Antifragility: save my child or my favorite coffee mug?
It’s a cool morning. Your toddler’s on your lap, looking out the window. You’re almost through your mug of coffee without incident. While you bask in wonder, your daughter’s wriggled out and is about to stuff into her mouth a handful of mud from one of the flower pots. As you spring into action, the mug is knocked off your hand. You can either catch it before it hits the edge of the sill or stop your child from dumping mud into her mouth. What will you do?
Before you respond, consider the facts. The mug, once it hits the edge, will most likely end up with a crack, or worse. And broken or not, it certainly won’t look as good.
Your toddler probably is in the habit of putting off-the-menu items in her mouth a few times every day. While not a pleasant experience for you, you can’t remember her falling sick after any of her misadventures.
A key problem with how we have designed our lives is that we take too much effort to consider ourselves as a mechanical system (a machine) and too little as a biological system (a living organism).
We treat ourselves as if use depreciates our value (machine-like), overlooking that it is disuse that causes atrophy in us (organism-like). We forget that while use causes wear and tear in a machine, depreciating its value, physically or mentally challenging work makes us stronger. In treating ourselves like well-oiled machines, we deprive ourselves of the process of self-reformation brought about by exposure to stressors like uncertainty, disorder, friction. We move from the territory of the antifragile to that of the fragile.
What is antifragility?
If we gain a lot more from sudden change than we lose, we’re antifragile. If we stand to break under duress without gaining anything at all, we’re fragile. The former benefits from asymmetric pay-off, while the latter suffers asymmetric loss when the inevitable unexpected event (black swan) arrives. This is the foundation for Nassim Taleb’s construct of antifragility.
Our biological apparatus has an inbuilt capacity to generate a heightened response to stress. When pushed to the limit, we build some margin into our response that enables us to face an even bigger challenge the next time. Think of how introduction of a pathogen in a small quantity prepares our immune system to wage a successful defence against a much bigger pathogen load in time. That is also how runners and weightlifters beat their previous bests, how children benefit from eating handfuls of dirt, and how evolution has sharpened us through time. We could identify this, as Taleb does, as post-traumatic growth.
What’s the need to ready ourselves for the unexpected, we may ask? Catastrophic events are inevitable. Nature does not necessarily believe in microdosing us with danger. It culls the weakest among us ruthlessly. Complex human systems, be it political or economic, are so well-networked that a shake-up to one part could end up crippling the system. Given this, would we rather try and predict the unpredictable, or be ready to flourish no matter what comes our way?
How can we be ready?
To thrive in an uncertain world, we need to be willing to incur small regular losses and bear the inconvenience of change, while positioning ourselves to benefit from big irregular gains and be part of the early majority for a new normal. A definitive playbook to gain from extreme events is hard to pin down, but certain guiding principles are more likely to help us profit off volatility.
Optionality is a prerequisite for antifragility but it hardly guarantees the latter. Antifragility feeds on disorder and the process of creating options generates disorder. Consider the $330m that NASA is spending to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if it can be deflected off a collision path with earth. This asteroid “poses no actual threat” and if successful, the mission will prove that “NASA and other space agencies could deflect an asteroid heading towards Earth and avert an Armageddon-style impact.” If it fails, NASA will have to make improvements and/or evaluate other ideas such as running a spaceship alongside and using a beam device or using solar sails to shine sunlight on the asteroid. This experiment will most likely save us one day, hopefully not in our lifetime. But the point is that it is only by running these experiments ahead of time do we stand any chance of benefiting (how else could we use our newfound ability to alter a celestial body’s trajectory?) in the future.
That’s NASA, we may say. But we do have goals and it is in the pursuit of these goals that our endeavors derive meaning from. Preserving optionality is just a way of granting ourselves the chance to emerge stronger from sudden change, be it in personal finance (pair safe with speculative investments), career (check a prospective employer’s remote working contingencies before committing to a job), or children’s education (consider quality of virtual teaching before picking a school).
Take full accountability.
Imagine having built a body of specific knowledge over time. The best way to capture the value of that learning is to assume full responsibility for the outcome of its application, so that we can capture the entirety of the reward. Most shy away because when we’re fully exposed to risk, we’re closest to catastrophic failure. The average office worker takes a monthly paycheck in exchange for renting out their time, not for bearing risk. She may feed others her knowledge in exchange for a better rent, but she prefers the psychological safety of operating at a remove. Contrast the worker with the entrepreneur, who uses intellectual labor as leverage to aim high while taking full responsibility for the outcome. There’s an exponentially lower reward without bearing risk under our own name.
Shed the stigma of failure.
If we’re going to make small bets to preserve options and we’re going to assume responsibility for our experiments, it is only advisable for our well-being that we get comfortable with the idea of failing. We can brace ourselves by treating failure as an event (Harish Narayanan) and accepting that we’ll be short-term wrong but hopefully long-term right (Sam Altman). This path is hard because the smarter we are, the more uncomfortable is the idea of failing.
Such an appetite for risk, optionality, and failure is perhaps most evident in entrepreneurship. Founding a business is evolution compressed into a period of unmatched intensity. Which is also to say that entrepreneurship is a graveyard for the fragile. What kills some founders also makes the rest of the playing field stronger.
Side note: Most popular stories of startup success will have resilience embedded in the narrative. But resilience occupies only a neutral position in the spectrum between fragility and antifragility. Resilience is simply withstanding adversity. If resilience is to be championed as a virtue, we must all agree that there’s nothing better than to be simply left breathing after a shake-up. The antifragile aspire to more. They aspire to flourish in the face of adversity.
It may be reassuring to treat our living selves as a fragile artifact, like a favorite coffee mug. Yet this deprives us of a stimulating relationship with our environment. A tolerable amount of mishandling today can prepare us to exploit the uncertainty around us tomorrow. Its value may not be immediately obvious but is undeniable, as evolution proves, in the long run.