Nicholas Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, is originally a derivatives trader and a Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering, now turned essayist and scholar. He is considered in many intellectual circles as one of the most highly influential minds of our times. His second book – Antifragile – follows very closely after The Black Swan, and tackles the topic of unpredictable risk, stress, chaos, etc. He taps into several disciplines to shed light on examples of organisms, systems, and institutions that he considers antifragile - a word he has coined himself - that explains how something can grow stronger from stress and chaos.
In a nutshell, Taleb explains how the exact opposite of the word ‘fragile’ does not exist. He proposes the word antifragile to describe something that increasingly gains from disaster and stress to makes itself stronger. Initially, this is more evident in the case of biological organisms, but Taleb’s excellence shines through as he applies this inherent quality to other areas of reality and not only living beings. He also hints at how we should strive to acquire this ability as a consistent learning curve and apply it in our lives, both in a public and a private sense.
Defining Black Swans
Before looking more closely at what Taleb means by antifragile, it’s worth exploring his idea of Black Swans. Just about everything of consequence in life has come into being by way of Black Swans, not ordinary events whose effects tend to be paltry. Taleb argues that Black Swans – large, improbable, and highly consequential events such as World War I, Google, 9/11, and the rise of the internet – are not predictable. These events that carry a high risk factor fly in the face of the human tendency to favor predictable patterns based on cause and effect and the tendency to want to impose clear-cut narratives in order to map out reality.
Generally speaking, the tools and methods we use for forecasting and curbing risk continue to be inadequate. It is our actual faith in these tools that seems to imply that we won’t stop taking risky, uninformed action. The uncertainty and volatility brought about by Black Swans is being magnified by current trends and factors including the complexity of systems and data, globalization that is seeing more interconnectivity between parts, as well as the increasing emphasis on efficiency that implies a certain volatility.
Taleb argues that the more we attempt to create constant stability, the more the subject of our actions becomes fragile. This is what we’ve been doing with economy, health, political life, and education, among other things. He compares over-treatment of illness and physical problems leading to medical error with certain foreign policies supporting dictatorial regimes abroad tends to eventually lead to bigger chaos after revolution.
What Makes Something Antifragile
Moving onto Taleb’s proposition of the word antifragile, he cautions us to develop institutions that are not only resilient enough to bend and not break under a chaotic storm of unpredictable disaster, but that actually gain from these events.
Antifragile, therefore, is a condition that gains from volatility, variability, stress, and disorder; it’s a condition that allows for the entity, be it private or public, to thrive and improve in such circumstances. We need to give up the illusion that we can predict the next big thing, and even when we only have a limited understanding of our circumstances, we need to learn the skill of navigating through the unknown.
(PART 2 TO FOLLOW)