Let me give it to you straight:
Antifragility is the ability to thrive and prosper in chaos and adversity.
The concept comes from Nassim Nicolas Taleb, author of Black Swans, Antifragile and Fooled by Randomness.
In essence, it means that the ability to weather uncertainty, stress and opposition just isn’t enough. You need to learn to turn chaos and adversity into opportunity.
As someone who always has… “lived in interesting times”, the concept appeals to me at a visceral level. A serial entrepreneur and someone infinitely curious, I often gambled with large swaths of my life, many a time to my loss. Over time I learned to reduce the risks in my experiments. I found out that I now can do a lot more of them, and now and then one pays off, sometimes in unexpected ways. I have now far more options in my life than ever before.
This blog post is meant to be a quick introduction to the general concept of Antifragility and a couple of tricks to get you started. We are starting a journey here. Take your first step.
Fragile, Robust and Antifragile in a nutshell
It’s simple really.
Still, let’s go in a bit more details:
Fragile systems are optimized for efficiency and performance. In a stable and constant environment, they are usually the ones who will deliver the most value in the shortest time. However, they will fail quickly under stress, especially stress that is of a different nature what it is originally built to deal with. Race cars are a good example of a fragile system: unparalleled performances, but take them out of the controlled environment of the racetrack, and it will fall apart in minutes. Even of the racetrack, few cars can finish a single race without a pit stop.
Resilient systems are designed to withstand stress and punishment. A good resilient system will not get weaker or stronger from adversity; it will simply ignore it. Farm equipment is a good example of resiliency: it is build to work in all kinds of conditions and sturdy enough, so it won’t break miles away from the closest repair shop.
Antifragile systems are designed to improve with stress. They are not as tough as resilient systems or can’t reach peak efficiency like fragile systems, but they will grow and adapt where the two other strategies simply can’t. The human body is a good example of an antifragile system: our body builds muscles and reflexes through the stress of training, our mind gets better at making connections the more we learn.
“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates and a monthly salary.”
– Nassim Nicolas Taleb
Here are a few tricks to get you started.
Never put all your eggs in the same basket
A specialty is always in danger of being inappropriate in a given situation or worse, becoming irrelevant.
As a person or a company, invest in a range of options. Become good at several things, cater to several markets. Diversification is one of the keys to antifragility. It gives you options. If you have several options it is doubtful they will all fail you at the same time, giving you something to fall back on.
Be careful about over-diversifying however. Diversity comes at the cost of high performance. If you take skills as an example, having a few highly specialized skills will net you the most income when they are useful, while several general ones will grant you something to fall back on.
Make small bets, but make dozens of them
All or nothing is just stupid. Yes, you can win big, but chances are that you will lose big. “Never put all your eggs in the same basket,” right?
Everyone and everything has a threshold of tolerance. Budget, the capacity to take on work or resistance to pressure. Find the threshold, and keep your experiments below it.
Follow your guts
Your instinct is the result of your brain analyzing far more inputs and cross-referencing with memories than your conscious mind can handle. It doesn’t mean your instinct is right, but it does mean that you should pay attention to it. Instincts will probably not steer you toward the most optimal scenario, but it will help you avoid the worst one.
Over millennia, we figured out that our instincts were not enough and so we develop logic to help us analyze our surroundings and decide on the best course of action. While a powerful tool, it is a dangerous one. Afraid of mistakes, we tend to rely way too much on it and end up rationalizing. You rationalize when you try to convince yourself of a course of action that you know isn’t good.
Don’t hope for the best, prepare for the worst
In clear, do not try to visualize all the good that can come to you to gather the courage to act. Try to picture the worst possible outcomes and actively prepare for it.
Do not trick your fear into going away. Fear is your friend. It is a good defense mechanism, one that’s telling you when something’s not right. Instead, do what’s need to be done to assuage your fear.
Take the Via Negativa
The Roman poet Ennius said, “the good is mostly in the absence of the bad”.
Doing something good is difficult but removing bad things will bring you closer to your goal than large drastic actions that can cause useless risks. As an example, instead of taking on a drastic diet, start by reducing carbs and fried food while increasing the variety of food you eat. It’s much easier to do and to maintain, and it will net you positive results without risking becoming ill from the diet.
Striving for good focus you on the result, blinding you to the real dangers you will face while getting there. Remove those dangers while knowing where good is and you’ll move toward it much more naturally and in a much safer way.
Do SOMETHING and do it NOW
Don’t waste time and opportunity waiting for a right time that will probably never come. Only large, risky undertakings are worth waiting the right time for. And by that, I mean waiting forever and instead to do something more manageable and constructive.
Take action and try something now, all the while keeping the other rules in mind: diversify, make numerous small bets, use gut feeling, remove the bad, prepare for the worst.
Now that you know where we’re going…
Take a look at yourself and your workplace. Can you identify fragile, robust and antifragile systems around you?
Can you improve aspects of yourself and your environment simply by using the Via Negativa and removing bad processes, or habits?
Can you identify within you, or your business, what are your specialties? Are you a generalist in other areas, at least at a high enough level to use these areas as a fall back if need be?
Get used to these kinds of questions. On the path of becoming antifragile, they will follow you, always.
I am a futurist, system thinker and organizational transformation expert, dedicated to easing our transition into Society 5.0. I am available as a speaker through the think tank Hivernité (www.hivernite.ca) as well as a trainer and organizational coach through Moabi Formations (www.moabiformation.com).