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Expanding the Limits of Anti-Fragility

hat does a marathon runner, a weightlifter, a shop owner who saw his shop burnt down in riots, a bullied schoolchild, an academic failure and one of the many millions unemployed in Southern Europe all have in common? The answer is that they are all in the process of determining whether they are fragile, robust or anti-fragile to circumstance. At a time when national finances are straining under a tidal wave of debt, it is worth considering these people and the qualities they require to succeed in their respective situations. It is also worth considering whether state spending is maximising the utility of every penny spent or merely adding to an ever expanding debt pile. Is it a roadblock to private investment, discouraging charitable donations and creating a culture of entitlement or is it providing the infrastructure and social safety net that convinces citizens that whatever their challenges or objectives, they are able to succeed? There has never been a better opportunity to redesign the objectives of the state whilst also reducing annual budget deficits and the growth of government debt. So why do fragility and robustness matter and

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book Anti-fragile (2012), Taleb coins the term anti-fragility in which those who take risks and gain experience of challenging or novel situations can profit from unforeseen benefits. We are familiar with the Nietzsche quote, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” but until now we have not had the use of the term anti-fragility. He gives the metaphor of a mystical package being shaken but ultimately benefitting from experiencing the volatility. It is crucially different from the term robust because this implies that the challenging situation has not affected you in either a positive or a negative way. To give an example, a leader or manager in an organisation that has experience of prior crises will commonly be in a stronger position to deal with worse crises in future. Rather than just surviving it without benefit or detriment, the leader or manager has had the opportunity to challenge themselves rather than just coasting through tranquil times. This increases their value to that organisation. There are plenty of examples of anti-fragility in action involving entrepreneurs, inventors and parenting.

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