Some things seem to improve if they are placed in environments of volatility and unpredictability. Antifragile (2014) analyzes why this is the case. It suggests that this quality has been vital for the progress of human civilization since ancient times.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes a critical look at modern society and its aim to smooth out life by interfering in systems like the economy. Far from making society a better place, this interfering nature is destroying the volatile environment essential for antifragility to take place.
This is a Blinkist staff pick
“These blinks changed the way I think about systems and processes. They explain how, while most things break when they’re put under stress, a few, incredibly important things get stronger and stronger. If we want to build a world where things keep getting better, these blinks are critical reading.”
– Thomas, English Editorial Lead at Blinkist
A good example of antifragility is the evolutionary process; it thrives in a volatile environment. With each shock, evolution forces life forms to transform, mutate and improve to become better suited to their environment.
Yet when you look closely at the evolutionary process, something very interesting becomes clear. While the process itself is undoubtedly antifragile, each individual organism itself is fragile. For evolution to occur, all that matters is that the successful genetic code is passed on. The individuals themselves are unimportant and die in the process. In fact, the system needs this to happen to free up living space for more successful individuals to thrive.
The evolutionary process demonstrates a key trait of antifragility. In order for the system as a whole to be antifragile, most of its constituent parts must be fragile. This is because the success or failure of these parts acts as pieces of information, informing the system of what works and what doesn’t.
Think of it as trial and error. The mistakes and successes of each individual part provide the information as to what succeeds and what doesn’t. The price of failure in evolution is extinction; therefore, every failure actually improves the overall quality of all life that has evolved.
Another example of antifragility can be seen in the economy. Its constituent parts, from one-person artisan workshops to huge corporations, are somewhat fragile but the economy itself is antifragile. For the economy to grow, it needs some of these parts to fail. The failure of a start-up in the coffee making business, for example, will make that industry stronger overall, as other coffee manufacturers learn from their mistakes.
The antifragility of a system depends on the fragility of its constituent parts.