Nassim Nicholas Taleb became notorious in 2008 as one of the few thinkers on economics – he would not call himself an economist – to have seen the inevitability of the coming collapse. He identified it as a “black swan,” an event so rare that it’s easy to imagine it doesn’t exist, until it happens, as it eventually always will. His book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, became an international bestseller published in 32 languages.
Now he is back with Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, an expansion of his thinking on risk beyond business and the markets to all sides of life. He begins from the standpoint that the opposite of being vulnerable to random events is not simply to be sturdy or adaptable, but actually to thrive on some degree of calamity and improve by it – “antifragility.” He rails against the “fragilistas” who make things more dangerous by seeking an unrealizable stability, and advocates for a “hormetic” approach (strengthening the system with small doses of toxins) in education, health, politics, careers, finance and many other areas.
In this passage, Mr. Taleb considers the “antifragile” benefits of trauma, redundancy and overcompensation
One day, sitting in the office of David Halpern, a U.K. government adviser and policy-maker, he informed me of a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, the opposite of post-traumatic stress syndrome, by which people harmed by past events surpass themselves.
We hear about the more lurid post-traumatic disorder, not post-traumatic growth, in the intellectual and so-called learned vocabulary. But popular culture has an awareness of its equivalent, revealed in the expression “it builds character.” So do the ancient Mediterranean classics, along with grandmothers.
Intellectuals tend to focus on negative responses from randomness (fragility) rather than the positive ones (antifragility). This is not just in psychology: it prevails across the board.
How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble. I hold – it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction – that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity (from the unintended side effects of, say, an initial invention or attempt at invention).
The idea pervades classical literature: In Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up the genius (ingenium mala saepe movent), which translates in Brooklyn English into “When life gives you a lemon …”
The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates! This message from the ancients is vastly deeper than it seems. It contradicts modern ideas of innovation and progress on many levels, as we tend to think that innovation comes from bureaucratic funding, through planning, or by putting people through a Harvard Business School class by one Highly Decorated Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (who never innovated anything) or hiring a consultant (who never innovated anything).
This is a fallacy – note the disproportionate contribution of uneducated technicians and entrepreneurs to various technological leaps, from the Industrial Revolution to the emergence of Silicon Valley, and you will see what I mean.
Many, like the great Roman statesman Cato the Censor, looked at comfort, almost any form of comfort, as a road to waste. The record shows that, for society, the richer we become, the harder it gets to live within our means. Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.
Cato would have smiled hearing about the recently observed effect in aeronautics that the automation of airplanes is underchallenging pilots, making flying too comfortable for them, dangerously comfortable. The dulling of the pilot’s attention and skills from too little challenge is indeed causing deaths from flying accidents.
Part of the problem is a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation that forced the industry to increase its reliance on automated flying. But, thankfully, the same FAA finally figured out the problem; it has recently found that pilots often “abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems.”