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The Power of Adaptation Book Summary – Luca Dellanna

What you will learn from reading The Power of Adaptation:

– Why harm is actually good for us and how we can create more ‘good harm’ in our lives.

– How to get better at accepting feedback and improving yourself.

– How to make yourself and your life more ‘anti-fragile’.

The Power of Adaptation Book Summary:

The power of adaptation is a fantastic book on the role harm plays in human progress and improvement. Luca Dellanna takes concepts discussed in Nicholas Taleb‘s Incerto and makes the more accessible. This book is essential reading for anyone who’s into personal growth. The concept of lagging and lead measures is a fantastic tool in achieving all your goals. 


Adaptation – Debt Analogy:

Denying the necessity of adaptation is akin to refusing to repay a debt – this is not the debtor’s call, but the creditor’s. In the case of adaptation, the creditor is the environment, and the environment always collects its debts. 


Humans are an ensemble of habits and beliefs:

Employees are humans, and humans are an ensemble of habits and beliefs. Some of these habits and beliefs have a positive effect on their ability to be performing well at their job, while others have a negative effect. 


How improvement happens:

When we are not good enough, we have the option to try to understand which part of us is not good enough, let it go and replace it with a better one. 

A person undergoes personal growth when he or she adopts a new mental pattern which is advantageous (for example, the habit of regularly practicing physical activity or learning how to sustain an interesting conversation), or when he or she quits an old mental pattern which is detrimental.


Our body has a calibration system:

Calibration allows individuals to adapt to their environment without having to change their DNA. Calibration optimises tradeoffs by triggering tissue size changes in response to need. 


The Role of Harm in Improvement:

We do not grow muscle; we regrow it. When we go to the gym, if we lift a weight heavy enough, we tear some of our muscle fibers. Our body repairs them and/or grows new ones. If we do not harm our muscle fibers, we do not grow any muscle. The need for growth is signaled by harm. 

In a nutshell, moderate harm causes strengthening via overcompensation; absence of moderate harm causes weakening. 

Harm → Overcompensation → Strengthening  

Absence of harm → Weakening 

A life stable over the long term does not look stable in the short term. Because you are constantly having to adapt to changes in short term to increase the stability long term. 


Harm makes things real:

Humans tend to neglect risks that take longer than an adaptive cycle to materialize, dramatically underestimating their magnitude. 

For adaptation to take place, it is not only necessary that the threat harms people, but also that it harms them in a noticeable way. 

It is our nature to use admissibility as a proxy for truth. More relevantly, we tend to believe that what did not hurt us nor any of our close ones cannot possibly harm us in the future. 

In general, when allowed to choose between an adaptation that allows people to do something more safely or one that allows them to do something more efficiently or comfortably, humans tend to choose the latter. This is called risk homeostasis 


Lagging and Lead Measures in Adaption:

Angela Jiang wrote: “The longer the time between action and result, the more room there is for charlatans”.

The more the time between adaptations is short compared to the time it takes to a threat to materialize, the more it is likely that we adapt to the absence of it (and therefore increase our risk-taking). 


Trends measured at the basis of the pyramid of risk are more reliable, both because of a larger sample and because of a lower number of assumptions needed. 

Moreover, indicators at the top of the pyramid have a disgraceful property: they measure events that already happened. For this reason, they are called lagging indicators. 

Measuring trends at the bottom of the pyramid allows us to be proactive and to avoid the negative event. Conversely, measuring trends at the top causes us to be reactive and to suffer from negative events. 

Furthermore, perhaps the most important point of all is that success is a lagging indicator whereas its causes, the leading indicators, are habits. 

The key lies in choosing not only metrics that stand at the basis of the pyramid, but also in choosing the least gameable metrics possible.

Remember, your current situation is a lagging indicator of yourself.


Thoughts on exposing yourself to harm:

An adaptive entity, including you, your company and our civilizations, should have two priorities: 

  1. Exposing its members to sources of good harm, in order to suffer from just the amount of harm that will maximise positive long-term adaptation.
  2. Adapting itself so that it will survive whatever harm it might have to suffer (because of a miscalculating the risk it exposed itself to, or because of an unexpected event).


In general, the damage that is localised tends to cause temporary functional disruption. Conversely, the damage that is sufficiently distributed does not only cause any negative long-term consequences; it actually produces positive adaptation. 

Whether the harm is good or bad is not an intrinsic property of the source of harm, but rather the result of the type of damage distribution that it inflicts on us. 


Three ways to reduce harm’s damage:

Controlling the magnitude of the source of harm (for example, choosing the appropriate weight to lift at the gym). 

Becoming stronger (so that a given uncontrolled source of harm will inflict less harm to us). 

Using decentralisation or “having more than needed” (both of which will be explained afterward) to minimize the chances that a given amount of damage distributes itself in a concentrated way. 


The Real Word Decides:

What is born out of the real world resists it; what is born in a bubble goes burst as soon as the bubble itself is exposed to the real world and bursts. 

It follows that no one can arbitrarily decide what is unfit and has to be replaced – the environment has to be the judge. 

You can decide to grow, and you can decide what to try – but you can’t decide the results. The environment determines the results- what works and what does not. 

Evidence that something doesn’t work shouldn’t be treated as a sign to try it harder, but as a sign to try it differently, or to try something different. 


You are a multitude:

To perceive yourself as containing a fluid multitude of mental patterns (thinking patterns, behaving patterns, feeling patterns) 

To perceive those mental patterns not as parts of yourself, but as tools for yourself. 

Considering yourself as being a multitude of mental patterns is a good way to “decentralize” yourself, and to ensure that you can safely remove the faulty ones without endangering the ensemble – you. 

If you perceive yourself as containing a multitude of patterns, you will have no problem receiving feedback not as personal but towards one of your patterns – and you will, therefore, be able to change the mental pattern without losing your sense of identity. 


Metrics for personal stability:

Some examples:

Time and resources spent solving the sources of problems rather than avoiding them:

“Talks” vs “Walks”: sometimes we “talk” (we say what we should or will do), and sometimes we “walk” (we actually do what we say we should or will do).


Adopt a tinkerer approach to personal development:

The biggest inventors of all time were all tinkerers. Tinkerers do not spend too much time thinking about how they can succeed; they try new approaches, see what works, see what doesn’t, and change accordingly. Then, they try again. 


Skin in the Game:

One is said to have “skin in the game” if he is directly affected by the outcome of an event in both a positive and a negative way.

For what concerns the matters at hand here, skin in the game ensures harm when one’s own actions end up being wrong. By guaranteeing harm, it guarantees adaptation. 

It generally also ensures the safety of adaptation: if someone has skin in the game, he is less likely to take fatal risks, unless they are necessary. 


Dealing with Risk:

Humans do not like risky environments, and often introduce barriers to make them safer. However, often such barriers only increase the sense of safety but decrease actual safety, by inviting risk-taking. 

In risk management, redundancy is defined as “having more than needed of something” 

Where wipeouts are possible, expected payoff is meaningless:

In repeated games where a “game over” is possible, the notion of an expected payoff is meaningless.


The 4 necessary conditions for an entity to be able to express an antifragile behavior: 

It must be composed of a population at a lower layer. 

Harm must be allowed at that lower layer. 

Harm must happen in a distributed fashion. 

The surviving members of the population must be able to reproduce. 


The 4 actions which can increase the likelihood of an anti-fragile response to a random stressor are: 

Ensuring skin in the game.  

Removing exogenous barriers (aka, fences).  

Creating redundancy.  

Reducing systemicity. 



Ensuring skin in the game: closely tie performance to results. Few things are more damaging than letting your people unaccountable for their actions (both positives and negatives). 

Removing exogenous barriers (aka, fences): ensure that nothing stands in the way of feedback. 

Creating redundancy: ensure that you have enough resources (employees, stock, bandwidth, money, etc.) and procedures in place to deal with breakdowns 

Reducing systemicity: ensure that none of your processes rely on a single person or machine: