Learn how to channel mistakes, stress and failure into fuel for career growth and success.
Life is uncertain. Bad things happen. No one can predict the future. As desperately as humanity tries to create order in the world and control all outcomes, the reality is, life is messy and operating within disorder and overcoming adversity is part of the human contract. It’s important all people develop coping skills to be able to navigate the uncertainty of life, but within the law profession, developing these skills is fundamental to success, growth and peak performance.
The law exists to respond to and resolve disorder and chaos, and to create and uphold systems and precedents that provide some stability for our society to operate within and according to. Of course we live in a fluid and ever evolving world making this ultimately impossible to establish and yet forever the goal to strive for. Failure is inevitable. Clients will be disappointed. Cases will be lost. Mistakes will be made. Perfection is a myth. The work will never be done.
The antifragile antidote
No need to throw up our hands just yet. Instead find power in adjusting your perceptions and expectations, use pressure and failures to fuel your improvement and success. Rather than resisting or trying to control the natural disorder of life, instead begin to practice embracing uncertainty as an opportunity for growth. Author, scholar, former trader and risk analyst, Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term antifragile (and wrote a book of the same name) to describe individuals and systems that are able to not only survive but thrive in an unpredictable world that is in constant flux.
In his book, Antifragile, Taleb explains, “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” Other ways he illustrates this is with the imagery of the Hydra in Greek mythology, when one head is chopped off two more grow in its place; or with the wind which extinguishes a flame yet energizes a fire.
How do you cope when faced with adversity and failure?
If you find yourself identifying more on the fragile side of the spectrum, that’s not surprising and there’s no need for concern. We live in a world designed for immediate gratification and comfort. We have been conditioned to believe pain, failure, tension, stress and disorder are bad and should be avoided. Fortunately antifragility can be developed and strengthened once we decide to embrace these destabilizing forces as learning opportunities that will ultimately strengthen and improve us.
How to cultivate antifragility within yourself and the legal profession:
Plan for failure
It’s highly unlikely the career of any lawyer will end with a perfect record. Not every case is a winner, and sometimes even the ones that seem to be aren’t. In order to build antifragility, Taleb recommends being prepared for the worst outcome as a way to circumvent situational surprises that can be destabilizing. “Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual usually happens.” Having a plan B prepared demonstrates agility and reinforces confidence in a moment of perceived weakness, such as an unfavourable verdict. It also sets a standard of preparedness for managing negative outcomes and acknowledges failure is a possibility but one that doesn’t need to be debilitating.
View failure as a teacher
Reducing the stigma around failure will lead to quicker recovery and growth from these experiences, and an increased confidence overall. For lawyers it’s helpful to welcome failure as a personal learning opportunity, but also to see when and how it is of service to improving a system or even the legal profession as a whole. Taleb uses the airline industry as an example of how an antifragile system can improve as a result of failure, even tragic ones. “Every plane crash brings us closer to safety, improves the system and makes the next flight safer–those who perish contribute to the overall safety of others.”
The Canadian Judicial Council Inquiry of Justice Robin Camp is an example of how bringing attention to and acknowledging failure can improve the law. In 2014 Camp made inappropriate comments to a compaintant in a sexual assault trial he was presiding over. Following his ruling an appeal was made against his verdict and several lawyers were prompted to lodge formal complaints against Camp as well. Camp’s unfortunate behaviour during the 2014 trial exposed his personal biases with regards to sexual assault victims, demostrated insufficient training and also exposed weakness within the greater judiciary system when dealing with sexual assault cases. This grievous error brought attention to a systemic issue within the legal profession, and by owning and investigating this problem judiciary systems are now being improved. As a result, Camp volunteered to for sensitivity training, and Judges are now required to take training that will better equip them to make fair rulings in cases of this nature. Antifragility is all about silver linings. Addressing the root cause of this tragedy means the system will do a better job of upholding the law. This is the power of antifragility at work.
Flip the script on stress
It may sound counterintuitive to look for opportunities to expose yourself to stress, but the truth is humans need it to grow. In Anitifragile Taleb uses the example of weight lifters who build muscle by focusing on lifting the maximum weight they can once or twice, rather than focusing on repetitions to gradually build strength. He recommends looking for eustress opportunities that push people out of their comfort zones so they can have new experiences and become comfortable with uncertainty and discomfort. Choose the high profile case. Pursue pro bono work to reignite your passion. A very important note for lawyers, Taleb says antifragility is developed in situations of acute stress (and he emphasizes recovery time as essential too), whereas exposure to mild chronic stress just leads to burnout. Choose your eustress wisely.
Take a holistic approach to antifragility
Becoming antifragile requires awareness and acknowledgment of all parts of your humanity: physical, mental and emotional. Physical antifragility depends on taking care of your body (exercise, sleep, nutrition, hydration, etc.). Mental antifragility requires moving away from risk management, forecasting and fear, and instead developing self awareness, improving the ability to accept circumstances for what they are and then knowing how to take calculated action (rather than being reactive). Emotional antifragility means cultivating an internal foundation of worthiness and integrity, as well as an external network of meaningful connections/relationships in your life beyond your work. These emotional support systems are what sustain you when faced with adversity.
Know that becoming antifragile is not going to happen overnight and it certainly isn’t going to happen within the constructs of an unhealthy system. That being said, individual awareness is always the first step towards a collective cultural shift and knowing antifragility is the end goal makes it possible to start doing the work required to get there.