United States: Reflections On Nassim Taleb's "Antifragile"

Last Updated: April 8 2013
Article by Dan Cooper

This entry summarizes and discusses Book I of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, Antifragile.  Taleb defines the term antifragile based on his search for the opposite of fragile.  Most people understand that if a package is stamped with the word fragile, then it must be handled carefully or it will break.  In other words, dropping the package or otherwise exposing it to some force will damage or destroy its contents.  Taleb contends that most people think of the opposite of fragile as "robust" or some other word that suggests that the contents of our mythical package would be able to survive being dropped without damage.

However, Taleb's search for an opposite to fragile must go beyond a neutral ability to withstand a certain level of impact without sustaining damage.  Rather, antifragile means that the contents of our package will actually benefit from being dropped or mishandled.  Something along the lines of the cliché: adversity builds character.

Taleb points out that personal or organizational exposure to stress can lead to "post-traumatic growth," as the individual or organization overcompensates for overcoming the challenge which was the source of the stress by learning new skills or adding to its strength.  He uses an example from the natural world in the form of human bone strength.  Human bones gain strength after being subjected to gradually increased levels of stress.  A single impact of sufficient magnitude will break the bone.  But gradual and sustained exposure to pressure will strengthen the bone and allow it to sustain greater levels of pressure.

Another example from the natural world is exposure to poison.  A single exposure to a high level of poison can be lethal.  Gradual and sustained exposure to smaller doses of poison can build up a body's immune system to the poison.

Taleb points out that protecting an individual or organization from stress can stifle innovation and the strength that comes with surviving periodic challenges.  He believes that the excess energy that comes with overreaction to a source of stress is what produces innovation and growth.  Taleb views the comfort that accompanies sustained success as leading to a weakening of the will that is unhealthy in the long term.  He would choose sustained exposure to stress and adversity over temporary short-term comfort as optimal for sustaining growth and innovation, while granting that lethal or continuous levels of stress or trauma are unhealthy.

Many businesses have adapted to the adverse economic conditions that have followed the 2008 downturn and are thriving based on new innovation and skills developed over the past several years.  The key to continued growth for these organizations should be sustained focus on overcoming the pressures and periodic stress events that foster strong innovation producing skills.  The more antifragile a system or organization can be, the less likely that the system or organization will be susceptible to a Black Swan event, as defined in Taleb's prior work.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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