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In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote on the highly improbable and unpredictable events that underlie almost everything about our world. In Antifragile, he writes a series of essays which convey his belief that uncertainty is desirable, even necessary.
Taleb uses the term ‘fragility’ for entities or systems that are capable of responding effectively to reasonably foreseen events. The ‘fragile’ system is one in which control of the environment is necessary in order to maintain its normal condition. A slight shift in the environment can result in devastating consequences. In contrast, the ‘robust’ entity maintains its normal condition in response to changes in the environment.
An ‘antifragile’ entity however is more than robust, it always maintains or improves its current condition as the environment changes, without any requirement or expectation of normality.
Antifragility applies to those that do not simply survive set-backs, but derive increased strength from challenge. Taleb’s point is that when uncertainty increases, culminating in extreme events, fragile things die or fail, while antifragile ones survive and thrive. He argues that by optimising systems to survive under normal conditions, we’re setting ourselves up for catastrophic failures like the Fukushima nuclear reactor. When talking to our business partners about objectives and strategies, I can see how some of the simpler elements of Taleb’s theory could add depth to those conversations by provoking some debate. The individual or organisation that is antifragile is poised to benefit or take advantage of stress, errors and change, the way mythological Hydra generated two new heads, each time one was cut off.
On the one hand, Nietzsche’s view, ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ can be realised in antifragile systems. Taleb generalises the lesson that highly improbable events, when they happen, end up producing a step change. And, one might say reasonably, he suggests that it is better to run slightly behind the pack most of the time whilst devoting a small but significant portion of your resources to outliers, because when one of them hits, the rewards will more than make up for the lower return that you had been receiving to date.
On the other hand, Taleb is not for everyone. The book has been described as maddening, judgmental, intemperate, erudite, reductive, shrewd, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, provocative, pompous, penetrating, perspicacious and pretentious. Having read it, I think Taleb would appreciate each reference in turn. But I would not suggest it would appeal to everyone’s taste. Taleb seeks to challenge any and every preconception one might hold as he makes the point that, despite human beings’ taste for rational patterns of cause and effect, and their eagerness to impose narratives on the world, it’s impossible to calculate the risks of Black Swan events or predict their occurrence.
In Taleb’s view, “We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything” by “suppressing randomness and volatility”, much the way that “systematically preventing forest fires from taking place ‘to be safe’ makes the big one much worse”. Overtreatment of illness or physical problems, he suggests, can lead to medical error, much the way that American support of dictatorial regimes “for the sake of stability”abroad can lead to “chaos after a revolution”. He is fearless in addressing issues in the realms of politics, economics, social policy, philosophy and medicine, to re-state his single theme: expect the unpredictable.
Book review by Clodagh O’Reilly