Notes on Anti-Fragility, The Skater Way, and Social Change

One of the core differentiators between skateboarder philosophy and conventional doctrines of social and personal development is that constant failure is not only acceptable, but desirable. This concept is given lip service and overcoming failures is admired by conventional wisdom but is effectively made impossible and rejected by the systems of society. Systems in society and in the methods used to develop individuals are generally designed to avoid any and all such failures, and specifically to punish these failures in a manner that compounds them beyond their natural consequence and even the principles of ethics would dictate. We create fragility such that the most minor of incidents can end a life, whether in physical death or in the death of one’s future. This fragility is called punishment or getting what you deserve, without knowing that it is fragility or what that means. We have been led to believe that breaking people irretrievably will prevent bad things from happening, not realizing that it destroys the chance of good things happening except for those who have been immunized from the force of punishment. See pretty much every aspect of the criminal justice system, especially that part which punishes crime by brutality (that can become a death sentence as shown in examples like George Floyd) before a trial can even happen. Even in less dramatic ways, the bias of society against resiliency and anti-fragility is evident. You lose your job, you wind up on the street, you become homeless, and can die from illnesses caused by that. The nobility of the risk you took is of no effect, and taking a risk in a workplace makes you an enemy. You are a machine and if we break the power cord, the money we give you, you are broken. You are stigmatized for your failure and its consequences. You are a bad person now. Even if explicitly otherwise stated, implicitly and through the material feedback loop created by society, you are given the message that cannot get up from this fall. Or at least they want you to believe that.

This is done deliberately instead of promoting these failures to a controllable, mitigated extent and then finding the best path to reduce their impact, or better yet, convert them to outcomes superior to or not achievable by the conventional path. I use the term “deliberately,” because it is known that these failures do create superior outcomes. It is known because that is what is done by those close to those who make the rules.

This is the essence of anti-fragility.

The kind of resiliency attained by a skater is possible now in our society for an elite few, whose impunity has created unjust power and repressed the potential that could be unlocked by the anti-fragility of the masses, but if the ecosystem is changed to allow this for as many people as are willing, the potential for progression will become limitless. This path, of course, is not for everyone. But right now, we create fragility, irretrievable hopelessness, as a means of social control and as our primary means of promoting better behavior. Don’t do this or you are screwed forever. If that happens to you, nobody will help you and it will be a downward spiral, so don’t do anything you can fail at. However, some defy this. This is what skaters do. They defy the very DNA which has been imposed on society, that which tells everyone to not do great things, to just obey. Or to only do great things if you are already powerful in the eyes of the system itself, or on its terms. And they do this not to prevent others from joining them, but rather to bring more.

A key to anti-fragility on a societal level is seeing all parts, all stakeholders, all people as having value to be protected against the risks inherent in a changing society. To not do this for everyone, every marginalized group, is to keep society fragile and cause weakness. Support and protection do not cause weakness. They do not always cause strength either. What they do create is an atmosphere where either of those is a possibility. If a single failure breaks down everything forever, then why would one try something that risks that? Why would we imagine a new future when at the blink of an eye it would all be gone? When any part of the ecosystem we live in breaks, all of it can break at a moment’s notice and it can harm anyone, even the strongest person. The weakness and the lack of ability to learn to fail can make everyone fail at once. This “ability” is created by not being fragile, anti-fragility is a matter of deliberate practice and discipline, that like those trying to kickflip, may or may not be practiced to success or at all. The state of not being fragile is not anti-fragility, but this bare minimum of security for the entire system allows those parts which pursue anti-fragility to do so effectively.

We have made our society prone to fragility. This is a decision we can continue or end. We can make it capable of anti-fragility. We can help people learn to fail, so that they can fly.

Everyone must be able to, if they will to do so, fail and get back up in order for anyone to fly continually.

This is the key truth missed by those who push an adversarial and superiority-based form of strength. Being above someone else, or believing so, is a really good way to avoid confronting your vulnerability. This avoidance creates the appearance of strength and can make one appear less fragile and momentarily can even make one, in fact, less fragile. But the underlying truth is that fragility still exists, even out of sight. All forms of dominance fail when the dominance is over a system that is itself falling apart. They fail faster when the dominance is applied heavier, because though dominance shows results in the immediate term, it is done by depleting the limited resources of the system more quickly, hence making the problem worse.

Skaters prove that this is not the only kind of strength possible. Strength is not defined by the ability to beat others. It can be defined by creating. It can be defined by the will to fly.

What then is the solution? Stopping the feedback loop that turns people into permanent failures and prevents learning how to fail. Allowing the processes of nature to run among all people while protecting all people from its worst consequences in the way the powerful have been protected. This is an endeavor for a society, by avoiding as best possible forms of authority and oppression that temporarily quell problems while making them worse, providing resources that make it possible for communities to be resillent and not dependent upon those resources which may be taken in the process of pursuing that which may be taken by risk, and training its people to do the things that make it better. It is for the community and the individual to determine their best role in the process, their tolerance for risk, their ability, and their method of contributing to the collective creation.

We need a society that is able to learn to fail. We need a society where more people can be like skaters.

// Inspired by the Tony Hawk quote: “In order to fly, you must learn to fail.”