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Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)


Why trauma may be just what you need Add to ...

An additional head for Hydra is no different from an extra – that is, seemingly redundant – kidney for humans, and no different from the additional capacity to withstand an extra stressor. If you ingest, say, 15 milligrams of a poisonous substance, your body may prepare for 20 or more, and as a side effect will get stronger over all. These extra five milligrams of poison that you can withstand are no different from additional stockpiles of vital or necessary goods, say extra cash in the bank or more food in the basement.

A system that overcompensates is necessarily in overshooting mode, building extra capacity and strength in anticipation of a worse outcome and in response to information about the possibility of a hazard. And of course such extra capacity or strength may become useful by itself, opportunistically.

We saw that redundancy is opportunistic, so such extra strength can be used to some benefit even in the absence of the hazard. Tell the next MBA analyst or business-school professor you run into that redundancy is not defensive; it is more like investment than insurance. And tell them that what they call “inefficient” is often very efficient.

Indeed, our bodies discover probabilities in a very sophisticated manner and assess risks much better than our intellects do.

To take one example, risk-management professionals look to the past for information on the so-called worst-case scenario to estimate future risks – this method is called “stress testing.” They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome.

But they never notice the following inconsistency: This so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time. I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed.

We consider the biggest object of any kind that we have seen in our lives or hear about as the largest item that can possibly exist. And we have been doing this for millennia. In Pharaonic Egypt, which happens to be the first complete top-down nation-state managed by bureaucrats, scribes tracked the high-water mark of the Nile and used it as an estimate for a future worst-case scenario.

The same can be seen in the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which experienced a catastrophic failure in 2011 when a tsunami struck. It had been built to withstand the worst past historical earthquake, with the builders not imagining much worse – and not thinking that the worst past event had to have been a surprise, as it had no precedent.

Likewise, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Fragilista Doctor Alan Greenspan, in his apology to Congress, offered the classic “It never happened before.” Well, nature, unlike Fragilista Greenspan, prepares for what has not happened before, assuming worse harm is possible.

If humans fight the last war, nature fights the next one. Your body is more imaginative about the future than you are. Consider how people train in weightlifting: The body overshoots in response to exposures and overprepares (up to the point of biological limit, of course). This is how bodies get stronger.

From the book Antifragile, copyright 2012 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, Inc.

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