We live in a culture that values order and predictability. As a result, most of our artifacts and institutions are fragile—easily damaged by random forces. What if an object were antifragile, and actually thrived on chaos?
This is the fascinating premise of the latest book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, best-selling author of The Black Swan, a phenomenally successful book that pointed out the futility of trying to predict major disruptive events (e.g., recessions, revolutions, disasters) with cascading consequences that could change the course of our lives. In this sequel, he argues that we should accept uncertainty as not only inevitable, but even beneficial. After all, biological organisms can adapt and regenerate in response to random shocks or fluctuations. Stress is an essential aspect of life, and it makes you stronger.
Taleb, a former businessman turned philosopher, proposes a fundamental triad, a sort of spectrum along which everything can be positioned: Fragile—Robust—Antifragile. The systems that we design to be robust are actually vulnerable to unexpected events or forces. Antifragility goes beyond robustness, in that it benefits from disorder.
Unfortunately, the book conflates resilience and robustness, treating them as synonymous. In practice, the meaning of “resilience” is actually very close to the notion of antifragility. Rather than resisting change, resilient systems are able to survive, adapt, and flourish in a volatile environment. (See Solutions article by Fiksel, Goodman and Hecht).
Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in resilience. Taleb’s unique writing style is entertaining, iconoclastic, often profound, and at times infuriating. With sarcastic wit, he takes aim at the “fragilista”—those who cling to the illusion of order and predictability, including government bureaucrats, bankers, physicians, and even fitness trainers. He calls risk a “sissy” concept, and is openly scornful of academics who pursue reductionism and elimination of uncertainty. Instead, he advocates “decision making under opacity.”
The book is actually divided into a series of “books”, beginning with a prologue that succinctly lays out the overall premise. The subsequent sections expand on how antifragility theory can be applied to virtually every aspect of life from technology to politics, often invoking colorful characters such as Socrates and the streetwise “Fat Tony.” You won’t agree with everything, but you are sure to find this ambitious work both unique and thought-provoking.