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Beyond “Sissy” Resilience: On Becoming Antifragile

What’s the opposite of a person or organization that’s fragile?

If you ask most people this question, they’ll likely say “robust” or “resilient.” But philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say that’s not the right answer.

He argues that if fragile items break when exposed to stress, something that’s the opposite of fragile wouldn’t simply not break (thus staying the same) when put under pressure; rather, it should actually get stronger.

We don’t really have a word to describe such a person or organization, so Taleb created one:antifragile.

In his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Taleb convincingly argues that this powerful quality is essential for businesses, governments, and even individuals that wish to thrive in an increasingly complex and volatile world.[amazon asin=B0083DJWGO&template=*lrc ad (right)]

If you want to succeed and dominate, to separate yourself from the pack and become the last man standing in any area of life, it’s no longer enough to bounce back from adversity and volatility – to simply be resilient. You have to bounce back stronger and better. You have to become antifragile.

Surviving and Thriving in a Whirlwind of Volatility

First, some background.

Back in 2007, Taleb popularized the idea of “Black Swans” in his book of the same name. In a nutshell, a Black Swan is an event (either positive or negative) “that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.”

The mortgage crisis of 2008 was a Black Swan event, as were both World Wars. Hardly anyone predicted them, they all had huge impacts on history, and they all seemed utterly predictable in hindsight.[amazon asin=B00139XTG4&template=*lrc ad (right)]

Many folks walked away from reading The Black Swan with this takeaway: “Sh** happens, so don’t bother trying to predict things.” But as Taleb recently tweeted, that’s the conclusion “imbeciles” reach (one of the best parts of Taleb’s writing is that he doesn’t mince words). Rather, the main message of the book is this: “Yes, sh** happens. The trick is to put yourself in a position to survive and even thrive when it does.”

In his most recent book, Antifragile, Taleb offers some simple heuristics to help businesses and individuals thrive in a life swirling with volatility. Before he does that, though, Taleb makes the case that people/systems/organizations/things/ideas can be described in one of three ways: fragile, resilient, or antifragile.

Which category best describes you? Let’s take a look at the triad.

Antifragile 3

The Fragile

“Now, what is fragile? The large, optimized, overreliant on technology, overreliant on the so-called scientific method instead of age-tested heuristics.”

Things that are fragile break or suffer from chaos and randomness. Fragile systems/people/things seek out tranquility because they have more to lose than to gain during volatile times.

chart1

Fragile people/systems/organizations are concave. As fluctuations increase (x-axis) you experience more loss.

Taleb likens the fragile to the story of the Sword of Damocles. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this Greek myth, Damocles was a courtier of King Dionysius II who greatly envied the king’s life of power and luxury. The king offers to let him try out holding the throne, so he can see for himself just how great it is. At first Damocles revels in his newfound wealth and finery and relishes having servants administer to his every need. But then Dionysus places a razor sharp sword — hanging only by a thin horse hair — directly over Damocles’ head.

At any moment the hair could snap and instantly kill him.

Suddenly, being king didn’t seem so great.

Damocles begs Dionysius to let him leave. He realizes he doesn’t want to be as “fortunate” as the king after all.

With great power and success come great peril and anxiety. As Shakespeare put it, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” When you gain in status and wealth, your responsibilities increase. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Moreover, you have to constantly be on guard for challengers who want to dethrone you. Which is why the Sword of Damocles is such a great metaphor for fragility. When you’re king or in any position of power, one small jostle could bring down your house of cards; you’re actually more fragile than you might have thought.

You don’t have to be in a position of power to experience the Sword of Damocles effect in your life, though. The sword could also be something like debt. When you’re in the hole everything is hunky-dory so long as things are relatively stable, but add in a bit of volatility — you get sick or your car breaks down — and the sword falls.

So we know that fragile things break or suffer from adversity or volatility. But what is it exactly that makes something fragile? Here are some of the qualities that Taleb argues contribute to a person’s or organization’s fragility:

Fragile things are typically large. Size often offers a false sense of security, but large organizations, such as giant corporations and big governments, typically aren’t agile enough to survive, let alone thrive during times of adversity. There are too many complications and layers of bureaucratic red tape to allow for quick action.

Large entities are much like the Titanic on the night that it sunk. By the time the lookouts spotted the iceberg, it was too late to take corrective action because the liner’s turning speed was so slow and the radius so wide. To successfully navigate toward a safe direction, more time was needed – and time is a luxury not often available during a crisis.

Thus in stressful times, it pays to be small and agile.

Responses to variability and stress come from the outside. If something is fragile and it’s exposed to stress, there’s nothing built in to help fend off that stressor. The response must come from something external to it.

For example, if a porcelain teacup were to fall off a table because the table was jostled, the only thing that would prevent the teacup from breaking would be some external force or object — a hand catching it or a foam pad to blunt the impact.

The same applies to people or businesses. A fragile person will likely require outside help when they hit life’s rough waters because they lack capital — be it financial, social, or emotional — to help them weather the storm.

Fragile things are overly optimized. Fragile businesses, people, and organizations are often too smart for their own good. Our modern world is obsessed with efficiency and optimization. Businesses seek to crank out as many widgets as they can on tight timeframes and with as little cost as possible. Similarly, individuals are told to be as efficient as they can with their time.

And it works…if everything goes to plan. But everything rarely goes as planned. Randomness is the rule, not the exception.

The central problem with being overly optimized and efficient is that we can’t predict when problems and errors will pop up. And as Taleb notes, when these random errors or fluctuations occur in overly-optimized systems “errors compound, multiply, swell, with an effect that only goes in one direction — the wrong direction.”

Here’s an example:

You sign up for a European cruise. It’s scheduled to set sail from Venice, Italy, but you live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so you’ll have to take an international flight to catch your cruise. You optimize your itinerary for getting there with both time and money in mind — the first flight leaves late enough that you can get in a half a day of work, and you’ve minimized your layovers between connecting flights.

Your efficient flight plan hinges on razor tight margins. With 30-minute layovers, you can’t have any hitches.

You make your first flight with no problem, but the next flight is delayed, causing you to miss your flight to Rome, and thus your entire cruise. Because you left absolutely no time in your schedule for hiccups, your well-intended attempt at optimization turned out to be very costly.

I’ve seen the problem of over-optimization in my own life with my weekly planning. I’ve often planned my week to a T, under the naïve assumption that no unforeseen tasks or distractions will come up.

But of course, unplanned problems do happen, forcing me to change my schedule. Because it was so “optimized,” one change forces another, which forces another, which creates a boondoggle for me. I made my schedule fragile by trying to cram too much in.

Fragile people and systems seek to eliminate variability, noise, and tension. Because fragile people and systems don’t have built-in responses to stress and variability, they naively try to eliminate it completely from the equation.

But trying to eliminate randomness and variability is a loser’s game. It’s simply not possible. Remember, randomness and variability are the rule, not the exception.

Not only is trying to eliminate stress and variability a lost cause, it ends up making an already fragile person or system even more fragile.

Taleb calls these folks who quixotically attempt to eliminate volatility “fragilistas.” Helicopter Parents are great examples of fragilistas. In their attempt to make life as safe as possible for their children, they actually set them up for sometimes debilitating failure when they inevitably face adversity on their own. Human psyches require variability, adversity, and stress to become strong. By depriving their children of stress, Helicopter Parents “fragilize” their future.

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