Not so fragile

Do you know what happens when you apply strain to healthy human muscles? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on healthy human bones? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a healthy human immune system? It gets stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a wine glass? It breaks.

That’s because a wine glass is fragile. Humans are antifragile.

Antifragile is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe the properties of an object, system or being that gets stronger ­– more resilient, when exposed to moderate stressors.

And because resilience is such a foundational element of wellbeing, it would be negligent of educators and parents to deprive students of the chance to fail, or to shield them from healthy doses of guilt, fear, frustration, disappointment, sadness, and loss.

Because we are antifragile, these experiences tend to make us stronger – in the long run.

Of course, it’s natural to want our children and students to be safe and happy – all the time. But ironically, the more we try to protect them, the more we may risk doing them harm in the long run.

Which story – achievement or failure?

Of course, as educators, we want our students to achieve. And we want them to push themselves, to strive beyond their current ability, to take risks and to embrace failure as an essential part of learning and of doing anything worthwhile.

But which message is the loudest? Which story are your students hearing? Which do they perceive as more important? Achievement or failure?

Because achievement is easy. You just choose the easy task. When we don’t have to try very hard, we rarely fail.

What actually is ‘resilience’?

The first use of the term ‘resilience’ to describe humans appeared in the 1830s. Around that same time in history, ‘resilient’ was being used as a technical term in the watchmaking industry, referring to flexible qualities of internal components.

But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Norman Garmezy, first began studying human resilience experimentally at the University of Minnesota. Since then, resilience has been a rich, important, and complex field of study in psychology and, more recently, in education.

Although it has been researched extensively, there is still both a lack of consensus as to how to define ‘resilience’ and some general misunderstandings in the wider community.

The most widely accepted current definition of ‘resilience’ comes from the The American Psychological Association (2014): “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”.

This definition is important because it helps us clarify some of the following:

  • resilience is not about ‘bouncing back’;
  • resilience is not binary (ie. present or absent);
  • resilience exists on a continuum;
  • resilience is not just a trait (it can be a process and / or outcome);
  • resilience is context-dependent (eg. we might be resilient playing sport but less so at work).

We also know that, through experience, we can learn to become more resilient. Not only are there specific, empirically validated skills that can be taught to children and adults, but mistake and adversity are wonderful teachers. That’s why we need to expose students to them regularly.

As our world becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, there are no guarantees anymore – apart from one: our students will need to be resilient. The world is changing fast, and those who have the capacity to adapt well, to survive and to move forward in spite of change will thrive.