WHAT is the opposite of fragility? Though not quite right, “resilience” and “robustness” are two words that come to mind. If fragility means something that breaks under stress, its exact opposite should mean something that grows stronger under pressure. There is no word that quite captures this, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an American essayist and scholar, so he has invented one: “antifragile”.
The neologism is necessary because antifragility, he argues, is the secret to success in a world full of uncertainty. Mr Taleb’s earlier books were devoted to showing that no one can measure the likelihood of rare events—or “black swans”, in his now famous phrase. From the financial crisis to the tsunami that struck the Fukushima nuclear reactor in 2011, the worst-case scenario will never be quite bad enough. So instead of trying to predict the future and failing, the best thing to do is try to benefit from shocks when they occur.
That, after all, is what nature does. Evolution is a system for turning random mutations to lasting advantage. The body responds well to certain pressures; the bones in the racquet-holding arm of professional tennis players are stronger than those in the other arm, for example.
There are all sorts of ways in which bad events contain useful information. Pain teaches children what to avoid. The failures of past entrepreneurs steer the next lot of start-ups away from the same mistakes. Plane crashes yield data that make the next flight safer. (Bank failures have the opposite effect; because of the interconnectedness of the financial system, one blow-up makes another more likely, not less.)
Indeed, Mr Taleb thinks the big mistake is trying too hard to avoid shocks. Long periods of stability allow risks to accumulate until there is a major disaster; volatility means that things do not get too far out of kilter. In the economy cutting interest rates at the first sign of weakness stores up more trouble for later. In markets getting rid of speculators means prices are more stable in general but any fluctuations cause greater panic. In political systems the stability brought by regimes such as Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt was artificial; without any effective way for people to express dissent, change leads to collapse.
The principle applies to career choices too. An apparently secure job within a large company disguises a dependency on a single employer and the risk that unemployment will cause a very sudden and steep loss of income. Professions that have more variable earnings, like taxi-driving or prostitution, are less vulnerable to really big shocks. They also use volatility as information: if a cabbie is in a part of town where there are no fares, he heads to a different area.
This is getting to the heart of antifragility: being in a position where the unexpected allows improvement, where the potential gains from a surprising event outweigh the potential losses. The obvious example from finance is the option, which gives the buyer the right, but not the obligation, to undertake a transaction at an agreed price. The first option on record was exercised by Thales of Miletus, an ancient Greek philosopher who bought the right to use every olive press in the area and was then able to specify his terms when a good olive harvest meant high demand for the presses. At worst, his losses were limited; at best, his gains were enormous.
The equivalent in investment terms is to hold mostly ultra-safe assets and have a sliver of wealth in something that offers a huge pay-off if there is a positive surprise. In business, inefficiency becomes a potential virtue; holding lots of inventory is a great strategy if there is a shortfall elsewhere in the market. As for countries, Switzerland takes the prize for being the “most antifragile place on the planet”. When bad things happen, the money flows in.
“Antifragile” is an interesting idea, but as a book it is not without flaws. Mr Taleb takes on everything from the mistakes of modern architecture to the dangers of meddlesome doctors and how overrated formal education is. He overstretches the argument and is not as iconoclastic as he likes to think. There is a lot of familiar-sounding praise for Steve Jobs and the warnings about the dangers of stability will be well known to followers of Hyman Minsky. The valid reasons why people become employees (pensions, say) or companies become bigger, such as economies of scale, are skated over. But this is an ambitious and thought-provoking read.
It is also a highly entertaining one, thanks to Mr Taleb’s in-your-face nature. “Antifragile” is as much about the author as it is about the world. He is a weightlifter and calls himself “an intellectual who has the appearance of a bodyguard”. He avoids fruit that does not have an ancient Greek or Hebrew name and drinks no liquid that has not been in existence for at least 1,000 years. He has little time for copy editors, even less for economists, bankers and those who cluster at Davos. He once spent two years in bed reading every book about probability he could lay his hands on. Whether you find Mr Taleb amusing or irritating, you want to read on.