As is so often the case with new ideas, the concept of Antifragility has been simplified and distorted as it propagates among the casual public. I have seen “antifragile” used incorrectly far more often than correctly.
Because the concept is an important one, I will now set everything right.
The concept of antifragility is outlined in the book “Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb made his fortune in the financial world as a quant, where he exploited the gap between human expectations and reality. He has written a series of books discussing the lessons learned from his career. One of those books is Antifragile.
The book Antifragile explores how different objects and systems respond to external stressors. The responses may be divided into three categories – Fragile, Robust, and Antifragile.
That which is fragile is vulnerable to stresses & shocks and must be be placed in a protected environment. Fragile things do not respond well to time because more time equals more impacts.
Examples of fragile things:
- (mythology) Sword of Damocles – one snap of a horse-hair and Damocles is dead
- (class reputation) Middle Class – screw up and you’re out of the club
- (Science) Directed Research – the scientists are in trouble if they don’t make a specific finding in a specific place
- (employment) Conservative Bakery Owners – the best they can hope for is not to be put in a situation.
That which is robust is indifferent to stresses & shocks but does not gain from them either. Robust things may be placed in rough or protected environments but do not gain from either. Robust things tend to stay the same over time regardless of impacts.
Examples of robust things:
- (mythology) The Phoenix – immortal, it dies and comes back the same as it was before
- (class reputation) Minimum-Wage – they’re already at the bottom and since there are always more minimum wage jobs they have nothing to lose
- (Science) Opportunistic Research – the scientists can explore whatever happens to come up
- (employment) Farmers – no matter who’s in charge everyone still needs to eat.
That which is antifragile benefits from impacts & chaos and thrives in difficult environments. Antifragile things tend to improve over time because more time equals more impacts.
Examples of antifragile things:
- (mythology) The Hydra – cut off one head and two more will take its place
- (class reputation) The Kardashians – drama and bad behavior is their source of wealth and fame
- (Science) Tinkering – making many small changes reveals new opportunities and exposes bad paths quickly and cheaply
- (employment) Petty Dictator – engaging in conflict offers opportunity for increased reputation.
Things that are fragile, robust, or antifragile in one domain may be something else in another domain. A person may be physically robust (strong) or even antifragile (street-fighter) but emotionally fragile (“Why do they always leave me!?!”).
Similarly, a thing that is antifragile at one scale may not be at another. Weightlifting results in fatigue in the short term and gains in the long term. Devil-may-care behavior may increase reputation among your peer group but harm it among general society.
Alternately, a thing itself may be fragile while the system it participates in is antifragile. An individual ant is easily killed and even under the best of circumstances does not enjoy a long lifespan, but its sacrifice in pursuit of conflict and exploration enables the colony (and its genetics) to survive and propagate.
A thing, system, or idea may be antifragile to challenges below a threshold of intensity while fragile to challenges above that threshold. A weightlifter’s muscles may benefit from the micro-tears produced by a 200-lb barbell while being dramatically injured by the weight of a 500-lb barbell.
The notion of antifragility is an appealing one. Viewing trouble not as a threat but as fuel can be inspiring, and having a new tool to perceive and interact with the world is beneficial.
However, it is inappropriate to view antifragility as always good & desirable or fragility as always bad & inferior. Most of us believe that there are circumstances in which it is the highest good that the individual to sacrifice himself so an idea, a system, or persons may endure and increase.
My own religion, Christianity, has been carried forth on the backs of martyrs since the beginning. They accepted or embraced their fragility so their faith may not simply persist, but grow.
I see in our current political situation the rise of antifragile groups and organizations. SJWs and Antifa seek out conflict to gain attention, legitimacy, and converts. Their complements on the Right do the same. Without conflict both sides would wither and die. Instead, they have discovered a way to have conflict “on tap,” creating a sick symbiosis where each side needs and desires its enemy so that it itself may grow strong. While the structures gain by conflict, do individuals in general? I say ‘no.’ This success seems to me to be the success of the tumor.
The misconceptions I have seen regarding antifragility fall into a few categories.
The first, the idea that it is always desirable and good, has been addressed above.
The second, that antifragility means the ability to persist, is due to a confusion between robustness and antifragility.
The third, that antifragility means benefiting financially and reputationally from social conflict, is true but limited, and those who mention it in this context seem not to grasp the general concept or how it fits into the larger theory.
Antifragility is the ability of a thing, system, or idea to benefit from stress, chaos, or error. It complements the idea of fragility – which tends to be damaged by these things – and the idea of robustness – which tends to be unchanged by them.
That which is fragile tends to disappear. That which is robust tends to persist. That which is antifragile tends to develop, improve, and renew.
Each has its place in a healthy, functioning system. Each deserves its proper respect. None is always right or always wrong.
The book “Antifragile” is a good read that expends on everything I wrote with a lot more besides. If you would like to purchase it through Amazon, please use AKC’s affiliate link.