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Surprises Make You Stronger

on Wednesday, 02.05.2016

A popular Kelly Clarkson song, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” contains the age-old message that dealing with adversity builds resilience and character. A more in-depth and nuanced understanding of this notion is presented in a recent book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Antifragile is not quite resilience or robustness, but really connotes something that gets inherently stronger under pressure.

Taleb argues that antifragility is the secret to success in a world full of uncertainty. Using nature as a model, he points to evolution as a system in which seemingly random mutations lead to a lasting advantage. To be sure, “bad” events often contain useful information that enables future advantage. Pain teaches us to avoid things that might cause more serious injury. Business start-up failures steer those who learn the lessons from making the same mistake again.

Most interestingly, he argues that trying too hard to avoid shocks is a big mistake. The argument goes as follows: Long periods of stability allow risks to accumulate until a major disaster occurs, while volatility means that things do not get too far out of kilter.

Examples are plentiful. Eliminating forest fires leads to large-scale ones. Economies that cut interest rates store up more trouble for later. In markets, getting rid of speculators means that prices are more stable in general, but any fluctuations cause major panic. In political systems, artificial stability brought about by autocratic regimes can lead to instability once a credible challenge to the status quo is mounted. Career choices also demonstrate the principle: A secure job in a large company disguises a dependency on a single employer, but losing that job will cause a sudden and steep drop in income.

The heart of antifragility is that being in a position where the unexpected allows improvement, where the potential gains from surprising events, outweigh the potential losses. I listen very carefully to how people articulate the situation when confronted by a significant challenge. That enables me to better understand how fragile or antifragile they are. I reach my determination as follows:

  • If someone calls a challenge a “problem,” he or she seems to define the challenge as being counter to an existing structure that needs to be preserved; defending that structure becomes the goal, which limits the opportunity to change and grow. This person, therefore, is “fragile.”
  • If someone refers to it a challenge as an opportunity, I interpret that as a revealing insight into his or her ability to adapt and change. This person definitely is antifragile.

Nobody needs me to tell them that not only is change a constant in the business world, but the rate of change continues to increase. Attitudes that embrace change as a means to morph into what they want to become will be winners. Those who doggedly defend the status quo, and yearn and plan for the return of the good old days, will almost certainly become extinct much sooner.

Where are you on the fragile/antifragile scale, and are you satisfied with your positioning?

This article is excerpted, in part, from “The Economist,” November 12, 2012, page 76.