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.
When you send an item made of glass by post, you would probably ensure that the package is clearly labelled ‘Please Handle with Care’ because the glass is fragile; it needs to be put in a tranquil environment because it shatters when harmed by stresses and shocks.
Fragility is a relatively easy concept to understand; we are all aware that fragile items need to be protected from volatile situations. Yet when we try to think of the opposite of fragility, we struggle. What do you call something that benefits from volatility?
You may be thinking that robust is the answer. However, although a robust item will be able to survive shocks better than a fragile one, it is not the opposite; it doesn’t benefit from harm. What we are looking for is something that you would deliberately mishandle, something that you’d package with the label ‘Please Handle Roughly.’
We struggle to define this concept partly because none of the world’s major languages has a word for it. We must therefore use the word antifragile to describe the antithesis of fragility – things that benefit from shock and therefore prefer volatility to tranquillity.
A good example of antifragility is the story of the Hydra from Greek mythology. The Hydra was a many-headed serpent which tormented the ancient world. Each time one of these heads was cut off in battle, two would grow back in its place. So every time the beast was harmed, it benefitted; the Hydra was therefore antifragile.
Unlike fragile items, which break when put under stress, antifragile items actually benefit from volatility and shock.