Antifragile

turn downside into upside

This makes this book my central work. I’ve had only one master idea, each time taken to its next step, the last step—this book—being more like a big jump.

The phenomenon of “antifragility” has existed forever but didn’t have a name—until recently. In November of 2012, Nassim Nicholas Taleb published Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. In his own words, “This makes this book my central work. I’ve had only one master idea, each time taken to its next step, the last step—this book—being more like a big jump.” And a big jump it was. As an options trader, Taleb observed both fragility and antifragility on a daily basis. As a philosopher, he formalized the theory of antifragility, described its properties, and applied its logic to the central aspects of human experience.

Negative Fragility

We all have an intuitive understanding of fragility. Put a delicate eggshell in a wooden box and shake vigorously and we know what will happen. In Taleb’s words, “anything fragile hates volatility.” Volatility does more harm that good, or “brings more downside than upside.”

But our intuition about the opposite of fragility leads us astray. Much like we think that the opposite of heavy is light, we think the opposite of fragile is robust or strong. Because robust things lack fragility in the same way that light objects lack mass, we tend to think of zero as the lower limit. Things that are robust can be shaken to almost any extent without suffering any ill effects. Compared to an egg shell, a golf ball is robust. Upside and downside are balanced. In fact, within extreme limits, they are “flat.” Volatility and shocks have essentially no effect at all until they reach such an extreme level that the golf ball experiences a catastrophic failure.

Taleb’s insight was that zero is not really the lower limit of fragility. Robust is not really the opposite of fragile. There is in fact negative fragility, or “antifragility”. And although there are domains in which the unnamed phenomenon of antifragility has been exploited for eons, the phenomenon was not thought of as “negative fragility.”

“Antifragility”

Taleb coined the word “antifragility” to mean negative fragility. Anything antifragile loves volatility, as it brings more upside than downside. Within extreme limits, when antifragile things are “shaken” they grow stronger and thrive. In fact, tranquility causes them to atrophy and die.

A patch of dandelions that have “gone to seed” is antifragile. They would love nothing more than to be disturbed by people, pets, wind, or anything else short of fire or poison. Each seed is an option, and although most seeds will “fail”, enough will land on a suitable seedbed for the species to spread and thrive.

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