I read two, very compelling books over the holidays.
The first is the Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The book discusses the role of black swan events, events that are fundamentally unpredictable and have huge impacts, often negative. Nassim Taleb believes that the world is becoming increasingly complex and interconnected which makes it more susceptible to these black swan events, both in impact and frequency.
The second is Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. Nassim Taleb describes in this book how you can prepare yourself for a black swan driven world. He discusses the the concept of becoming “antifragile,” or becoming the type of person that gets better as a result of randomness and variance.
Modern life, according to Taleb, largely consists of efforts to remove randomness. We can easily purchase food so we eat at the same time everyday. Most jobs are 9-5ish so we’ll be working the same time everyday applying a steady amount of effort everyday for an indefinite time period. We purchase houses using financing which locks us into one place for decades.
This systematic removal of randomness from life is what Taleb calls touristification.
[Touristification] is my term for an aspect of modern life that treats humans as washing machines, with simplified mechanical responses — and a detailed user’s manual. It is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness from things, trying to make matters highly predictable in their smallest details. All that for the sake of comfort, convenience, and efficiency. What a tourist in in relation to an adventurer, or a flaneur, touristification is to life; it consists in converting activities, and not just travel, into the equivalent of a script like those followed by actors.
When I came across the term I immediately thought of TrekDek and our Travel as Mastery Manifesto. I saw compelling parallels between TrekDek’s Mastery Philosophy and Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan and Antifragility philosophy.
Taleb believes that touristification makes us weak. We get used to having the stable 9-5, and then we get laid off. Do we know how to deal with that? Most people wouldn’t. What happens when you’re used to eating 3 times a day with liberal doses of snacks in between and you miss a meal? You feel like you’re starving! Excessive routinization leaves us unprepared for the randomness that is a natural part of life.
Touristification as it applies to travel has been happening for a long time. Most backpacker types are are aware of the tour groups and the hotel breakfast and super cheesy tourist restaurants. It gives you the feeling of novelty and randomness while being almost entirely canned and pre-planned.
The thing is, it’s also happening in the “indie traveler” world too. I see more and more travel bloggers writing about how they quit their job to travel around the world in order to experience happiness again. The cumulative effect is that it touristifies (definitely not a word) for the aspiring backpacker as well! There is a new backpacker narrative that is slowly being robbed of randomness.
Now I’m not upset that more people are willing to take time off from their unfulfilling lives to travel. Travel will definitely inject some necessary randomness into your life and will be a ton of fun.
But you shouldn’t buy into the backpacker narrative. Heck, I’m not even sure you need a narrative anymore.
Maybe what you need to do is become a flaneur.
A Flaneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision opportunistically at every step to revise his schedule (or his destination) so he can imbibe things based on new information obtained. In research and entrepreneurship, being a flaneur is called ‘looking for optionality.’ A non-narrative approach to life.
Instead of thinking you need to travel so it becomes an integral part of your life story, maybe you should travel to increase your exposure to randomness (and to have an amazing time). Be an opportunist in your travels. It is low risk, potentially high reward. This is what Taleb means by optionality, the ability to take small risks for potentially high rewards.
I think the rewards of travel largely reside in mastery, specifically, self mastery. You’ll encounter random frustrations, random joys, random relationships, and random things you just don’t know how to explain, and you’ll become stronger for it.
When I created the original TrekDek cards, I wasn’t thinking about mastery, but I was thinking about what I enjoyed most about travel. I enjoyed the experiences that were unplanned the most.
I visited Lebanon for a week and had the opportunity to visit a Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli. How did I get this opportunity? Well, it was random! One of the girls I was traveling with had a friend who was living in Lebanon. She worked for an independent newspaper based out of Beirut and had to interview a Palestinian who lived at the camp. He had a radio show or something and was active in promoting Palestinian independence. The friend of the friend invited us all to go.
I almost said no! I wanted to sleep in, but on the spur of the moment I figured “why not?”
I learned a lot that day. It wasn’t a life changing experience, but I learned that the Palestinian camp was really more of a slum area, not a rural area with tents and such. I learned that many Palestinians were born in the camp and had never actually been to Palestine, and yet they feel a very strong passion for their ancestral homeland. I learned that the activists mother made an amazing chicken and potatoes dish (he invited us over for lunch).
A lot of random things had to happen for me to have that wonderful experience, and it still wouldn’t have happend had I said no!
This is why we started TrekDek, to encourage people to take small risks and seek randomness in order to have potentially wonderful experiences. Little downside, massive upside.
Take a look at the Treks and see if you’ve done any of them. If you have, think about the chain of events that occurred afterwards. Did something terrible happen? Probably not. Did something amazing happen? Most of the time, probably not. But did something amazing happen every once in a while as a result of some of those treks you did? I bet something did. This is optionality in action, and it’s a critical part of becoming antifragile.