19 January 2023
Kenmei-ji Temple, Nozawaonsen-mura, Shimotakai-gun in Nagano Prefecture
I've just recently returned from a month-long skiing vacation in Japan, which has always been on my bucket list to experience the powder haven. Japan did not disappoint even with a slow start to the season, but what I experience was more than the alluring powder. I may have discovered the soul of skiing and important leadership lessons, in a land where contrasts and paradox are the essence of the Japanese culture with the old and the new, tradition and modernism can coexist.
"Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."
As an avid traveler, every place I have visited has left an imprint on my soul along with important reflections and lessons, both personally and professionally. This adventure taught me new leadership lessons and reinforced existing concepts. As we head into another year of uncertainty, we need to shift our focus as leaders on how we develop an antifragile mindset and lead more sustainably.
The term antifragile was first coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and is a concept to increase one's capability to thrive as a result of stress, shock, volatility, mistakes, faults or failures. Antifragility goes beyond resilience and describes a category of things that not only gain from chaos but may need it to survive and flourish and does not merely withstand a shock but actually improves because of it.
According to Taleb, "the resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better". The phenomenon has been well studied in nature and medicine. For example, Wolff's Law describes how bones grow stronger due to external load. We can adopt the antifragile concept into many aspects of our personal and professional domains including how we lead and makes sense of the world around us.
We can cultivate an antifragile leadership mindset through deliberate practice by
engaging in new experiences and challenges be it travel, learning a new language or a hobby, meeting new people and reflecting on our experiences through four key concepts.
If I were to describe Japan and the culture in on word, it would be paradox. It is land of prevalent contradictions where minimalism and materialism coexist in harmony, along with conservatism and progress. Shopping malls in Japan are filled with the latest gadgets, fashion and toys, yet the Japanese home is based on the minimalist philosophy of Zen Buddhism.
In my experience, in western culture and in the business world, we struggle with paradox that both things can be true. Embracing a paradox mindset can unlock creativity in teams and enhance your leadership. Being pulled in two different directions can create tension and stress, however research suggests that these conflicts can work to our advantage. Studies have found that people who learn to embrace, rather than reject paradox show greater creativity, flexibility and productivity with the dual constraints enhancing performance.
For example, Albert Einstein contemplated how an object could be both at rest and moving depending on the position of the observer, a consideration that ultimately led to his relativity theory. When we consider conflicting perspectives, we gain a better understanding of an issue and can lead to more effective decision making, enhanced creativity and innovation for our teams.
When we embrace a paradox mindset, we enhance our ability to become antifragile by being more creative, adaptive and finding multiple solutions to a problem.
Taking calculated risks
Actively seeking out challenges and facing your fears is an essential element of developing an antifragile mindset. When we make a conscious choice to accept change, rather than fearing it, we can build a positive relationship with uncertainty and understand that change is constant and is a part of life.
As skier, I am always taking calculated risks on the mountain. I had a pretty bad skiing accident about five years ago and the risk of injury is always present and hangs over me like dark cloud. It does stop me from reaching my potential and improving my ability as skier.
Having self-awareness of what's holding you back isn't enough, sometimes you need someone in your corner to coach you and guide you. Professionally, I invested in an executive coach last year and it was the best thing I could do for my career.
So, on this ski trip, I sought out one of the best instructors for a couple of private lessons which took my skiing to the next level. I regained the confidence to venture out on my own, ski hard technical runs (like this racecourse) or go off-piste (if it was safe) and take calculated risks, trusting in my own ability.
A black diamond (most difficult) race course at Akakura Onsen
I had many falls along the way, but I always got back up and as my ski my instructor would remind me:
"If you're not falling over, you're not challenging yourself and progressing."
Taking small or calculated risks in everyday life can help you to develop your ability to deal with setbacks and challenges. In this new world of work, it is not a question of whether challenges will occur but how you will deal with them when they arise. Being resilient is not enough, we need to learn and grow from our setbacks to become antifragile.
There's a Japanese proverb "koketsu ni irazunba koji o ezu" which translates to "if you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub.”
Connecting with and seek out people who think differently from us is vital and helps us see through the veil of our own conditioning and become more intellectually antifragile.
I have been fortunate to travel around the world and connect with people from different cultures and walks of life, some who remain life-long friends. Often these are the moments that make you question your own assumptions, beliefs and conditioning.
In the snow community, there is a shared purpose, chasing powder and perfect lines and a common understanding that there is nothing more liberating in the world than riding on planks of wood down a mountain and the goofy grins that we display at the bottom of a run on a powder day. There's also admiration for other skiers and snowboarders who completed a challenging course or did a cool jump or just helping out someone who may have fallen. These are the unspoken connections and then there are the deeper connections that you make over a dinner conversation, a chair ride or even in the laundry room.
On this trip, we had a dinner where the dining room was a communal long table and my husband and I didn't know anyone. It was one of the highlights of the trip not just because it was an amazing Japanese degustation, but we met some interesting people, had fascinating conversations, learnt more about the Japanese culture and laughed so hard I was crying.
Research shows that social connections can help boost your mental health, increase your lifespan, the overall quality of life and strong social connections are also a key part of mental and emotional resilience. In a world that is polarised, we need to build a social network of people with diverse views and experiences to challenge our thinking and there's no better way of doing that than trying out new experiences such as travel.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
Seeking solitude and reflection
Becoming antifragile is about knowing and accepting yourself, your strengths, your quirks and shortcomings. Making time for deliberate reflection is crucial for learning and personal growth. There can be a stigma around being alone and according to a recent study, many people prefer to give themselves a mild electric shock than to sit in a room alone with their own thoughts.
Solitude is different to loneliness. Loneliness is a negative state of mind, usually characterised by a feeling that something is wrong or missing. Whereas solitude is associated with a positive state of mind and research shows that it can increases self-awareness, boosts creativity, reduces stress, and promotes relaxation.
I was very fortunate to have a couple of solo adventures on this trip, while my husband and son were off relaxing in the onsen or skiing in the terrain park. It not only provided the opportunity to venture out on my own and test my skiing ability but hit the pause button, practice deliberate reflection and gratitude.
On a solo adventure at Myoko Kogen on a powder day
We were fortunate to being skiing in one of the oldest skiing areas in Japan, Myoko Kogen where some of the ski fields like Seki Onsen have been run by the same family for over 105 years. Myoko has a rustic vibe and is not developed like other more well-known resorts that cater for foreigners. While lacking in high-speed gondolas or chairlifts, the slow old double chairs operated by rice farmers provide ample opportunity to take in the mesmerising snow covered landscape and contemplate life.
When you open yourself up to new experiences, some which may not always be comfortable, can pave the road to building a mindset that is antifragile and one that can withstand the shocks and pressures of life, both professional and personal.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
Miron-Spektor , E. et al. (2022), "Paradox Mindset: The Source of Remarkable Creativity in Teams", INSEAD Knowledge , INSEAD, 25 July 2022. Available at: https://knowledge.insead.edu/leadership-organisations/paradox-mindset-source-remarkable-creativity-teams
Center for Compassionate Leadership (2023), “Embracing Paradox”, Center for Compassionate Leadership, 7 January 2023. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/embracing-paradox-center-for-compassionate-leadershi/ (Accessed: January 18, 2023).
Heracleous, L. and Robson, D. (2020), “Why the 'paradox mindset' is the key to success,” BBC, 12 November 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201109-why-the-paradox-mindset-is-the-key-to-success (Accessed: January 18, 2023).