The Stone and The Bear

John was crouching in the low bush with his spear in his right hand, breathing shallowly to avoid being heard. His feet padded along the forest floor in measured paces. Years of experience taught him so. The sun had suddenly set, as was the risk in this time of year, and visibility in the forest was low. As sharp as his eyes were, he wasn’t sure if he was seeing a bear or a stone.

Joseph went up behind him, and whispered, “that’s totally not a bear bro”.

John just shook his head, his locks swaying in silence.

Joseph gave an exasperated look. He thought to himself, typical John, always overreacting.

John thought quickly of escape routes. Food was getting scarce, so he needed to find food, but this unexpected discovery made him reconsider staying out.

He suggested to Joseph, “why don’t you go over to the stone then, maybe there are some berries on the other side of it”.

Joseph, always one to prove himself right, took his challenge.

He marched over to the bear-stone, determined to prove that John sucked at hunting.

John watched from behind the bush, and couldn’t help but smirk when he saw Joseph freeze midway.

John left some scented herbs to cover his tracks, as he retreated to the safety of his village.

The story is an example of fragility and antifragility.

You can be antifragile (benefiting from randomness) if you are given a free option. I have the choice of this or that, and I can pick whichever works best for me. But it usually takes someone or something else being fragile. In this case, we have an uncertain choice – the bear-stone – and Joseph has an opinion. Opinions are dangerous if the opinionated person takes no risks for it. Thankfully, he did take a risk, and he paid the price. He fragilized himself to make John antifragile. The alternative is if Joseph simply said “that’s not a bear”, did nothing, and let John continue hunting as though the bear were a stone. Where do we see this today? Everywhere we read opinions, forecasts, and predictions that cause us to take more risk than necessary. Take any complex, ambiguous situation. What are the upsides? The downsides? What’s the penalty for being wrong? “Experts” can have all sorts of opinions that they don’t actually follow themselves. The people who get fancy awards for their economics theories often don’t follow their own advice when it comes to their portfolios. Ask your doctor what she would do if she were in your shoes. The engineer’s family should live under the bridge he built when it’s open to traffic.

I write this to remind myself to pay less attention to op-eds, “experts”, and journalists who have no skin in the game. To pay attention to what people do, not what they say. I never really understood this point until I thought about this story.

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