Blog Post III: An Introduction to Antifragility

This part of the blog will introduce an idea which is not so well known, but will ultimately be the main thread to tie the ideas of this blog together. Antifragility is a concept which many people (especially grandmothers) grasp intuitively, but until Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book by the same name, there has been no word for it. It is the antithesis of fragility, a word used to describe something which deteriorates as a result of harm. Ask yourself this: when you post a package which breaks easily, you will want to attach a label saying “fragile” onto it, so what label would you put on a package which will actually benefit from being mishandled, and thrown about? It’s not  simply “robust”, since even robust things don’t actually benefit from harm, nor is it “resilient” for the same reason. A new word has been coined to describe something which benefits from harm – antifragile – and there are many systems to which it applies.

First off, let’s tie it in with primal living, the subject of the last introductory post. I mentioned that it is more important to have brief, intense exercise than to go for quantity, drudging along concrete paths for hours. The recent popularity of HIIT (high intensity interval training) and Crossfit reflect this. It is well established that exercise places stress on the body, and that the body reacts to this stress. Not only does it react, however, but it overreacts, it overcompensates, and as a result provides you with bigger muscles, better able to answer the same and more stress the next time, provided you take adequate rest. So the stress – the harm – is actually beneficial to the body. When you lift weights, you literally tear your muscle fibres (ouch) but they return stronger. Another simplified, but well-known, example of this is vaccination. You put the immune system under stress, and it overreacts so that next time it will be able to deal with even more.

Another example provided by Taleb (and I paraphrase him) is being placed under acute stress, followed by sufficient recovery time. Say you are sitting in your living room, watching television, and suddenly a lion leaps through the door. Your body will send out a lot of signals putting you under a lot of stress, your fight or flight response pinging throughout your body. Assuming you survive this incident (preferably with photographic, triumphant evidence) and then are given time to relax with some beer or some soothing tea, your body will benefit from the immense stress, even after the buzz of the adrenaline has worn off. The hormones coursing through your body benefit it. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, yes? On the other hand, moderate stress does not make you stronger, but it will kill you. The daily stress of modern living, whether it is being stuck in traffic, filling out monthly business reports, tax forms etc., these provide stresses, but not of the fight or flight variety. You cannot run away from you tax returns or punch your boss. This moderation in stress, caused by a smoothing out of our social systems provokes the release of harmful reactions, but without the necessary recovery time, which ultimately slowly kills you. “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess”, as Oscar Wilde puts it.

Compared to our primal ancestors, modern life stifles the fight or flight response in our bodies, smoothing out our days in the name of comfort and stability, but slowly wearing us out. There’s no suggestion here that all 7 billion humans should return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and face threats to life and limb on a near daily basis in order to provoke their antifragile nature. That would be silly. But we can adapt: welcome the volatile, accept randomness and put yourself in situations where you are more in step with your intuitive reactions. Travelling is one such way to put yourself in unusual, often inexplicable situations, but you might find that you can find the same by taking a walk around your local area! This will be the subject of a later post: “Does modern life stifle human nature?”

So we can see that antifragility and primal living are closely connected in this regard, but antifragility goes further, and provides the link between the subjects of primal living and social structure, food and energy supplies, legal frameworks, jurisprudence and many other seemingly disparate topics which should be considered together more often than they are.

How can we differentiate between was is antifragile and what is not? We have seen that antifragile things benefit from harm (to a certain extent), and we have seen that this applies to organic things (like you), but not to non-organic things (like a fridge). But we can take it further, as Taleb points out, to differentiate between the complex (antifragile) and the non-complex (fragile). A machine is non-complex, since it can be switched on and off; a natural system like the human body, or the legal system, or the energy supply, is complex. There is no on-off switch. So antifragile, complex systems extend to essentially anything you care to mention which cannot be controlled. The trouble is that attitudes are all too often to treat the economy, law, and even individual human bodies as if they were mechanical and easily controlled. I saw an advert for a Crossfit gym the other day saying “Other gyms own machines…We make them”. You are not a machine! You are so much more complex than that. If you use a machine, it will slowly deteriorate; if you use your body, it will slowly improve. A machine is fragile, but complex systems are antifragile and benefit from randomness, volatility and harm. In order to benefit from the inherently antifragile nature of complex systems, they need to be accepted for what they are, and treated accordingly.

When politicians, bankers, economists and other members of similar branches seek to control the complex, to iron out the wrinkles and to suppress volatility and randomness in order to ensure stability, all they achieve is to ensure a bigger blow out in the future. In order to succeed, the antifragile needs volatility and randomness, and to deprive these systems of such is to set yourself up for bigger problems. This will be discussed in further blog posts about dealing with volatility and randomness in big complex systems.

This I hope explains the main foundations of antifragility and how it applies to this blog! There will be many branches of discussion stemming from this, which will include:

  • Give me volatility, not stability
  • Embracing lack of control, and the zen attitude
  • Travel and volatility
  • Don’t control, let it go
  • “Well that was totally random”
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