Antifragility & Skill Building

I have worked in the innovation space for the past decade. One superpower (as we like to say at Amazon) that I developed is the ability to expeditiously dive into new technologies and acquire the functional skills needed to create fully working prototypes for the purpose of validating new experiences and opportunities. In the Amazon Concept Lab, we rotated projects every quarter or half-a-year, and the prototypes span across many different tech domains (full stack web & native development, hardware prototyping, circuits, AR, VR, ML, object classification/detection/tracking, 3D modelling and rigging, writing 3D parsers and shaders, CAD, 3D printing, etc).

I've been meaning to create a framework on how to master new skills quickly. Some things I found useful include: the adaptive learning model, identifying the right scope, the 80-20 rule applied to functional depth, "going against the grain", and of course a healthy dose achieving flow-state (as in The Psychology of Optimal Experience). But then I read a book recently and came across this word that seems almost sprinkled/glossed over: Antifragile. It really caught my attention and put new lens in my thinking. Down the rabbit role I went! (If you're curious, the book is Ikigai by Héctor García... and while I do recommend the book, it only mentioned antifragile in passing.)

Antifragility is a concept developed by Nassim Taleb in 2012 to describe systems that become stronger, more resilient, or even thrive when stressors are applied to it. It's not the antonym to fragility, which for simplicity let's denote as robustness. It's the opposite of fragile, BEYOND robustness; a system which actually improves when under stress. And it's better than adaptive systems which merely changes behavior based on current available information. There's some great examples in natural science, especially in biology: muscles become stronger when stressed through activity; callous feet help you walk better barefoot; the human immune system.

So what does this have to do with learning? I think there's an interesting topic beyond adaptive learning. That my ability to acquire technical skills at the functional level has a lot to do with a healthy amount of stressors applied, which comes in the form of unfamiliar domains, limited existing resources, and compressed timelines. The rest is letting the body do what it does best: be antifragile. Obviously if the stressors are too much (timeline is impossible, scope is too big), you fail in your learning objective. But if you challenge yourself repeatedly enough, learning new skills become easier. The cross-functional domain knowledge alone gives you plenty of headstart on new things. The true value, however, is getting calibrated with exactly what to do, how to do it, what the learning objectives are, how you're progressing, and what to do when faced with roadblocks - pretty much the beginning conditions for achieving Flow.

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