I just started listening to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile and I wanted to share some quick thoughts from the opening chapters.
Taleb defines fragility as that which is adversely affected by volatility. In other words, fragile things break when faced with adversity or change. We don’t want to be fragile. We want to be the opposite of fragile.
Taleb makes the case early in the book that we don’t have a good word for the opposite of fragile. We have the word “robust”, which would be something that is unharmed by volatility, but that is not quite the opposite of fragile. The opposite of fragile would be things that are not just undamaged but benefit from volatility. This is the main topic of the book, exploring that which is antifragile.
To illustrate the point Taleb uses three ancient archetypes to differentiate between the fragile (harmed by change), the robust (unharmed by change), and the antifragile (benefits from change):
- Fragile: The Damocles Archetype. In this story, Damocles, a courtier of the King Dionysus, is given a chance to switch places and be king for a day. On his big day, Damocles gets to enjoy all of the luxuries and power of being a king, with one catch. A huge sword is hung directly over his head by a single thin strand of horse hair, the only thing keeping the sword from falling on Damocles’s head. Damocles is fragile, because if one thing goes wrong, if he is exposed to the slightest volatility, then he is ruined.
- Robust: The Phoenix Archetype. The mythology of the phoenix tells us of an ancient, colorful, and powerful bird that is constantly reborn. When a phoenix dies, it bursts into flames, and then a new phoenix rises from the ashes, fully restored. In this sense, a phoenix can be said to be robust. It is unharmed by change, resistant to volatility.
- Antifragile: The Hydra Archetype. The hydra is a snake-like creature with multiple heads. The powerful monster could spit poison acid and create magical skeleton zombies with its teeth. But the hydra’s most powerful feature was that if you cut off one of its heads, two grow back in its place! In this way, the hydra can be said to be antifragile. The hydra benefits from volatility. It gets stronger and more powerful when faced with change or adversity.
Which brings us to the moral of these ancient myths. In a world of fragilistas like Damocles aim to be antifragile like a Hydra. The next time the world attacks you with volatility, embrace it, and unleash your inner monster, the one grows even more powerful when faced with change.
The question then is how do we structure our lives so we are antifragile? I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest of Taleb’s book to find out.
I’m a huge fan of the author. Maybe it’s our shared New York communication style or our common Orthodox Levantine roots. If you’re interested in sampling Nassim Taleb, I recommend starting with Skin in the Game or Black Swan.