The absence of fragility

Notes on being anti-fragile from the middle of nowhere, a former Catholic priest and a private equity investor

Charles Assisi

[By Deb Nystrom, under Creative Commons]

I thought my field notes from the Bangalore Literature Festival filed last week and dubbed Aadhaar and the Arnab Monologues were left incomplete. A brief pointer to a passage from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Anti-Fragile occurs there. But the thoughts Taleb has articulated in his often dense prose have been lingering in the mind for a while now. It has pushed me over the last few months to imagine what kind of conversations may people like Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein have had in their heads if they were witnesses to the fractured nature of contemporary discourse.

On poring over their notes and biographies, it is evident now they were lonely and much misunderstood people. But they were anti-fragile.

Back to my notes. They were incomplete because I was compelled to sign out then. It was a Friday morning. Between my brother, co-sister, wife and our kids, everyone insisted the laptop be shut down so that we may get out of the city and head into the wilderness. And there was one thumb rule my co-sister Suhita insisted in her sternest tone. “No screen time for anyone.” Everything else was par for course.

It made sense. Because the intent was to get away from screens of all kinds that now accompany us everyplace, take in some fresh air, rediscover what it is like to shower in the open, taste water from fresh streams, sleep in tents with the moon, stars and a few dogs to keep guard through the night.

The promise was that during our waking hours, conversations and food would be served at base camp by our hosts, a couple now in their late fifties. They had taken a call over a decade ago to get out of the rat race, after having built themselves a place a few hundred kilometers off the Mumbai-Pune highway, far away from where most cellular towers are. They now live eerily close to the sound of silence. The lady loves to cook and the gentleman likes to talk. If they take a liking to you, they host you for a modest fee that may cover their costs.

Once there, there is not much to be done there by way of so-called “adventure activities” as city slickers like to call it. For instance, no paragliding, rock climbing, white water rafting, bungee jumping, or other such assorted distractions to keep you occupied. The most you can do is go for long walks on undiscovered trails, take skinny dips, lounge in the open, watch birds of all kinds, stare at insects you never imagined existed, and gaze in awe as an occasional reptile creeps lazily by.

When fidgety, you can keep hoping some cellular tower may throw a stray signal down your way that your phone may latch on to it. After a while though, exasperation creeps in, you give up, and room opens for real conversations with real people as opposed to the ones exchanged on text and social media.

And it was on one such night that I spent a while with the gentleman and the lady of the house wondering what it may be like to live the kind of lives they do. It was then that the import of what it means to be anti-fragile started to fall into place. And it had nothing to do with the book, but a talk to the graduating students delivered by Taleb at the American University of Beirut on how to look at life. When I had first heard it sometime last year, I made notes of some passages that struck a chord.

18 till I die

"......I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions."

When I first heard the talk, it struck a chord. But the real import of it was driven home late in the evening after everyone had retired to their tents for the night after dinner. It was a long day after having hiked for at least 10-odd very long and hard kilometers through trails we would never have discovered without a scout.

“Why did you guys choose to leave the arc lights and the city?” I asked the couple who seemed the amiable kind, as we stared at the fireflies.

Her reasons were simple. She had spent over two decades as a trained social worker on the ground. Over time though, philanthropists started to make their presence felt in India significantly. While they have their heads and hearts in the right places, what she couldn’t handle were a new breed of people interested in civil society and engaging philanthropists on their turf in a language she didn’t know to speak at “plush places like five star hotels”.

Until this breed came in, she hadn’t heard of phrases like “impact investing”, “social platforms”, “societal innovation”, “scaling up”, and so on and so forth. I could see her cheeks turn red in anger as she made her disdain apparent. “The money they pay for one meal to discuss all this at a hotel can pay for a family’s food for more than a month where I used to work at,” she said.

Instead, she thought it better if she stepped out of a place like that where she didn’t fit in and follow another passion. “I always wanted a kitchen garden, bake bread of different kinds and experiment with cooking.” The husband continued to stare fondly at her and grinned indulgently. “That kind of a life would have killed me. My kitchen garden and experiments with cooking, keep me young and alive,” she said. By any which yardstick, she was a lovely looking lady.

“And what is it that drives you sir?” I asked him

“I just need my daily bread,” he said and grinned. “Strangers like you who come by to stay over, talk, exchange notes, have a good time, share stories and part as friends. What else does a man need to live a good life?” he said even as he sipped on his whiskey.

We spoke a while longer. Not having access to all that we now take for granted such as television, news, high-speed internet didn’t seem to bother them. They were in love with each other—much like they were when they first met many years ago.

“What do you do when there is no one around?” I asked.

“We stare at the sky,” he said.

I looked up. It was a clear night, the skies were clear and it was after a long while that I could finally see my favourite constellation, the Orion. It hadn’t gone anyplace. It was always there. But I didn’t have the time to look. On my way back, a part of me argued they are as happy as they are because they live in a filter bubble of their own creation. But then, who am I to take away from that the both can stare at themselves and be as happy as they were when they were 18? That said, there is no taking away from that they continue to remain uncorrupted. If that be a metric of success, they are successful and anti-fragile.

Success of that kind continues to elude me and many whom I know closely.

Be stubborn, never compromise

If I had to relive my life I would be even more stubborn and uncompromising than I have been.”

It is entirely coincidental that a day after I got home, a friend visited. He was transiting through Mumbai. As a professional, he works for an NGO. As a person, he is spiritually inclined, is a practicing Christian, is married and has two children. My wife and he studied together. In an earlier avatar, after having spent 14 years in a seminary, he was on the path to being indoctrinated as a Catholic priest. But much to the consternation of the community and many around him, he chose to walk out.

In the many years that I have known him, we had never engaged deeply on why he chose to give up on the vocation—something that could earn him condemnation from the community. This time around though, I asked him why. His answer was a compelling one. “I want to stay true to myself. And to do that, I must be uncompromising in my search for the truth.”

He got my attention. I asked him to go on. “There is a thin line,” he said, “that separates somebody who is spiritually inclined and someone who is religious.”

“Please elaborate,” I asked of him.

The difference between the two, he put into perspective, is that those who are spiritually inclined do not see any merit in rituals. When rituals come into the picture, tribes form and around it religions emerge.

He then started to take me through his time at the seminary where he was introduced to the great philosophical works from the Western and Indian schools. He thought it fascinating because they opened his mind to multiple possibilities, compelled him to think hard, and ask even harder questions. This included questions of the kind that have often intrigued me as well, because I was raised in a Catholic family.

“Why,” for instance, “do I have to accept the divinity of Jesus Christ?” This was beginning to get interesting. It was one of the questions that has always troubled me. As I started to grow, my readings suggested that Jesus Christ was a rebel who insisted everybody question dogma.

That included questioning the elders who taught him the scriptures. If that be the yardstick he set, it was pertinent then that I not follow him blindly, but question him as well. This was in line with the nature of Western philosophical thought that I had an opportunity to read and ponder over. It insists on placing a premium on logic over all else. Turns out, my friend was troubled by much the same set of issues.

Then on the other hand, life in the seminary exposed him to Indian philosophical thought as well that offers multiple sets of lenses to look at the world with. For instance, Hinduism offers the latitude to accommodate monotheism, polytheism and atheism. Very simply put, between the Western schools and the many Indian schools of thought, my friend’s mind could see multiple possibilities—not one. The Western schools insisted on reasoning everything out while the Indian schools opens abstract terrains as well.

When both are extrapolated, infinites are possible. But the theological underpinnings of the seminary he was embedded in suggested that at some point, the logic of the West and dualities of the East he was exposed to be discarded in favour of blind faith.

This left him in a piquant position, torn and conflicted. Both his heart and head argued that if he did that, he wouldn’t be true to Jesus Christ the rebel whom he had come to like and believe in. Worse still, it was theology that had crucified him because he questioned dogma. Now theology wanted to appropriate him, create an organised religion and suggested he become a priest to perform rituals. If he acceded to that, his mind suggested it would stop him from his quest to discover the spiritual.

Whatever be the consequences he finally told himself, to stay true to the Christ he had come to identify with over all else and stay true to himself, he must walk out of the seminary, give up on all forms of organised religion and instead nurture his spiritual side.

He did just that.

When asked where does he stand now, he said he feels like a free man at ease in a church as he is in a temple or a mosque or a pagoda. “Who is to know where God lives and where may I find what and who God is?”

That he demonstrated as much courage, question what was imparted to him, discard what he didn’t believe, and discover the confidence to find his own path, to my mind, makes him anti-fragile.

The total cost of validation

Like I articulated last week, four kinds of creatures do the rounds of a literature festival—the politician, the critic, the writer and the speaker. All of whom were there because they are successful and in the public eye. People want to be seen with them.

I got to see many of the successful kinds up close and personal. I had also articulated then that the creatures I saw on-stage were very different from what they were off-stage. I must admit that this ought not to have caught me by surprise. Because after having practiced journalism for over twenty years now and after having interacted with a lot many people across multiple domains, my “bullshit detectors” are high. It has an uncanny ability to tell when the confidence somebody demonstrates is a façade and when it isn’t. That is why I made a note of these passages Taleb writes on the meaning of success. It echoes with me:

“Success requires absence of fragility. I’ve seen billionaires terrified of journalists, wealthy people who felt crushed because their brother-in-law got very rich, academics with Nobel who were scared of comments on the web. The higher you go, the worse the fall. For almost all people I’ve met, external success came with increased fragility and a heightened state of insecurity. The worst are those ‘former something’ types with 4 page CVs who, after leaving office, and addicted to the attention of servile bureaucrats, find themselves discarded: as if you went home one evening to discover that someone suddenly emptied your house of all its furniture.

“But self-respect is robust—that’s the approach of the Stoic school, which incidentally was a Phoenician movement. (If someone wonders who are the Stoics I’d say Buddhists with an attitude problem, imagine someone both very Lebanese and Buddhist.) I’ve seen robust people in my village Amioun who were proud of being local citizens involved in their tribe; they go to bed proud and wake up happy. Or Russian mathematicians who, during the difficult post-Soviet transition period, were proud of making $200 a month and do work that is appreciated by twenty people and considered that showing one’s decorations, or accepting awards, were a sign of weakness and lack of confidence in one’s contributions. And, believe it or not, some wealthy people are robust. But you just don’t hear about them because they are not socialites, live next door, and drink Arak baladi not Veuve Cliquot.”

This is not to suggest I am anti-rich. To the contrary, I would much rather die rich and unhappy than be poor and miserable. But the question is, where do I draw the line on how much is enough?

To find some pointers to that question, I turned to Haresh Chawla, a contributor to Founding Fuel and investor of consequence. A partner at True North, he has a formidable reputation of building institutions of consequence as well. Of late though, our conversations have veered on life and the fleetingness of it all.

“How do you invest in a company?” I asked him.

“I don’t invest in a company. I put my neck on the line and wait to see if an entrepreneur will put his neck on the line as well.” Once again, it was time to probe where he was coming from.

As always, Haresh offered an interesting take. There are many entrepreneurs with ideas and investors with billions of dollars in capital. As equations go, it is a simple one. Entrepreneurs need money and investors have the money. The question an entrepreneur ought to ask is, “How much money do I really need?” And an investor must ask, “Do you really need as much money?” But the way things are, the ecosystem is a perverted one and everybody seems to know everyone else.

The only motive then is to create an illusion that fresh ideas are being created and investments are being made. It is an incestuous cycle that draws everybody in. As systems go, this is a fragile one. Who knows when may it collapse?

“So, what is your investment philosophy?’ I asked of him.

“Like I told you earlier, I don’t invest in a company. I invest in the idea an entrepreneur has and have a metric I have thought up called the Total Cost of Validation (TCV) of an idea. That is, given access to limited resources, how much will it cost to validate an idea?

The point he was trying to make was this. Anybody with an infinite amount of access to capital will keep trying forever because they know they have access to funds and have the room to fail. But when pushed to the wall and asked to first validate their idea with limited access to funds, they are compelled to innovate.

I thought it interesting. Because everybody has ideas. But with limited resources, how many have the mental muscle to innovate and go through the grind? Those who can, do it because they believe in the power of their ideas, stay the course, and have self-respect that is robust. I think of them as anti-fragile.

How was I to know last weekend that between a lovely couple in their late fifties in the middle of nowhere, a rebel from a seminary, and an investor who doesn’t believe in conventional metrics, there is much to be learnt on what it takes to be anti-fragile?

(This is a modified and expanded version of a column that was originally published in Livemint)

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Muthu Kumar on Nov 13, 2017 5:44 a.m. said

As usual another fantastic read! Love the way anti fragile theory gets tested across the spectrum. Hugely concur with Haresh Chawla's TCV. As an aside read a book "Stretch" by Scott Sonenshein - resonates with what he says in a sense..Keep them coming my friend!

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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