Beyond “Sissy” Resilience: On Becoming Antifragile

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 3, 2013 · 66 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

The Resilient

The resilient, or robust, don’t care if circumstances become volatile or disruptive (up to a point). They remain steady in times of both adversity and tranquility.

Taleb likens resiliency to the mythical Phoenix. The Phoenix, if you remember, is an immortal bird that dies by fire and is reborn from its ashes to its initial state. The Phoenix doesn’t get better or worse from its cyclical death and rebirth. It just stays the same. Hence, resilient.

People can be resilient when they stay cool, calm, and collected during periods of stress. Buddhism and Stoicism promote psychological resilience, as both philosophies teach indifference to change. When you’re mentally resilient, you don’t care if you’re rich or if you lose your wealth in a single day.

Resilience, or robustness, is certainly more desirable than fragility. We should do all we can to make ourselves, our businesses, and our society more resilient in the face of volatility. But Taleb argues that to aim just for resilience is a “sissy” move because you’re essentially settling for the status quo. Sure, when things are resilient, you bounce back from adversity, but you just bounce back to the state you were in before the fall.

To be truly effective in a world swirling with complexity, randomness, and risk, you can’t stop at sissy resilience. Whenever you can, you should always find opportunities to actually grow from disorder, volatility, and adversity. The goal should be to move beyond resilience to becoming antifragile.

The Antifragile

Things that are antifragile grow and strengthen from volatility and stress (to a point). When people or systems are antifragile, there’s more upside than downside when Black Swan events occur. Antifragile systems feed on chaos and uncertainty like a primordial god.

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Antifragile things are convex. As variability increases (x-axis), gains increase.

Taleb likens antifragility to the Hydra from Greek mythology. The Hydra was a hideous multi-headed lizard monster. Whenever a hero cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two would grow back in its place — the Hydra became stronger with adversity. (That is until Hercules learned he could stop the process by cauterizing the wound immediately after chopping off the head. Even the most antifragile system will collapse when exposed to too much stress.)

So what makes something antifragile? Below are a few of this quality’s key characteristics:

Less is usually more with antifragility. To become anti-fragile, it pays to be small. With smallness comes increased agility and flexibility during volatile and chaotic times. If I were navigating a foggy sea filled with hidden icebergs, I’d rather be a passenger on a small, but maneuverable jet boat than a giant, but sluggish ocean liner.

Guerilla armies and terrorist organizations are devastating examples of how less is more when it comes to antifragility. With small amounts of manpower and money, they have the ability to cripple large states, economies, and armies. What’s even scarier, the more that large nation states try to suppress these small, loosely organized terrorist organizations (a fragilista move), the stronger these organizations become. They’re the Hydra.

Responses to variability and stress are built into the antifragile. Unlike fragile things that require an outside response to protect them from variability and stress, antifragile things have strength and protection baked right in. Our skeletal system is a great example of a built-in response to variability. Our bones actually require stress in order to grow and maintain strength, which explains why competitive bicyclists have lower bone densities than non-competitive bicyclists of the same age. Riding a bike doesn’t stress the skeleton the same way that running, lifting weights, or even walking does, thus a bicyclist’s bones can become more brittle.

Antifragile things have built-in redundancies. This point stuck out to me the most. Unlike fragile systems/organizations/people, antifragile things don’t make efficiency the primary goal. For the antifragile, thriving in randomness is the goal, which often requires being “inefficient” through layering redundancies.

As Taleb notes: “Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens — usually.”

Nature is filled with “inefficient” redundancies. Animals have two lungs, two kidneys, and two testicles, when one of each would work just fine. Since one in a pair of organs can become disabled through disease or trauma, it pays to have a spare.

Besides allowing you to weather storms, Taleb argues that redundancies also allow you to become stronger.

The perfect example of this is a survivalist versus a minimalist. Minimalism is aesthetically pleasing, but if the world went to pot, the guy with just 100 possessions would be screwed. The survivalist who has built-in redundancies — not just a fridge full of food but a stockpile of MREs, not just central heating but a wood burning stove, not just money but cigarettes for currency — will not only survive a disaster but thrive in it.

Redundancies don’t necessarily weigh you down — in the case of the survivalist, he may be very prepared to bug-in, but he’s also ready to bug-out.

Redundancies need not create the kind of lumbering largeness that can make systems so fragile either. As opposed to layers of bureaucracy, an antifragile person/organization has direct access to their capital and full control over the decision of when and where to use it.

Nature and tradition do a good job of creating antifragility. As Taleb points out several times throughout Antifragile, nature has done a fantastic job implanting antifragility into organisms and systems.

Our bodies have antifragility built into them in several ways. We already discussed our skeletal system’s built-in antifragility. Another example is how our body responds to fasting. When we go without food for long periods of time, our body releases hormones that actually make us stronger and mentally sharper. This antifragile response makes sense. Our caveman ancestors evolved in a time when food acquisition was scarce and random, so our bodies evolved to adapt to that environment.

Taleb also makes the case that human traditions have antifragility baked into them. For us scientific moderns, many traditions seem archaic and silly. But they developed for a reason and survived for so long because they served some purpose. According to Taleb, traditions are often just time-tested heuristics that make living in a random and volatile world manageable. For example, rites of passage have been employed in cultures all over the world to enable young men to have a clear sense of when they’ve become a man and should take on grownup responsibilities, instead of letting them confusedly drift into adulthood. Through these challenging and oftentimes painful coming-of-age ceremonies, a young man emerges stronger than before.

Becoming Antifragile

Taleb’s Antifragile has given me plenty of food for thought. I now look at everything through the lens of his triad. It’s a fascinating mental exercise organizing the world around you as fragile, resilient, or antifragile.

Applying this to my own personal life has been an eye-opening experience. Where am I fragile? How can I make different areas of my life antifragile? Can I do things to help my family become antifragile?

While I’ve long been a proponent of becoming psychologically resilient, I really like the idea of going a step farther — not just staying the same during adversity, but becoming mentally stronger from it. I want to learn how I can create an environment that makes such an outcome a possibility.

Most of Taleb’s book is filled with tactics and heuristics you can use to make your life and business more antifragile. Here are some of his tips, as well as a few of my own:

Intentionally inject stress in your life. Stress has gotten a bad rap; while long-term stress can have deleterious effects, short bouts of it can make you stronger and better. Your body and mind have antifragility built into them, but require stress for that antifragility to activate. A few ways to inject positive stress into your life: fast, take cold showers, do a challenging obstacle race, lift heavy weights, run instead of bike.

Add redundancies in your life. Start that emergency fund; add buffers in your schedule to take into account the inevitable volatility that comes each day; make that bug-out bag. The gains from redundancies increase as volatility increases.

Employ the “barbell strategy.” Taleb describes the “barbell strategy” as “a dual attitude of playing it safe in some areas and taking a lot of small risks in others, hence achieving antifragility.” Playing it safe reduces the potential downside of volatility and taking small risks exposes you to the potentially massive gains from the same chaos. For the Average Joe it could mean keeping your boring day job (the safe end of the barbell), while working on your side hustle at night (the risky end of the barbell). If the side hustle doesn’t work out, you still have your boring job, but if it does work out, you could live the dream of working for yourself and becoming wealthy.

Never take advice from someone who doesn’t have “skin in the game.” We live in a world in which people’s actions, opinions, and advice are divorced from consequences. We no longer force people to have “skin in the game.” This fragilizes society. Financial advisors on TV can give terrible advice and pundits can spout off wrong opinions but suffer no consequence for their erroneous predictions, even if those predictions harm others.

When determining whether or not to take advice from someone, look to see if they have skin in the game. If the person dispensing the advice or making the prediction has nothing to lose from being wrong, don’t listen to them. Pay more attention to people who have accepted risk and responsibility for their words.

Practice via negativa. According to Taleb, “the first step towards antifragility consists in first decreasing downside.” We do that through practicing via negativa – a phrase borrowed from theology. Instead of focusing your time on adding things to your life to make it better, focus first on subtracting habits, practices, things, people that fragilize you. A few examples: get rid of debt, quit smoking, stop hanging around toxic friends, eliminate unhealthy foods.

Keep your options open. Increase optionality in your life. When volatility and chaos increase, it’s the man with the most options who is the most antifragile. How do you increase optionality? Having money in the bank certainly increases your options; it gives you breathing room during economic downturns, but also provides flexibility to take advantage of positive unforeseen opportunities or to pursue goals. Increasing your skills gives you optionality as well. If one career goes bust, you have the skills to jumpstart a new one.

Many of these methods deserve more unpacking, and we’ll be revisiting how to become more antifragile in greater detail in the coming year. Until then, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Antifragile. It’s a great book that’s both enlightening and enjoyable to read.

Here’s to becoming antifragile in 2014.

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Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

{ 66 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mitch A December 3, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Quite interesting! I find that the manliest of people I know tend to have this quality in common.

2 James Harris December 3, 2013 at 9:37 pm

As I was reading this a thought kept coming to me; The author said that ‘there is no word for the opposite of fragile,’ and then named the concept antifragile.
After reading carefully, I have to disagree that we don’t have a word for the concept. I don’t mean to bring religion into the discussion as a means of converting or even preaching to anyone.
The word however is Faithful. The reason faith might be considered a poor selection for this concept, I understand, is that there are so few who really understand what the word means.
To explain a little. True faith isn’t simply hoping for something without action. It isn’t trust in some unknown thing. Faith in the Christian context is a principle of power just as the discussion about antifragile is a discussion of the principles of overcoming volatility. It is the decision to act in a positive or improving manner regardless of the situation.
The author of the concept even compares antifragile systems to a “primordial god”. This suggests that being antifragile is god-like. Whether you believe that Jesus Christ was actually your creator or not, the principles of true faith completely describe what is “antifragile.” Faith is an attribute that Christians believe Jesus Christ achieved perfectly. Even more since Jesus is considered to be God by so many the comparison is legitimate. The word in the English language for the opposite of fragile is therefore Faith.
But I will accept that it might be wise to create a new word around the concept to encourage those who would be turned off by a usually religious word to experiment with the concept and improve themselves.

3 Johney666 December 3, 2013 at 10:10 pm

endless stress, true grit, battle hardening ….this is basically how a jihadi thinks

buddhism toughens you up in diff way, and is more gentlemanly

instead of being anti-fragile and constantly agitated, i think being flexible and happy is a better strategy that can lead to all round fulfillment in life

diff strokes for diff folks

4 Joseph E December 3, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Amazing post !

5 broseph December 3, 2013 at 10:21 pm

powerful article

6 A. McClellan December 3, 2013 at 10:46 pm

A very interesting concept. I suppose as an IT Consultant, I epitomize that fragile nature, and have tried to push for resilience while enduring the weakness of over-reliance on the tech I work with. There is much I can meditate on from this article alone. Thank you.

7 Brendan Fenno December 3, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Brett,
Thank you for emphasizing the financial angle to this concept. Taleb is a powerful proponent for behavioral finance…
“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”
Best to you and yours.
BF

8 Martin December 3, 2013 at 11:15 pm

interesting article. correct me if I am wrong however, but I can remember you publishing an article on how to become a better person by actually limiting your options. how is it different in this case?

9 Nick Talent December 3, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Not convinced by some of the examples given. For example, Taleb says that we should ‘think small’, yet serves up as examples of resilience the Hydra (bigger than Hercules and with plenty of redundant heads) and the shelf-stocking survivalist.

From premiss to solution he seems confused.

10 Arturo December 3, 2013 at 11:48 pm

I have an issue with differentiating between having thick-skin and defending what you love.
If someone attacks or insults something you hold dear, or someone you hold dear, shouldn’t we strive to be a strong man who stands up and fights?

11 Brett McKay December 4, 2013 at 12:00 am

@Martin

We have indeed talked about limiting your options/choices before in the context of curing your restlessness. In that context we were talking about the inability to commit to anything, because you wanted to keep all of your options open. So you date and date but don’t ever get married, or drift from one temporary job to another, because you can’t decide what you want to be when you grow up.

Here, we’re saying make commitments but also have a back-up plan and some flexibility. So not “maybe I’ll be an astronaut, or an artist, or a FBI agent…” but you have a job working for a newspaper, but you’re also working on selling your writing as a freelancer in case your newspaper folds. You’re not confused about what you want to do in life, you simply have a couple of options as to how to fulfill that goal.

And with something like savings and not being in debt, maybe you can quit your corporate job that you hate sooner to go into business for yourself, whereas if you’re saddled with debt you can’t risk it.

So to sum up, keeping your options open can be a negative thing when you don’t know what your goals are, and thus don’t take any concrete action to accomplish them — you stay in limbo. But keeping your options open can be good when you know what your goals are, and you create different ways to accomplish them, giving yourself greater flexibility in doing so, and a back-up plan if one of those ways fail.

12 Charles B. December 4, 2013 at 2:07 am

I honestly think my favorite analogy has been and always will be Bruce Lee’s analogy of water. Formless, shapeless adaptation, with multitudes of possibilities of action or motion.
Now, I would slightly dispute this article. Just because a man seeks tranquility in some area of his life, does not necessarily mean that he is unprepared to deal with stress, and even benefit from it. I honestly think that the best position lies in the, uh, (pardon the turn of phrase) “Golden Mean” . . . maybe even an almost paradoxical balance between tranquility and chaos. Silence, solitude, and meditation are just as good of a practice as being able to handle the chaos that comes into one’s life, and to come out stronger as a result of it. I believe that one need not seek chaos all the time to understand how to come out of it stronger or better off.

13 Aaron D Kyte December 4, 2013 at 3:21 am

@ James Harris

when I say this I am in no way undermining anyone’s faith or religion, but I would have to disagree with faith being the opposite of fragile. From this article I took that becoming antifragile means as mentioned in the article, implementing redundancies into your life and preparing yourself, to as fluidly as possible transition and thrive in rough situations. By physically taking action to save money for unseen circumstances, educate yourself for better/different career prospects should some fail or not work out etc you are building your antifragility to life in order to best succeed. Personally in my opinion I dont see how having faith in a situation or a higher power trumps taking direct action to prevent or weather the storm of life?

14 KY December 4, 2013 at 3:57 am

The author states that adding more redundancies or buffers would increase the tendency to be anti-fragile. But, in another perspective it can be seen as the attribute of a fragile person who tries to eliminate or minimize randomness from the equation by adding those buffers in the first place. So in that sense, planning anything for the future can be seen as the trait of the fragile, who is averse to taking the randomness head-on. Randomness by definition can be thought as something that happens which hasn’t gone according to the plan. Hence, if a person has to thrive in adversity, he has to be spontaneous and be successful at that. This might also be seen as agile and fast which the author states.
The person who is truly anti-fragile, is someone who is capable of doing something extraordinary in the most adverse situation, and the fact that he is unaware that he has that kind of resource within him all along. And, an action is usually considered extraordinary when something ordinary is done in a adverse situation, that the general population would not considering doing. Its just the circumstances that make it look extraordinary.
Another aspect is that randomness can be considered as spikes in a sin/cos wave which has regular crests and trough. This also nearly depicts one’s life events with highs and lows. If one is to be inefficient in general and look forward to only the spikes, then it would be a waste of time and resources. He would lose more than he gained on that spike, since these spikes are truly random and are occasional only. If they are more regular it would change the nature of the wave itself, and it would be considered a new wave !
Ideally, one should be able to plan ahead/have buffers (fragility) to take advantage of these crests, at the same time not worry if something goes wrong (trough – Resilient/Buddha state) and be spontaneous enough to respond to those spikes (Anti-fragiltiy). A bit of all three only would do the trick !

15 Sacha December 4, 2013 at 4:51 am

I’m reading Nietzsche’s Beyond good and evil, and I understood that before trying to understand a concept (which is just a simplification of reality, for Nietzsche : a wish of the author backed up with logic), you should know what is the conclusion, where the author is going.

And it appears to me that the triangle fragile/resilient/antifragile is a lame concept of reality, to just emphasize the idea that “you should learn from experience (and eventually look for experiences)”

Now I haven’t read the book so I stay careful in that statement

16 Cowboyup December 4, 2013 at 4:53 am

There is a term…it’s called mettle. A man’s mettle is his inner strength to face and conquer any obstacles in his path. I think that a sound foundation of morals and ethics helps temper oneself into a stronger more capable person that can rise to any challenge presented.

17 Kitchen'r Jon December 4, 2013 at 5:44 am

Cool stuff, I’m going to check out that book. The whole resiliency vs. antifragility thing is interesting because I’ve been involved with the Transition movement this past year. Transition talks a lot about resiliency in the face of climate change and future challenges we will face as the world changes. The language though has evolved in the last few years to stress not just making it through environmental and social catastrophes but looking at how we can emerge stronger than before. The discussion is about how we will not just survive, but thrive.

The idea of being antifragile as an individual, or as an organization appeals to me, but I think there also needs to be some discussion of our communities becoming antifragile. I’d prefer not to be a survivalist in a failed society, but rather a contributing member to a thriving, surviving one. Building bonds with neighbors and our community is essential to our ability to be antifragile together as we all hope to not just weather future storms, but come out from them with an even better world to live in.

I have no doubts the world will change greatly in the years to come, but I like to believe that it will change for the better and that my family, friends, and I will have been a positive part of that change. A bit idealistic, but the alternative—me holed up with my family and a pile of canned foods—is not one I’m ready to accept. What good is planning for something like that if my neighbors and community aren’t ready for it? Won’t they just be angry at me (or worse)? I believe we can only be antifragile together. Even the awesome manly papa in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” dies in the end, leaving his son to “carry the flame” with strangers.

Thanks for sharing and inspiring both thought and action!

-Jon

18 Mike December 4, 2013 at 6:05 am

Well written article, interesting stuff. I’m a contract programmer and have been working on introducing these redundancies, and have had to fall back on them, so I’m thankful. Kudos for the thought out reply as well.

Cheerio

19 MacGregor December 4, 2013 at 6:40 am

Great stuff Brett. I have printed your graphic and will be going over this with my son that is now turning 12. I often think I have been preparing my kids to excel in life as we live in Kenya as missionaries and the hardships and realities of the world are ever present. The more I follow your work the more I realize I am not getting the spirit of adventure, risk and taking hold of your own life to the fullest across adequately to them. I am thankful for your efforts here.

20 John Plodinec December 4, 2013 at 8:09 am

For scientists and engineers, it should be obvious [with a little thought] the ideal state is not the most efficient, but a combination of efficiency and redundancy. What we really want to do is to minimize free energy – that means minimizing difference between the work in the system (efficiency) and the entropy (redundancy) of the system times the average energy.

21 Paul December 4, 2013 at 8:09 am

I highly recommend Taleb’s “Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness” for any readers who want to better understand and navigate the world we live in. Along with “Antifragile”, Taleb’s works have greatly shaped and impacted my view of the world around us.

22 Neil December 4, 2013 at 8:32 am

Very Interesting Article, you’ve posted here. Definitely goes beyond the “putting on the Big Boy Pants” schtick, that people use sometimes. The book sounds like it would be a good read; i’ll have to check it out a.s.a.p. To add here: I would think it immensely helpful, if at some future point, you could come up with a series of these graphics – Man-sized, posters – for general release. Think of how great these posters – like the graphic above – would look framed on the wall! All generations could (and would!) benefit from such timeless wisdom. In my humble opinion.

23 William December 4, 2013 at 8:34 am

Great post Brett. Not sure if you’re familiar with the EconTalk Podcast, but Russ Roberts has interviewed Nassim several times. I think all of them are worth listening to. You can find them all here: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/_featuring/nassim_taleb/

24 PT December 4, 2013 at 8:36 am

Great article Brett. After reading, I find myself usually in the resilience stage most of the time when I encounter stressful situations in my life. I definitely appreciate this article, as it offered great advice to “beat” that habit. I can’t wait to check out his book!

25 JoeyD December 4, 2013 at 8:42 am

By FAR the best perspective of the year! One I can bite into, shake, and still use later!

26 Jason December 4, 2013 at 8:48 am

I subscribe to the Motley Fool for my stock advice. One of the best pieces of advice they gave me is one of the common traits of financially successful people. Every one of them had multiple sources of income. They didn’t rely on their salary. They had a second job (or company in some cases) They had stocks. They had real estate. I want to emulate that financial redundancy by opening a freelance web design business to work while I’m doing my day job. Good things come to those who HUSTLE.

27 John December 4, 2013 at 9:05 am

I am continually amazed at how long it takes the secular world to discover truths long held by the Church. Suffering, ie, the Cross, when embraced produces saints. The Church always grows stronger when persecuted. We are not made for comfort, but for greatness!

28 Davis December 4, 2013 at 9:14 am

Overall this is a great article but there is one exception.

“Nature is filled with “inefficient” redundancies. Animals have two lungs, two kidneys, and two testicles, when one of each would work just fine. Since one in a pair of organs can become disabled through disease or trauma, it pays to have a spare.”

Having two organs is a result of bilateralisim, not of redundancy. You only have one liver, spleen, heart, and brain. Of all of the systems that should be redundant in a natural system, the heart and the brain should be the ones. This is the result of natural selection, not redundancy.

29 bobster December 4, 2013 at 10:54 am

I appreciate the difficulty of finding the right word. However, using a negation (‘anti-fragile’) doesn’t do the job; a negation like that is merely resilient!

I prefer ‘Growing’.

apply it thus:
when facing adversity ask yourself: ‘is it shit or manure’?
the Growing Guy uses the fertilizer.

30 Adam December 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Brett,
Thank you for another great article.

However, I must disagree with Taleb’s conclusion. While he praises the “antifragile” for their ability to thrive in times of stress, I would argue that in reality the resilient is ultimately the more desirable role. The ultimate embodiment of the “antifragile” which “feed on chaos and uncertainty” can’t exist in a society with any sort of integrity.

In our world, the true antifragile’s are outlaws, people like Al Capone who made his fortune selling boot-leg liquor during prohibition. The antifragile is always the bad guy, the Joker to Batman. Even Talbert’s illustrations show this fact. The Hydra was a Greek monster while the Phoenix is typically cast as a hero.

31 An AOM Fan December 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm

What an amazing article. I am going to bookmark this and refer to it often.

32 Omar Carreto December 4, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I look foward to grab a copy of this book Brett just wanted to comment that this also relates to the “Comfort Zone” when our habbitat is too comfortable change is the opposite therefore we do not want change. We Don’t Plan to Fail, We Just Fail to Plan. I got a lot in my mind now will write a better comment on your next “antifragile” article.

INVICTUS
Omar Carreto

Best Regards
Omar Carreto

33 Pyra December 4, 2013 at 3:03 pm

How about Captain America’s shield? Every time it gets hit it gets tougher.

34 Peter December 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Here is a news article that is a perfect example of being anti-fragile. One of the store owners is a recent alumnus of my alma-mater.

http://tpr.org/post/thieves-steal-money-not-giving-spirit-local-bakery

35 Jay December 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm

What a fabulous article. I read it several times this morning and it can easily describe where middle aged men may find themselves; kids in college, family dependent on income, mediocre job in a still somewhat difficult economy… Time to start growing a few heads (and perhaps some other body parts).. :-). It would be nice if the graphic was a PDF.

36 Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken December 4, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I have usually found a lot of interesting articles on this website and hold it in high esteem.
Nevertheless, I must say that this very article has confused me. I can’t see what’ “sissy” about being resilient, and then, I can’t see what should be more manly in being that kind of person that would profit from misfortune. I guess that Mr. Taleb’s concept should be thought over.

Nevertheless, I’d like to thank the author for this article and send my best regards across the Atlantic.

37 Nathan December 4, 2013 at 7:31 pm

@ KY

You’re close to what Taleb is talking about, with your understanding of life’s ups and downs. However, this is where Taleb’s concept of convexity and concavity comes in–second-order effects of the ups and downs. The fragile, concave system has a limited upside but the potential for huge downside risks. The anti-fragil has a limited downside, but the potential for a huge upside. So, when life’s ups and downs happen, which aren’t a sine wave, because they are random, chaotic, unpredictable, the fragile entity takes a huge hit during the downturn. The anti-fragile weathers the downturn and is able to take advantage of the upturn. He gives examples in his book. The best example of the first were all the creative investment vehicles created before the housing crash. AAA rated, as long as there wasn’t a dip in the housing market… once that dip happened, everything unwound.

An anti-fragile system not only can weather a storm, but take advantage of it. It’s really hard to think of examples because we aren’t used to thinking about things in these terms. An important thing to understand about this idea is that it’s not unlimited. Of course, some storms are just too destructive, some downturns too harsh. But the ant-fragile feeds on stress. Think of things that benefit from being exercised, and waste away when unused: muscles, paramedics and firefighters, your high school math skills.

38 Kate December 4, 2013 at 7:33 pm

I need to minimize the things that “fragilize” me. But I’m already beginning. I’m not eating unhealthy foods anymore.

39 Aaron Rea December 4, 2013 at 8:07 pm

I couldn’t help but think of the Joker while reading this.

40 Jaken December 4, 2013 at 9:27 pm

The idea is very interesting. I have a counterpoint though. It’s pretty common to actually go through very slow and non-volatile motions. Why no examples of things that grow–and not slowly–in non-volatile or balanced environments?

It may not always be advantageous, but neither is antifragility. You could be the bone-head of the village who eats all the food in winter, can’t find anything to hunt because there is nothing at the time, and ends up starving and annoying everyone because you’re bored.

I see plenty of awesome applications for antifragility (a stimulated economy!), but I think it’s blindsighting other situations. Otherwise, great article! Thanks!

41 Robert Burton December 4, 2013 at 10:49 pm

I highly enjoyed this article. It reminds me of the principle behind the verse Romans8;28. “(and we know that) All things work together for good to them that love God…”
I read this to mean if we train our mind’s eye to see how this is true, it becomes true. Learn the lesson in the life experience and turn trial into triumph. Live life so that every second and action is a character building moment and one that builds purpose for yourself and others around you.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3JzcCviNDk

42 Andrew December 5, 2013 at 4:50 am

Thank you for writing this. Taleb’s books are profound and I’m glad to see his ideas getting serious attention on this site. I’ve gone back to all his books to reread and mine them for practical information this year.

43 Ernest Wamboye December 5, 2013 at 8:44 am

My life will never be the same after this!

44 KaD December 5, 2013 at 9:56 pm

So most of the suggestions on becoming ‘antifragile’ involve having MONEY. This seems to be the number one hang up of every ‘survivalist’ plan. And if you don’t?

45 Ji December 5, 2013 at 11:17 pm

The first word that popped into my mind was Adamantine.

46 N. Saftig December 6, 2013 at 2:37 am

If you want to know what the opposite of fragile is, look at Nelson Mandela’s life. 27 years in the worst prison in South Africa snd he emerges not only unbroken but stronger *and* gentler than ever. He not only inspired his people and those sympathetic to their cause, he also managed to build a rapport with his guards and gain their respect.

Mandela was a giant among men. Put in the most dire of situations and faced with daily casual cruelty, he not only excelled and grew stronger, he also kept his compassion and his faith in the good in the human condition.

47 NatetheRonin December 6, 2013 at 2:59 am

I just read an essay written by Bruce Lee entitled “Yin Yang” (after the Daoist symbol) where he mentions a state similar to being anti-fragile, but with a touch of eastern philosophy. In this essay, he mentions how the philosophies of Daoism, Zen, and the Book of Changes (I’Ching) are important to a martial artist in that they promote “the ideal of giving with adversity, to bend slightly and spring back stronger than before, and to adapt oneself harmoniously to the opponent’s movements without striving or resisting.”
Great article. I’ve been focusing on increasing my own resilience but anti-fragility seems like the better choice. As they say in China 慢慢來 meaning, it will come slowly but surely.

48 Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken December 6, 2013 at 10:53 am

By the way I’ve found a review that points out some mistakes in Mr. Taleb’s conception.

http://www.rationalargumentator.com/index/blog/2013/01/antifragile-enlightenment-transhumanist-critique/

49 mattoomba December 6, 2013 at 3:24 pm

I agree with nearly everything in this article, except for the use of “antifragile”. I think that’s semantic creativity to sell books. Not that I think his suggested course of action is wrong; I think he could have stuck with the existing word of “resilient” for “antifragile”. And despite his view that Stoics are beneath the level of resilience he is selling, his recommendations are direct parallels to Stoic practices. That doesn’t mean this isn’t good info; I just don’t like the spin. Brett, your own articles on resilience are as good (if not better since it doesn’t baste in “spin”). Still, good food for thought!

50 Peter M December 7, 2013 at 10:09 am

@ James Harris

I disagree that the word faith can be used as the opposite of anti fragile. I believe the Christian faith offers a more appropriate term in “endurance”. This is a word born out of trials (aka stresses). it carries the idea of withstanding adverse circumstances. Authors of the New Testament had a very high regard for this attribute (Romans 5:3; James 1:2-4; Peter 4:12). They never tried to gloss over the fact that bad sh** (“Fiery trials) was going to hit, but rather encouraged their readers to mentally prepare for them ahead of time (wake up, be alert). one of the reasons being that they would better and stronger on the other side. (as Teleb would say, anti fragile)

51 Dominik Tujmer December 7, 2013 at 10:38 am

The article is great, and so are some of the comments. Thank you for this, I have a feeling that becoming antifragile is going to become a chief concept in becoming overhuman.
But I have to admit I am skeptical. I’ll certainly read the two books you mentioned, experiment and try… But I don’t know, man.
Waking up at 7 AM and coming home at 10 PM, running around all day, catching deadlines, trying to finish projects, collect documentation, fight with bureaucracy… That’s the description of my life sometimes (and, luckily, rarely). With meditation, I’ve managed to get to a point where it doesn’t kill my psychologically. So I’m kinda resilient, it doesn’t touch me so much anymore, I can plow through it, eventhough I’d rather be training and reading and writing.
But to feel stronger because of it, to advance… That’s like being super saiyan at life.
I’ll certainly try.
Dominik from Becoming Overhuman

52 Ash December 7, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Have read ANTIFRAGILE twice and found this is the most useful review of the book I have read. Thank you!

53 Dan Zehner December 7, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Thank you for this very timely article! I’m in the midst of a period of volatility and have been in a bit of a funk as a result (new baby, going to move soon, changing jobs, etc). I hope I can keep these principles in mind and try to be “antifragile” (or if you’re an engineer like me, “work hardened”!). Thanks for a very timely and well written article!

54 DirkT December 8, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Why anyone would take issue with Taleb’s work without first actually reading it is beyond me yet that is what many of the posters in this thread have done.

55 Nick Z. December 9, 2013 at 9:55 am

I have been following you since you started in 2008. I think this is the finest article you have written to date. I do not usually comment, but I felt compelled to do so after reading such a useful post.

56 lew December 10, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Fortitude:
synonyms: courage, bravery, endurance, resilience, mettle, moral fiber, strength of mind, strength of character, strong-mindedness, backbone, spirit, grit, true grit, doughtiness, steadfastness;

57 Aeolus December 11, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Since Nietzsche’s name has been already dropped I’d like to add a quote from his “The Gay Science” that might resonate with the volatility aspect on becoming antifragile:
Evil. – Test the life of the best and most productive men and nations and ask yourselves whether a tree which is to grow proudly heavenward can dispense with bad weather and tempests: whether disfavour and opposition from without, whether every kind of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, distrust, severity, greed and violence do not belong to the favouring circumstances without which a great growth even in virtue is hardly possible? The poison by which the weaker nature is destroyed is strenghtening to the strong individual – and he does not call is poison.

58 Gil December 14, 2013 at 12:16 am

Neat article!

59 Dienekes December 15, 2013 at 12:44 am

Not sure that there is anything particularly new in Taleb’s writings. When I was a new husband and father, building a house and working for a certifiably crazy boss, my stress meter was beyond maxed out. I found that reading Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and committing much of it to memory would get me through each day.

I am also a big fan of Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics” in tough times, too.

I try to take my religion seriously as well, but not many people walk the walk.

60 Julie December 15, 2013 at 12:16 pm

I haven’t read the book, but I tend to disagree with the idea that large organizations are necessarily weaker than small ones. After all, the roman empire might have been defeated by decentralized hordes of barbarians, but let’s not forget that beforehand, it had crushed the decentralized and disorganized gauls and celts.
Imo, the person who has the right approach on this is Tolstoy, who in War and Peace tells that in a battle, whether the guy in the front line is brave and motivated or not is more important than the grand schemes of the generals. The idea is that it’s the competence and the will of each individual in the organization, no matter how large, that makes the difference.

This said, this article was interesting to me because me and my team are going to be facing two years having to lead drastic changes in many of the ways our (larger) organization works today (basically, we’re changing all of the IT stuff on a tight team and schedule).
To prepare us, I’ve implemented stuff in our organization that is reminiscent of the antifragile ethos :
- There will be two team members following each individual project, so if someone break a leg, we can keep working.
- I’m decentralizing stuff, because if I try to follow everything, push myself too hard and fail, we’ll all be in troubles
(all in all, we try to avoid having spofs)
- We’re supposed to stick together and be careful that everybody in the team’s following pace and is ok. We’ll do stuff to keep our moral high – together we’re strong, but if one fails due to stress, it fragilizes the rest of us.
- We set our priorities straight. We might want to do A and B, but if it’s not possible, we have to know that A is the most important
- Even if not the most urgent, we’ll keep projects in our schedules that make us happy and motivated, because long and tough projects are depressing and you need some quick wins along the way to stay motivated
… And stuff. As Nietzsche would say, if this time doesn’t kill us, it will definitely make us stronger :)

61 George F Matheis Jr December 15, 2013 at 4:34 pm

It is all about the “man in the arena”. People pick apart the work of Taleb or the author of the article, but I don’t see them sharing any of their own work. Would that not be the same as taking advice from someone who does not have any “skin in the game”? Someone already mentioned Bruce Lee, the basis of Jeet Kun Do is to take what is useful. I find the information in the article useful enough to spend time considering how to use it to help myself instead of arguing over words that could have been used instead of antifragile.

62 RP December 17, 2013 at 1:18 am

Good article, however a little long-winded. Huge fan of the site, and plan to pick this book up. Keep up the good work!

63 Kevin December 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm

I think the whole premise suffers from a fatal flaw. The author seems to imagine that the individual as on an island so to speak. The article turns man in on himself as his own source of rescue. He would do well to consider the meditation of John Donne that no man is an island. The idea that reliance on outside assistance is a weakness, not a strength is arrogant and a fiction which life will wrestle from the hearts of even the strongest or they will perish in it. To struggle against our nature is not a wise use of our energy, rather to accept our short comings and seek out help in the time of trial is the mark not just of wisdom, but of humility as well.
That the nebulous concept of “faith” even if placed in the context of Christianity (which is hardly a restraint adequate to confine it to one accepted meaning) is an antithesis to fragility is ridiculous as well. The Christian faith is belief that there is one outside of us all who is “an ever present help in the time of trial” Psalm 46. Help is indeed a better answer than strength. Though you may be as strong as Hercules or Sampson the day is coming when your strength will fail. Who will help you when it does? Just by reading this article of the book it speaks of you are recognizing your need for help from outside yourself. In this way you have already done better than it’s author.

64 Andy December 26, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Bravo, Kevin!
The book is not quite as one-sided towards self-reliance of individuals as the article, but, having read the book more than once, I noticed the tendency to miss the existence of others who can and would be willing to help – even if for mutual gain.

65 David December 30, 2013 at 3:50 pm

Love the site but don’t care much for this philosophy. Although in its defense it did make me pause and think (and provoked me to respond).

I agree with Adam that the proposed philosophy seems to be the antithesis of the manliness promoted on this site (chaos being the domain of criminals and such).

Also, as highlighted by several other commentators, there seem to be some inconsistencies. For example, “If I were navigating a foggy sea filled with hidden icebergs, I’d rather be a passenger on a small but maneuverable jet boat than a giant, sluggish ocean liner.” The author has here chosen a boat that is the very definition of fragile, as if anything goes wrong and the boat hits ice, it will sink. I would personally select a rather large navy icebreaker, which is designed through modern science and engineering to do just what the name says.

66 Warren February 14, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Hardly anyone predicted world war two? As soon as Hitler came to power people like Winston Churchill predicted Europe would be at war soon thereafter. Hitler even spelled out in Mein Kampf his plans for Europe. A firm grasp of history is an essential part to being a man in my opinion.

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