that grow for centuries, long after Superman returns to that great Fortress of Solitude in the sky.

Imagine if Krypton didn’t imbue Clark Kent with superhuman strength, but superhuman wit and empathy. Able to bridge bitter conflicts in a single aphorism. More inspirational than a parent’s sacrifice, a preacher’s pulpit, or a clear view of the Milky Way in the night sky.

Why We Fuck Up

A common fitness story: On January 1st, Lydia and Randy decide they’ve spent a great deal of their post-college decade reclining on the couch. They make a pact to transform their bodies over the course of the year. Lydia decides to run at least one mile every day. Randy, aspiring meathead, joins a gym and practices Olympic lifts six days a week.

Three months in, they’ve each shed 10% of their body weight and have more energy than they did in college.

Six months in, Lydia signs up for her first marathon. Randy decides to compete in a local lifting meet at the end of the year.

On July 28th, at precisely 7:42PM, Lydia rounds the bend of her tenth mile of the day, and feels a pop in her left knee. She knows immediately: busted MCL. Unable to put any weight on her knee, she calls Randy and asks him to drive her home. He rushes to the driveway, throws the car door open, and tears his rotator cuff.

In fitness, we tend to celebrate strength and intensity over flexibility. We train to become exceptional in one plane of motion, and subsequently leave ourselves vulnerable to the slight dips, the unseen potholes, the inane chaos of daily life.

So it goes in every domain:

In business, art, love, and running, we find that the strongest and fastest perform for years; the most flexible, decades.

Why We Do Better

There’s a moment during a heavy barbell squat, about quarter-way into pressing the weight back up, when the expanse of your physical, emotional, cognitive, and moral terrains narrows to a pinprick through which you must answer a single question: Do you believe you will lift the weight?

The barbell is a perfect lie detector. It is 100% accurate.

So it goes with all the heaviest things.