Awareness for Anti-Fragility

This blog is all about using awareness for anti-fragility. As we become more aware our thoughts we have an opportunity for applying curiosity. This really helps us develop anti-fragility: a state where we can bend and flex with the events of life instead of becoming brittle or broken.

Albert Einstein said…“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” —Albert Einstein

An adventure that taught me a lot about this topic was an expedition we called Hands & Feet Across Greenland. We were a small group of friends and acquaintances – a team of six of us – and our plan was to ski across the Greenland icecap from east to west, completely self-sufficient. We had fuel and food to last us 35 days for the 550 km crossing. If we didn’t cross within that time, we might perish or starve. The fuel we carried was to cook our food, as well as melt enough ice so that we had water to drink. We had to carry everything to survive the icy wilderness for the month or more that it would take us to journey from one coast to the other.

Being paralysed from the chest down, I relied on the action of double-poling across the ice in the special sit-ski I use, and left my wheelchair behind as it would be on use on the snow and ice. It was the most physically demanding experience of my life. Pain is perceptual, and in many ways it has been physically tougher to train and do Paralympic training and race my handbike hard, but that would be for maybe 30 minutes and the effort in Greenland was for ten or more hours a day, day in, day out, week in, week out, with no scope for dropping behind schedule because we had limited rations of food and fuel. On Day 1, when every muscle in my body was screaming, Day 35 seemed an eternity away. On Day 2, when the tendons in my hands were so tight that my friend had to peel my palms open to get them moving in the morning, reaching the end seemed an impossibility.

My fingers were numb from gripping so tightly and ached with effort. It was way harder than I had anticipated. Adding to my sense of gloom, the GPS seemed to never report progress being as far as it seemed we had covered.  I felt lost in the sea of ice and it felt like skiing through glue.

It felt like we had been there an eternity yet we were only at the beginning. My body was exhausted and my mind worn out from thinking about what to think about.

Gone was the excitement of a journey finally underway. Gone was the exoticness of new surroundings. Gone was the spring of muscles eager to work after a week of packing and traveling.

My body and mind were taken to new extremes: physically in my hands and shoulders, and mentally through twelve-hour days trekking in silence with little stimulation.

I became acutely aware of my thoughts.  “I have never felt in this much pain before” wasn’t a thought helpful to keep thinking. I needed to replace the limiting, unsupportive thoughts with something more expansive….

Instead of thinking anxiety-focused thoughts of pain or “‘Oh no, we still have 10 hours of skiing to go’  I shifted to asking questions: ‘I wonder what will happen next?”. ; ‘I wonder what  beauty we will find in this special place today?’’. Whenever my mind plummeted into unhelpful or over-whelming thoughts, taking my thoughts to difficult or grim scenarios; a simple question had the power to release me from the emotional pain and open a doorway with some light. These curious thoughts took me to moment in hand.

So reflecting on that journey across Greenland…

Awareness of our thoughts is the first step to changing them. We can stop, change and alter our thoughts to create a better outcome. Fixed ways of thinking are like limiting beliefs, and usually create walls – keeping us trapped or stuck inside, repeating our way of feeling and hence generating undesirable emotions or outcomes. Questions however, open up doorways. Doorways that lead us to new rooms, new views, new perspectives.

Curiosity is a great tool for opening up questions and changing our awareness.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes described curiosity as the “lust of the mind”. There are different kinds of curiosity:  ‘deficit’ curiosity – a drive to ‘know’ something – is a version of desire, but apart from a brief moment of pleasure at having answered something unknown or forgotten, is of little benefit.

However, when curiosity is led by intrigue or interest, it is a different experience from a need-to-know state. It is a freeing experience, where we can be open to explore: This ‘intrigue’ version of curiosity is a kind of superpower.

I first became fascinated by curiosity in that journey sit-skiing across Greenland.

I recently discovered a body of research at the University of California Davis that goes some way to explaining this ‘freeing’ effect of curiosity. It is rooted in the associated neurochemistry. Students had to review a list of triva questions and rate their curiosity towards discovering the answer. At peak curiosity, dopamine pathways in the brain fired with more intensity, and there was a stronger connection between reward centres of the brain. The research suggests that the brain experiences curiosity as a reward, and thanks to the dopamine release, the process of interest- / intrigue-led curiosity feels good.

Research goes on to suggest that too little uncertainty about something fails to provoke curiosity, but too much provokes anxiety.

So What?

When we challenge ourselves – for example by choosing to do something like make a podcast, or do a presentation, communicate something in a different way, or anything at all that stretches us…we leave our world of comfort. Or perhaps the challenge isn’t something we choose, but something thrown into our path. Either way, we begin a journey with uncertainty.

There is an opportunity here, to see the challenge as an opportunity for learning, for growth, for new perspectives. We can choose to ‘spike’ our curiosity…
“Can I do do this?”; “What can I learn from this?”; “How might this be helpful in the future?” ; “If we can get through this, what else might we have the potential to navigate?” and so on.

Notice your thoughts and steer them towards curiosity. Release yourself from anxiety by opening up those doorways and finding a sweet spot of questioning that stimulates you enough to move forward. Making curiosity a habit creates a kind of anti-fragility : a super-power beyond just tolerance or resilience, but a real opportunity to use challenge as an opportunity to create and learn new things.  It will help keep you excited and motivated as you go forward on a journey of discovery…