Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder

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The best picture of antifragile would be an ancient hydra – you cut her head, it grows two instead. Or a yellow press – the more trouble we have in the world, the better they sell. There is a negative expression in many languages about someone fishing in troubled waters (“ловить рыбку в мутной воде”).

What NNT (aka Nassim Nicholas Taleb) is telling us: antifragile is actually a hero, a good thing, something to aspire to. Antifragile does not mean resistant or resilient or solid, it means adaptable, flexible, fast-learning and able to benefit from ever-changing circumstances. All those qualities seem good (all those adjectives are a must for any job description these days, even for a postman or a bus driver) – hence, very desirable; but why then our society is so eager to condemn and criticize speculations, opportunistic people and fishing in troubled waters in general? Because we assume that those antifragile opportunistic entrepreneurs gain their benefits unfairly, at the expense of others. They are like carpetbaggers and scalawags from Gone with the Wind where almost everyone hates them. Which Scarlett totally disagreed with, she was quintessentially antifagile and felt like being smart and grabbing your lucky chances should not be punished, and if the majority of people aren’t that smart, it’s their problem. Fair enough. According to the wonderful principle … one should use people’s stupidity to have fun”.

NNT explores antifragility in economic life, medicine, politics, academia, research, restaurant business (…) and gives examples of how our governments and social norms are trying to combat and suppress antifragiality in order to protect the fragile majority and why this isn’t really working. Essentially his argument is that some restaurants should go bust for the restaurant industry to stay competitive and some people must be fired, so that companies could keep the best and innovate, and some people must die for the medicine to finally find the cure. When the governments artificially protect the weak/fragile and remove small risks, they remove survival instincts and create the system able to resist smaller shocks but prone to collapses when it gets really windy.

Modernity starts with the state monopoly on violence, and ends with the state’s monopoly on fiscal irresponsibility.”

I get the general idea of antifrafility (nothing more than a modern extension of Adam Smith), but I want to understand how to apply these general principles to career strategies and professional/personal growth.

Why? – I have a confession to make: every time I hear that my company is going to be reorganized, merged, optimized or restructured, every time a big boss leaves or a new boss comes (you name it) – I can’t help but experience happy ping-pong feeling in my stomach hoping there might be something there for me, new opportunities, promotions, connections. Unfortunately, I have to hide my true feelings, since almost everybody else in the company at this time is quite anxious and scared, afraid of loosing a job or loosing a good manager or loosing some other form of comfortable balance.

Here is an interesting  quote of why people are so afraid to speak up or challenge existing rules of the game where you are supposed to striving for the greater good and world peace:

“Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer… Now let’s say I were a midlevel executive employee of some corporation listed on the London Stock Exchange, the sort who never take chances by dressing down, always wearing a suit and tie (even on the beach). What would happen to me if I attack the fragialista {attack someone with authority or make a public scandal}? My firing and arrest record would plague me forever… But someone earning close to minimum wage, say, a construction worker or a taxi driver, does not overly depend on his reputation and is free to have his own opinions. He would be merely robust compared to the artist, who is antifragile. A midlevel bank employee with a mortgage would be fragile to the extreme. In fact he would be completely a prisoner of the value system that invites him to be corrupt to the core—because of his dependence on the annual vacation in Barbados. The same with a civil servant in Washington.”

Does it mean that it is better to have a slightly wicked reputation, even in the corporate world, because it means you would be forgiven if and when you decide to circumvent the protocol or bend the rules? Isn’t it the same as a popular advice that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission?

“Those who dress outrageously are robust or even antifragile in reputation; those clean-shaven types who dress in suits and ties are fragile to information about them”

There is an interesting thought about procrastination. NNT says that it is very possible that procrastinating could be a good thing, because when you wait till the very last moment, you have no choice but to innovate and get really efficient to meet your deadline. (Pavel Afanasiev, your opinion is well noted in advance, feel free to safe your energy).

“Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad…” There is a good chance that all the pressures brought up by civilization could either take care of themselves or would require less efforts if you really think hard enough, e.g. “continuous stress of a boss, mortgage, tax problems, guilt over procrastinating with one’s tax return, exam pressures, chores, emails to answer, forms to complete, daily commutes—things that make you feel trapped in life” – those are the areas where procrastination could actually bring some benefits. I am personally not yet 100% sold on this idea, but this is definitely worth exploring. “How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates!”

According to NNT, the best strategy to be antifragile is to have options. It means that you must be protected against very large risks and large losses, and at the same time you have choices to maneuver and change something, when the time is right. Sometimes people try to create options for themselves, when it’s too late. I had a distant acquaintance unhappily married and drifting for several years from one affair to another, at some point she decided to tell her husband and her lover’s wife what was going on – not because she was in love, but because she was bored and wanted to shake things up, hoping that something unusual might emerge as a result. (Nothing unusual happened in that case, not even one single divorce).

“If you “have optionality,” you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur… An option hides where we don’t want it to hide. I will repeat that options benefit from variability, but also from situations in which errors carry small costs. So these errors are like options—in the long run, happy errors bring gains, unhappy errors…”

Let’s assume that many people are afraid to get fired or otherwise lose a job. What would make you antifragile in this area? – obviously an ability to find a similar or even better job quickly. And if you are in such position (not afraid to lose this particular job), it makes you bolder, it encourages you to take risks, grab chances, volunteer for projects, seek attention of those in power… Why not everybody does that? – They are afraid that something would go wrong, their boss would not approve, they don’t have enough experience with that subject matter, they might fail or would be blamed for someone else’s mistakes, in other words, they are afraid to get fired. They are fragile, so they stick to the status quo and don’t have options.

I knew this rule intuitively, but now I make a mental note to self “make sure you are never afraid to lose a job and have options”. I also knew that there was never a state of perfect information or being completely ready for something. It’s good to have a confirmation, that one doesn’t need it to succeed, you just need lots of options and not one for which you are perfectly ready.

Another great advice is to define the risks where you don’t want to take any chances (to the extent possible) and be open to risks, errors and opportunities in all other domains.

I am slightly paranoid about some risks – no vacations to Egypt, no flying with Ethiopian (and other questionable) airlines, no motorcycles or parachuting or sky-diving, never (again) trust the Russian government with your money, security or justice, no drugs of any kind, and never lend money to friends.

At the same time I am more than happy to take all sorts of social, professional and personal risks being always open to relocation, changing jobs, having to learn something new and unlearn something comfortable, meeting new colleagues, working with new bosses, experimenting with social media; being honest and direct with true friends and leaving behind those who can’t take it.

In the past I felt that NNT books were a bit too pessimistic and negative, as if there was nothing we could do in a world of helpless people and stupid governments. Antifragile is actually a fun read, there are so many jokes and funny stories, it almost feels like he found an answer and deliriously happy about it.

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2 Responses to Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder

  1. lucidsunrise says:

    Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder (c) Peter Baelish, aka Littlefinger.

  2. Johanna says:

    Now I know how it is called. In my life I often felt it as “full concentration” and “now I must jump” – those moments of opportunities; rest all other time. I wonder how long it will take for governments and public opinion to understand that it is the only way of dealing with modern world 🙂

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