LEVEL & SHOCK
Is a high level of good health and wealth, all that you should be targeting? What about the response of the level to shocks you receive?
Examples of High Levels but Poor Robustness
Robustness and Resilience, Antifragility too
Preferences for High Levels as well as their Robustness
You HAVE been unconsciously checking
Why do we not understand these basics?
Examples of High Levels but Poor Robustness [ Top ]
Have you ever come across a friend who gained body fat because she stopped working out when she went on a long holiday? So, she had reached a high level of fitness but her fitness level was not robust – it was not resilient to the shock of temporary lower volumes of training. It would be better if her physical health was robust to holidaying.
Have you experienced having spent some hours studying something and felt you knew it then, and even answered questions correctly but, a few days later, you noticed that you couldn’t remember much of anything you studied earlier? Your knowledge acquisition, albeit a narrow measure of your mental health, was not robust to the passage of time.
Have you ever seen a relative living a life of comfort and maintaining a happy face, but then also seen him curse and moan endlessly when something happens that is nothing close to life-threatening? He was demonstrating that his emotional health was not robust to minor adverse news.
Whether it is physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual health, besides aiming for a good level, it is important to also stay focused on the robustness of that level. Typically, we do think about achieving a good level, but we tend to not think about the robustness of that level to shocks that life typically comes with.
Robustness and Resilience, Antifragility too [ Top ]
Your fitness enthusiast friend who worked so hard to increase her fitness to a superb level did not pay attention to the robustness of her fitness level to the shock of a holiday. Your own study for that exam was such that your mental (intellectual) growth in that subject area was not robust to the passage of time. Your complaining relative with a life of comfort had a happy face that was not robust to the arrival of news shocks.
The quality of robustness pairs with the feature of resilience. If a system is resilient to shocks, it can be robust. In fact, there are systems, both in the natural world and what we can construct in our lives that, rather than weakening, actually get stronger with shocks of the right size. This feature of antifragility is something I alluded to as far back as when I spoke to you about The Accidental Wisdom of Painseekers and then more recently when talking about Hormesis, your Best Friend.
Preferences for High Levels as well as for their Robustness [ Top ]
It is clear then that besides desiring high levels of fitness, we also prefer that the robustness of our condition be such that shocks do not drive us to significantly lower levels. We would prefer to be physically fit and not look unhealthy after a week-long beach holiday. We would prefer to learn things and not forget acquired knowledge easily as time passes. To be emotionally stable in the face of great hardship is always preferred to a happy smiling face that turns sour when things aren’t perfect. Even in the financial dimension, if having a lot of wealth still leaves you stressed out that an economic shock to related systems will leave your consumption pattern destroyed then the high levels of wealth are not really doing much for your joy. The financial wealth is not translating into financial independence (which is a state of mind).
You HAVE been unconsciously checking your levels… and, sometimes, their changes [ Top ]
When you check the level of your bank balance and then check it again sometime later you see a change in the level.
When fitness enthusiasts talk about your fitness, they typically focus on your level of fitness. Whether it is fitness measures based on health or those based on skills – it is the level.
When scientists tell us that a better lifestyle will reduce the risk of illnesses or help us reverse poor health conditions, they are referring to targetting a change in health status – a change in the level of health.
When we think of resilience to shocks to our health, we think of immunity and not falling ill. That is definitely one good example of a measure of robustness. In this case, it’s the resilience to invading pathogens that your body’s immune system handles well. But the concept is much broader. It applies to all aspects of your life – resilience to all kinds of shocks – from the near-invisible, but physically real, disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and fungi to the actually intangible reduction in the volume of exercise that might lead to a tangible increase in body fat.
How can you think about both the level of your fitness and the changes to the level in a way that is consistent? How do you work with both variables for a long Healthspan? Every case is different, so here are some guiding principles.
Guiding Principles [ Top ]
Remember, now our focus is not on a plan for getting to a higher level. Instead, here are guiding principles for greater robustness – so the target is to maintain a stable level (or even move to a higher level) in the face of shocks.
Define your goals clearly – if you do not decide where you want to go, you will never get to where you want to – this is true, not just for everything else in life, but for your degree of robustness too. For example, it could be a simple and clear statement like, “I do not want to get the flu during the shock of the cold/wet season this year”.
List the driving factors – understand the factors that drive the level and its degree of robustness. For example, about your financial health, if you think your only ability for earning money is from a single skill, service or product, and there are many new competitors entering the crowded space, your future financial health may not be robust.
Increase your supporting base – the fewer the number of factors that drive your level, the greater the risk you face if one of them were to weaken or disappear. For example, if all you did was more hours at work to earn more money, any time away from work would mean less money coming your way during that time! So, increase the number of weapons, to win the battle.
Diversify your supporting base – the more dissimilar the factors that drive your level, the greater is the bang you get for each buck invested across each of those factors. For example, if all you do is many different types of cardio exercises at the gym to maintain low body fat, then when you cannot access a gym, your fat percentage levels are likely to rise. How big is your ROTI?
Measure, record, monitor to manipulate – recording information is key to being able to get you to the level you want to reach. It is also critical for understanding your robustness at that level. Humans are famous for wrongly estimating the impact of one variable on another variable by guesswork or intuition. Even experts are always better off if they aid their decision making with some record keeping, followed by the analysis of those records. It is shocking how few experts, be they investment fund managers or medical doctors, do this to improve their performance at their work.
Explore and experiment – to explore and experiment systematically, like you would in your school science lab, is important for assessing your sensitivity to the various factors. I have seen so many of those I mentor realize that their guilt from eating a little wildly on holiday was misplaced – the factor ‘holiday eating’ was not detrimental to their fat percentage because of other supporting factors that contributed to their output variable of interest (e.g. body fat percentage). When we collect data and check what happens in different scenarios, we are able to gain a better understanding of a system. With that understanding, we have a better chance of navigating and driving the future of that system.
Understand the science – there is no substitute for knowledge and understanding. There will, typically, be at least two parts to this – the first is the general science as applied to a typical person and setting, and the second part is that which is specific to you. For example, you might use a sauna because you have heard that it is good for long-term health for everyone. But, specifically, you are trying to have a baby this year, and the high heat in a sauna is likely to reduce the quality of your sperm in the very near term. You may wonder why your raised testosterone is not leading to success with conception. [Life can be Good with French Fries]
Why do we not understand these basics? [ Top ]
The education system of the last 100 years is partly to blame for our inability to internalize the importance of robustness or antifragility in making our lives better. The vast majority of what is taught in schools that we spend countless hours to understand and then memorize does not translate into making our personal lives much better at a practical level.
Mathematics is taught without making it interesting for those who are not gifted at it. Foreign languages are taught for years and the children still have no ability to speak them with rudimentary competence when needed. So, it comes as no surprise that most of us live our lives far from our Genetic Potential Fitness in all the areas that matter for a life of joy. Like much else, the practical aspects of robustness, resilience, and antifragility ought to be, but are not part of our basic education.
What next? [ Top ]
In terms of thought and observation, planning and execution, what could you do next?
When you notice a friend who is athletic but falls ill or gets injured, and, another friend who is not sporty but almost never falls ill, make a mental note that these are examples of the difference between ‘level’ and the ‘robustness of that level’. When you go to the gym, ask yourself why it is that you can lift (or run) more than you did the previous week – what phenomenon was that? [hint] When your highly profitable business cannot run smoothly for a week in your absence, tell yourself that you have not yet built something robust. Think, plan and execute to benefit from shocks for a life of joy.
I hope you will sleep well tonight.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.