“Antifragile” Is the New Buzzword You’ll Be Hearing

Stories from New Scientist.
Dec. 2 2012 7:30 AM

Chaos Is Good for You

How to make things that are the opposite of fragile.

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LG: But surely your idea risks economic collapse via the "natural selection" approach you seem to advocate? What leader would take that risk?
NNT: First, the situation is similar to surgery or chemotherapy—delay results in the worst effects, such as severe blow-ups. Second, we need to protect the weak and the young. The current system hurts the weak and helps companies and individuals who benefit from the bailouts and preserving the status quo.

LG: Some of this sounds similar to the "small is beautiful" ideas of British economist E. F. Schumacher and his mentor, Leopold Kohr.
NNT: They had the right intuitions, but for romantic reasons. I share their idea that people are happier in smaller corporations and in municipal governments. However, I put some science behind these claims. There are some fragilities associated with size, linked to sensitivity, to volatility.

LG: Does all this connect to your black swans?
NNT: Those are rare events with extreme impacts that lie outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to their possibility. The global financial collapse is one example (it was a black swan for those who took risks they didn't understand). Some people have misconstrued my original idea to think that we have to try to predict these events. We can't; we've just got to get out of their way.

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LG: How do we get out of the way of these rare catastrophic events?
NNT: We can't measure the probability of rare events because small measurement errors will cause those predictions to explode. The real point of my book The Black Swan is not to talk about the weird things that can happen but to be able to identify how resistant and robust you are to computationally small probabilities. It is far easier to figure out if something is fragile than to predict the occurrence of an event that may harm it. If something is fragile you can take steps to make it antifragile instead.

LG: Your book Fooled By Randomness upset Wall Street by suggesting success is largely down to luck, not judgment. Did the financiers forgive you? Are you about to create more upset?
NNT: There are plenty of open-minded individuals who weren't upset by what I said. This coming book will upset bureaucrats and academics—academics because I suggest trial and error is superior to knowledge. The process of discovery, innovation, or technological progress depends on antifragile tinkering and aggressive risk-bearing rather than education. A country's assets reside in the tinkerers, the hobbyists, and the risk-takers.

LG: Can people apply antifragility to their lives?
NNT: In Africa, Asia, and the Americas people head-load water—gyms don't stress your bones, nature does. People also don't talk about post-traumatic growth, but some trauma is good for you. I also believe that people should go against academic education and focus instead on certification of skills.

LG: Do you apply these principles to your life?
NNT: I lift stones and do weightlifting. I don't go to the doctor except when I'm very ill, and when I go to India, I drink a drop of local water. Things like this harness the body's antifragility. I have never had personal debt and never will. I also picked a profession in which I am antifragile, because any attack makes me stronger. When I write about something, I have skin in the game, and I have benefited more from attacks on The Black Swan than been harmed by them.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.