Don’t Seek Too Much Stability

We hear people yearning for a stable life all the time. A stable life is one where—in theory—nothing goes wrong. You have an okay job, a happy marriage, good kids, you live in a decent neighbourhood with helpful folks, etc. But soon we’ll learn that longterm stability is only a ticking time bomb and, if we know any better, we should avoid too much stability too much reliability too much comfort at all costs.

Imagine someone extremely punctual who comes home at exactly eight o’clock every evening. You can use their arrival to set your watch. This person, even though super reliable, runs with a hidden risk of causing their family extreme anxiety if they are a few minutes late someday. But someone with a (slightly) more volatile—hence less reliable—schedule (with say a half-hour variation) won’t cause any such problems.

A little randomness in a system prevents it from big catastrophes. For example, there’s a reason why small forest fires are beneficial. They periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so that they don’t accumulate and cause a wildfire. If we clear them out, we only create an illusion of stability. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place “to be safe” makes the big one much worse.

For similar reasons, too much stability is not good for businesses. Devoid of setbacks, companies become weak during periods of “steady” prosperity. Hidden vulnerabilities accumulate silently under the surface and the company is underprepared even for tiny shocks. This is true for governments as well.

Likewise, a bit of volatility is important in the market. A stable market that’s on a steady bull run for a long time would crash badly if it goes down even slightly. People aren’t used to seeing losses for a very long time, and even if the market dips a little, they’ll panic and exit in hoards thereby bringing the whole thing down. Remember the dotcom bubble? A market that everyone thinks cannot fail is just waiting to crash big and hard.

This is the very reason we vaccinate ourselves. We inject ourselves with a little bit of harm in the short term to prevent ourselves from becoming suckers in the long term. One of the reasons why small fights keep relationships alive for a long time.

The gift (and curse) of modern life is our focus on too much stability. Modernity treats hardship as a disease, something to be eradicated. But human beings don’t mind hardship, in fact we thrive on it. What we mind is not feeling necessary, not having thrill and pleasure. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:

We are moving into a phase of modernity marked by the lobbyist, the very, very limited liability corporation, the MBA, sucker problems, secularisation (or rather reinvention of new sacred values like flags to replace altars), the tax man, fear of the boss, spending the weekend in interesting places and the workweek in a putatively less interesting one, the separation of “work” and “leisure” (though the two would look identical to someone from a wiser era), the retirement plan, argumentative intellectuals who would disagree with this definition of modernity, literal thinking, inductive inference, philosophy of science, the invention of social science, smooth surfaces, and egocentric architects. Violence is transferred from individuals to states. So is financial indiscipline. At the centre of all this is the denial of antifragility.

To prevent stagnation of the mind, we have to take few risks, get into some fights, add a bit of volatility in our lives. Do something a little crazy. Do something that feels slightly stupid. Set yourself up for failure. Visit a new place. Break some rules. Take up a new hobby. Ignore efficiency. Forget stability for a while. Focus on feeling alive, don’t just survive!

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