Exploring Antifragility (Part 1)

It has been nearly two years since my last post. A couple of reasons:

  • I got bored with blogging.  Sometimes, that alone, is a good enough explanation for doing something (or not doing it);
  • I started feeling that my writing was losing authenticity and becoming too “results orientated” – I was getting caught up in the world of clicks, SEO, optimization, promoting various business and speaking interests, and thus (in my opinion) losing creativity in the process.  I had to take a sabbatical to recharge the creative battery (and become grounded);
  • I started teaching law – first at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law as an adjunct professor (I teach an upper year seminar called “Entrepreneurial Law” and also a foundational course in Corporate Law).  I also got hired by SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) to teach business law in the Energy Asset Management Program.  So much of my creative writing energy has been dedicated to the art of designing (hopefully) interesting and challenging fact patterns, course lectures, hypotheticals, assignments and exams.  Intrinsically this has been the most rewarding professional pursuit in my life thus far (more on this to come in future posts).
  • I started back up my legal practice – but in a niche area (advising start-ups).  This has taken a lot of time and energy (I love helping entrepreneurs but continue to see pros and cons in the active practice of law – more on this in the future).

I missed the medium, and as I prepare for graduate studies in law (more on this also in the future) I felt inclined to re-enter the blogosphere.

However, my intentions (and methods) are going to be much different with this new foray into blogging.

My posts, by design, will be more random, more academic, more philosophical, more in-depth, more obscure, more raw, more personal, more therapeutic, more widely ranged across subjects that interest me, less results driven, less business content, less shareable posts, less “key-word optimized” content.

I suspect my clicks will dramatically decrease and that is ok (probably better).

Over the past two years I have read probably several hundred books.  Of these, only a handful have had a profound effect on me.  I intend to discuss these books in the future.

The first book I want to talk about is Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Taleb’s style is combative (he routinely calls out intellectual adversaries by name), direct, and is also somewhat opaque (which appears to be by design) – it took me two readings to really feel like I understood Antifragility as a concept. In many ways his style is paradoxical – he uses (and raves about) simplicity and the use of heuristics, while at the same time writing in a manner that can be very difficult to grasp (not to mention the book is 500 pages long).

Also, by virtue of his popularity with Steve Bannon, and the Trump administration at large, he might be deemed by some to be guilty by association with those who endorse his work as having similar ideologies.  So many progressives won’t read him at all.  This is unfortunate.  I think he is a true original, and his ideas are profound and transcend ideology (ideology as you will see is fragile).

I don’t think the difficulty in reading Taleb is due to his writing style – I actually think it is because what he says flies in the face of deep confirmation bias about our understanding of the world at large.  He is a contrarian and a skeptic (two traits I’m actively courting).

To embrace Taleb I think you have to first suspend your basic understanding of how the world works.  Once you do this – becoming in the process an intellectual clean slate – then his ideas really start to sink in.  Once they sink in you start to realize their significance, and from there (where I would say I am at the present) you start to get intentional and see how you can integrate them into your life.

In the commentary that follows when I use bold and italics (together) I’m taking quotes directly from Antifragile

So let’s start with the central thesis of his book (which he has referred to as his “one book” – as his previous books, particularly Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan are complementary (or perhaps “junior appendages”) of Antifragile.

Antifragility is about thriving in a world that we can’t predict (because of the pervasiveness of randomness), and that we don’t understand (despite believing to the contrary).

“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.  Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them.  You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.” 

This is a concept Taleb calls “Antifragile” – when you have a positive optionality with regards to volatility (and randomness). That is, stress, variability, uncertainty, randomness, events you can’t predict or control actually make you better off, so that you have more to gain from stressors. This is the opposite of fragile – something that is damaged by stress, variability, uncertainty, etc.

Here is where most people (including me, until I grasped Taleb) get it wrong.  When we think of the opposite of Fragile, what do we think of?

Consider a vase, or similar item that is shipped across the country.  Recently Meghann purchased for me a rare University Scentsy warmer (an out of production college logo). When we opened the box it was broken – the stress of the international journey (and the lack of sufficient protective padding in the box led to an outcome where a fragile item (the Scentsy warmer), when subjected to stressors, broke into pieces.

If the Scentsy warmer was fragile, what would be its opposite?  I’ve asked this question (an experiment Taleb recommends) and have generally met with the same response – a tightly packaged box that was secure and unlikely to break – something that was secure, stable or robust.

However is this definition really the opposite of fragile?  Is the opposite of negative something that is neutral?

No the opposite of negative is positive.  So the opposite of fragile is something that would be benefited by mishandling.  Like if my Scentsy warmer actually got better by knocking it around a little.

When most people think of the opposite of fragile they are thinking of something more akin to grit, resilience, or as Taleb describes “robust”.  I’m guilty of that as well, having authored (more than one) article espousing the virtues of resilience and grit, without even thinking about this other idea – that fact that there is another category all together.  Things that “gain from disorder” – the antifragile.

In fact, this mistaken definition is so common that Taleb identifies that there wasn’t even a word in the dictionary to effectively describe it (before he wrote the book).

That is when it struck me that the world is exceptionally fragile, and much of my life is fragile as well.  However, most of my efforts were to make it robust (i.e. changing from negative to neutral) rather than making it anti-fragile.

“Please Behead Me”

Taleb uses the Greek mythological creature – Hydra – who gains two heads each time its head is cut off to capture the image of something that is antifragile. A “please harm me because I’ll come out stronger” approach to life.  This is a very unique perspective, and not a popular one, at least in terms of conscious undertaking.  Efforts to increase grit, or become more resilient are generally seen as some form of means to achieve an end – for example resilience or grit will allow us to quickly “bounce back” from setbacks on the road to success.

Antifragility is different – it depends on stressors because it benefits from them.  The simple test for determining whether something is fragile or antifragile is this: how does it response to non-predictable events, stresses and uncertainty.

If the best case scenario is harm, and the worst case scenario is more harm: it’s fragile

If the best case scenario is nothing, and the worst case scenario is harm: it’s robust

If the best case scenario is an improvement, and the worst case scenario is nothing (or a defined containable loss): it’s anti-fragile.

“We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything…by suppressing randomness and volatility.”

So what is fragile and what is anti-fragile in life?

The Fragile: Any area where I have more to lose than gain if volatility occurs:  Any job that is dependant on reputation (since you can’t control that), any form of employment, ideologies (when you can’t question them), identity politics, bureaucracy, institutions – including institutional religions – that can’t be questioned because there is an “authority” who tells you what you can and can’t do, debt, large corporations (large anything).

The Antifragile: Any area where I have more to gain than lose if volatility occurs: Call or put options where I am long (purchased options – defined downside, significant upside), investments with large upside, any venture that benefits from small errors (pretty much any entrepreneurial venture), writing (any addition is good attention), love (no matter how much you try to suppress it you cannot), teaching (it is intrinsically satisfying so unlimited upside), education, bricolage and tinkering, creative endeavours, start-ups, small businesses, niche, artisans, scepticism (no downside, only upside).

Try this experiment – take an inventory of your life (I have been doing this tons lately) and isolate one aspect. Then consider what would happen if uncertainty hit you in this area.  Would you come out stronger or weaker or stay the same?

Why does this matter anyway?

For me it is about intrinsic satisfaction in life.  I am uncertain about the world, its cause, its consequence and its purpose (if there is one).  It might be all random.

Yet I live in this world that I don’t understand.

The more I try to control this world that I don’t understand the more anxiety I feel when events arise out of my control (which is constantly).  Yet, despite my uncertainty I want to enjoy life, I want to have intrinsic satisfaction, and along this path I have discovered certain personal truths that make the concept of anti fragility resonate.

“Consider that all the wealth in the world can’t buy a liquid more pleasurable than water after intense thirst”

If uncertainty cannot be predicted or controlled (the “Black Swan problem”) then efforts to become “more resilient” or obtain “more grit” are inferior to becoming antifragile.

More importantly, variability and contrast (uncertainty) is a fundamental component of intrinsic satisfaction.

I have learned this through tinkering and experimentation. For example:

  • I am experimenting with intermittent fasting – not because I am trying to achieve a certain body type or image, but for a much different result: food tastes much better when you are really hungry, and I want to experience this often.  In fact, it tastes so good that I am fasting, by design, almost every day now (at least 18 hours a day);
  • Sleep is wonderful when I’m exhausted. So I’m intentionally working myself to fatigue in order to feel that incredible feeling of getting into bed completely spent.
  • You have to shut off the noise to appreciate the peace of the quiet.  I’ve intentionally limited my consumption of social media (and all media) and as a result of the contrast much more appreciate the moments of meditation and quiet contemplation.
  • Sometimes (often) a good debate is fun (as long as people can keep the ad hominem and emotional attachment out).  Having a room full of people who believe exactly the same thing (and never question authority) is boring, and frankly it’s a room I want to avoid.  Identity politics is fragile.  Ideologies are fragile. Dogma is fragile.

“If large pharmaceutical companies were able to eliminate the seasons, they would probably do so – for a profit, of course. 

I intend to explore the concept of antifragility in more detail in future blog posts including the steps I am taking to become more anti-fragile in my life.






3 comments on “Exploring Antifragility (Part 1)”
  1. Christopher Lawrence says:

    Fascinating concept. One that must be digested slowly because the implications can be huge. I believe this would apply to those with mental health concerns (anxiety, depression); however, the perception is often the opposite where the discomfort does not create strength and rather creates fragility. I think a shift in how we approach our perceptions of depression and anxiety would certainly create grittier people. It’s like a child with illness. The more we avoid sickness the sickliest we can become as age goes on but if we embrace it early on our immune systems stand to strengthen. Fascinating subject.

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