OK, an admission. I’ve been avoiding reading Antifragile, the latest but now three-year-old book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Nothing against Taleb; I follow him on twitter and really enjoyed his earlier books, The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.
Unfortunately he delivers such lessons with bullying grandiosity and off-putting, self-dramatizing asides.
Ouch. But this weekend, I finally read Antifragile. Cover to cover. And I liked it. Not as much as the other two books but there’s plenty worth reading.
It starts with the concept of antifragile itself. It doesn’t just mean not fragile or unbreakable. Taleb uses it to refer to a category of things that get better with adversity and thrive in the face of chaos. That’s why the subtitle of the book is “Things That Gain from Disorder.”
The prototypical example is Hydra, the Greek mythological creature with many heads. When one head is cut off, two grow back in its place. A more commonplace example happens in the gym. When I lift weights, my muscles tear slightly. When they heal, I am stronger and can lift more weight. In fact, our entire bodies are antifragile. It’s estimated about 300 million cells in our body die every minute but our bodies adapt.
Smaller units tend to be more fragile than the larger, more complex systems of which they are part. Individuals are more fragile than families, families more fragile than communities. The same dynamic exists between neighborhoods, cities and countries.
Of course, not all communities and not all countries are equally antifragile. The Roman Empire may not have been built in a day but it didn’t last either. And yet Rome is still around.
So how does an organization become more antifragile?
Unexpectedly, it’s by stopping to try to protect it. Stability is not necessarily good. The longer we go without variations, without setbacks, without randomness, the worse the consequences will be when the unpredictable finally happens. In Taleb’s words,
Preventing noise makes the problem worse in the long run. […]
I have always been very skeptical of any form of optimization. In the black swan world, optimization isn’t possible. The best you can achieve is a reduction in fragility and greater robustness.
My interpretation? Taleb agrees with my assessment that “failure is the new black.” If you want to be antifragile, you have to be willing to make and embrace mistakes.