Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).
In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Taleb described antifragility as follows: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it anti-fragile. Anti-fragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the anti-fragile gets better.”
Taleb suggests human society be made antifragile so it can benefit from black swan events. These events, which are unpredictable and can have severe consequences, are traditionally managed by suppressing randomness, chaos, and volatility. While black swan events are impossible to predict, Taleb argues that a better strategy is to accept their inevitability and take advantage of the disorder that ensues.
Indeed, Taleb’s antifragility strategy thrives during black swan events because it assumes there is more to gain than there is to lose. Conversely, the fragility strategy where randomness is suppressed perishes during a black swan event because it assumes there is more to lose than there is to gain.
The concept of antifragility can be applied to almost any industry, including transportation planning, physical fitness, aerospace engineering, project management, risk analysis, and computer science. For the individual, antifragility helps them navigate a world full of random and unpredictable stressors intent on altering their life trajectory.
One of the best examples of fragility in action can be seen in fire management, where the systematic prevention of forest fires under the guise of safety makes an evitable fire outbreak much more catastrophic. Another example is the immune system of the human body, which needs regular contact with pathogens to be capable of defending the body during a serious infection. If the immune system does not interact with pathogens early in life, it can become hypersensitive, react with sometimes harmless substances, and cause chronic allergies.
The antifragility triad
To explain the difference between fragility, robustness, and antifragility, Taleb used the example of three ancient myths:
- Fragility – Damocles is fragile because his life depends on a thin hair that holds a sword above his head. The slightest weakness in the hair means the sword will kill him.
- Robustness – Phoenix is robust because whenever he dies, he arises from the ashes and returns to the same state. Stressors do not harm him, but he does not benefit or grow from them either.
- Hydra – whenever one of Hydra’s many heads is cut off, two new heads grow back in its place. Hydra is more than robust because she grows stronger as a result of stressors. She is antifragile.
Principles for leading an antifragile life
As you might have guessed, an antifragile way of life involves finding ways to benefit from the chaos and disorder we will inevitably experience.
Generally speaking, individuals who embrace antifragile principles are playing the long game. They do not optimize for today or tomorrow, sacrificing short-term efficiency for long-term antifragility. To achieve this, they engage in second-order thinking where the consequences of their decisions are analyzed for their future impact.
Here are ten simple principles for leading an antifragile life:
- Adhere to simple rules and procedures.
- Ensure contingency plans are in place so that no single failure can ever be catastrophic.
- Resist the urge to suppress randomness.
- Keep your options open.
- Look for traditional habits and rules that have been effective for a long time.
- Focus on avoiding what doesn’t work rather than trying to discover what does work.
- Take lots of small risks through experimentation.
- Avoid becoming consumed or preoccupied with data.
- Ensure you have your soul in the game.
- Avoid taking risks with potentially significant negative repercussions.
- Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, mistakes, attacks, or failures. The concept was explained in detail by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.
- Antifragility argues that since random and chaotic events are inevitable, society may as well position itself to profit from them. This notion contrasts with traditional approaches that favor risk management and the mitigation of negative impacts.
- Leading an antifragile life means sacrificing some degree of short-term efficiency for long-term antifragility. Considering the second-order consequences of decisions is one way to embody this mindset. Other helpful principles include taking small risks through experimentation, resisting the urge to suppress randomness, and ensuring contingency plans are in place to avoid catastrophic failure.
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