Concept of Antifragility is foreign to many people. If you were to ask people to think of the opposite of fragility, most would come back with answers like “resilience”, “robustness”, “solid”, or something along those lines.
Yet those adjectives describe things that neither break nor improve. At most, they’re neutral.
One way to understand it:
Best and worse case scenario for fragility is to be unharmed.
Best case for antifragility is to be harmed. Worst case is to be unharmed.
Three mythological equivalence of antifragility: Damocles, the Phoenix, and the Hydra.
Fragility = brittleness. It has a strict dependence on process, plan and rules.
Being cruel to ourselves
Humans are averse to stressors, and would do everything we can to remove or prevent them.
Everything needs to be fixed or cured, and easily. Coupled with consumerism, we get a deadly combination.
Physical stressors strengthen our body. Some weight on our body strengthens our muscles and joins. Perceived negative emotional states like sadness, anxiety give us opportunities to reflect and learn.
But the most common response to those states are to take pills, or easy ways to forget them momentarily.
Entertainment is a helluva drug.
Caveat that we need to differentiate between small stressors and large stressors that can potentially wipe out any kind of potential gain, like a nuclear war or widespread ecological destruction. As we’ll note in the following points, death to the individual is not a large stressor for a system.
The individual against the system
Majority of businesses are risk-averse. But the entire economy also depends on a small group of entrepreneurs and risk-takers to make mistakes, push the edges, invent and innovate.
The irony here is that entrepreneurs themselves don’t necessarily like failure. They are trying to survive, yet the overall system benefits from them failing.
Harm to the parts = gain to the whole system.
On life and death in a system
Death is necessary for life. In a system, especially natural, organisms don’t live forever. They grow, flourish but eventually die, leaving behind nutrients in their wake for other organisms. Likewise, failure in one part of the system is necessary for success somewhere else in the system.
What would an immortal system look like and function? What if nothing ever fails? What if projects don’t die, and what if people in an organisation never leave?
How does an immune system grow stronger?
If the Titanic never sank, humans would continue building bigger ocean liners, and the only thing more unfortunate thing than the Titanic sinking is an even bigger Titanic sinking.
Episteme vs Techne
Mistaking the absence of evidence for evidence of absence.
Lack of structure mistaken for no structure, lack of hierarchy mistaken for no hierarchy.
(Sometimes it seems like everything is nice and dandy. Businesses love to paint rosy pictures of their outlook, and governments never like to admit that something is going wrong. If it were true that nothing is going wrong and that no mistakes were made, then nobody learns anything. How could that possibly be?)
The truth is that within the organisation, information does gets around. The grapevine is how employees learn, as they talk in hushed tones and whispers about so-and-so who got fired or removed, or this project that burst the budget.
Difference between technology and a tool: Nuclear technology =/= nuclear weapons.
Love / Hate for randomness
Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have the opportunity to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place “to be safe” makes the big one much worse when it comes.
Stability is not good for the economy: firms become very weak during long periods of steady prosperity devoid of setbacks, and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate silently under the surface. Delaying crises is not a good idea.
When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them. Absence of randomness = death.
The idea of injecting random noise into a system to improve its functioning has been applied across fields—stochastic resonance, as annealing in metallurgy.
There is no stability without volatility.
(Pruning a plant is good for its growth; Small quarrels erupting between couples v.s. never speaking about unhappiness)
Tonsillectomies harmed children more than the trumpeted gain for some others. The name for such net loss, the usually delayed or hidden damage from treatment in excess of the benefits, is iatrogenics, literally, “caused by the healer”.
Two examples: George Washington’s accelerated death caused by bloodletting; “hospital fever” which was denounced by doctors because it wasn’t a “theory”, and caused death rates to shoot up.
When you can’t appear to be doing nothing, i.e. taking over a vacant leadership position in an organisation, it often leads to unnecessary intervention. You are incentivised to promise a better outcome than the previous guy, regardless of the actual, delayed and long-term consequences.
An editor must propose a certain amount of edits, or they are seen to be not doing their job. Newspapers must have pages filled with news; they can’t show up tomorrow with an empty page and say nothing is worth your time reading. (And likewise I think, a new director to an organisation has to come up with new plans, mission statements, re-orgs, new departments, even when things have been running smoothly without them.)
This argument is not against the notion of intervention, but rather against over- and naive intervention.
Instances where intervention is necessary and good are limiting sizes, concentration, speed and acceleration. Limiting the size of a department from growing too big; limiting speed on the highway etc.
Procrastination is a form of natural defence, letting things have a chance to take care of themselves. It is a sort of “Wait and see” behaviour. Chronic procrastination, is a whole other issue in itself. Sometimes explained as status quo bias.
Access to data causes intervention.
The antidote to overintervention is the intellectual ability to distinguish noise from signal, and to prevent frequent and overdosage of information.
Contrary to popular opinion, I personally think that having politicians with military background is not a bad idea. In the event of a fat tail event, or a black swan, Singapore would be well helmed to steer itself through disaster.
The success or economic prosperity of Singapore is not merely attributed to its small size. There are small cities the size of Singapore that are not doing as well, measured by the same ruler.