I have just finished the first book of Nasseem Nicolas Taleb’s latest offering: “Antifragile”. His previous book, “The Black Swan” not only predicted the market crash of 2008 with eerie accuracy, but introduced the idea that our world is disproportionately created by and governed by extremely rare and unpredictable “black swan” events. Taleb argues that our entire concept of risk and probability is based on the idea of understanding what happens 99% of the time, and ignores these extreme events. He argues passionately for a change in how we think about probability, risk and the impact extreme events have on our world. It is an incredibly powerful piece of emancipatory thinking, and an idea that I believe will still be spoken about and taught hundreds of years from now.

Antifragility picks up where the Black Swan left off, with Taleb identifying it as a practitioners guide to living in a world of Black Swans. Taleb is characteristically cavalier, identifying this book as his “central work,” with the Black Swan as a “backup or junior appendix”.

The central concept of the book is anti-fragility. If fragility is a property of a system whereby it is weakened when exposed to volatility or stress, and robustness means an object or system is largely immune to the same, then antifragility is the property of a system or object being strengthened by volatility and stress. Inanimate objects Taleb suggests are largely fragile, or perhaps robust. Living beings and complex systems on the other hand are anti-fragile; they need chaos and disorder to survive and indeed, it is the lack of chaos that causes damage.

There are many aspects of the first “book” of antifragility that appeal to me. The central concept makes a huge amount of sense, and as with most great ideas, leaves you wondering why nobody has thought of it before. Taleb links anti-fragility as a property of complex systems to non-linearity and overcompensation. Fundamentally, it makes sense for a system to evolve or adapt to stress by preparing for a more extreme shock in future. His description of how fragility at one level of a system leads to the emergence of antifragility at a higher level is also intuitive and well backed up.

I am not fully convinced by is Taleb’s assertion that stress is required for growth or innovation in a complex system. Taleb takes the position that when we are comfortable we have less of an incentive and are less likely to innovate. As such, innovation requires the application of stress. I don’t believe stress is the only, nor even the best way to consciously pursue change in a complex human system.

Perhaps its linguistic misinterpretation on my part, but my issue with the word stress is that it seems to pre-suppose an inability for a human system to realise change from within. Stress implies an external force over which we have no choice, because people don’t choose stress. The necessity for stress opens up the door for top-down “burning platform” managerial approaches to change covered in my previous post.

I prefer the word challenge. While being stressed can elicit an unexpectedly positive reaction, it can also have an equivalent negative effect; and can lead to excessive risk aversion in future. People can and often do choose to be challenged. Being challenged usually involves being stressed; however choice has a fundamental role in how we choose to interpret a stressful situation. We choose to be challenged and if that brings stress, it is our own doing. If external stress is wrought upon us, the reaction is liable to be less positive.

On the whole there is a lot to like and I look forward to finishing the book.


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