Antifragility: How to Thrive in Chaos

In his book Antifragile, statistician and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.1

Taleb makes the case that people, organizations, and systems can be described in one of three ways: fragile, resilient, or antifragile. To understand the difference between these categories, imagine three packages that are being sent in the mail.

Fragility, Resilience, and Antifragility

  • The first package says “Handle with care.” If you’re not careful, everything inside the box will break. It’s fragile.
  • The second package says “Robust.” This box can take some hits before the contents inside break. It’s resilient.
  • The third package says “Handle roughly.” The stuff in this one actually gets stronger if you kick it around. It’s antifragile.

Here’s the takeaway: You don’t want to be fragile. At the very least, you want to be resilient. And ideally, you want to be antifragile. Let’s look at some ways you can move from fragility to robustness to antifragility in your life:

1. Follow Via Negativa

According to Taleb, “The first step towards antifragility consists in first decreasing downside.”1 You can do that through via negativa, which is Latin for “the negative way.” Instead of asking yourself what to add to your life, you invert the question and ask yourself what to remove. For example, get out of debt, stop eating junk food, and quit smoking.

2. Manage Your Stress Response

When a stressor shows up in your life, there are two ways you can perceive it: as a threat or as a challenge. These different views create very different thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.2 A threat response makes you fragile, while a challenge response makes you antifragile. So, develop a “Bring it on!” mentality, and stress will strengthen you.

3. Practice Voluntary Discomfort

The Spartan warriors had a creed that stated, “He who sweats more in training bleeds less in war.” You can prepare yourself for the battles of life by practicing voluntary hardship. Occasionally take cold showers, live on a tight budget, drink water only, and so on. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and the inevitable blows of life won’t be as devastating.

4. Create Redundancies

Nature is filled with redundancies. For example, animals have two lungs, two kidneys, and two testicles, even though one of each would do just fine. But since one in a pair of organs can become disabled through disease or trauma, it pays to have a spare. You can use the same strategy to decrease fragility of the systems in your life. Start an emergency fund, have a spare tire in your car, use an external hard drive to back up your work, and so on.

5. Use the Barbell Strategy

Taleb describes “the barbell strategy” as “a dual attitude of playing it safe in some areas and taking a lot of small risks in others, hence achieving antifragility.”1 For example, you can keep your day job while working on a side hustle at night. If your side hustle doesn’t work out, you still have an income stream, but if it does work out, you might create a more fulfilling and profitable career.

Always Strive for Antifragility

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Set yourself up for antifragility, and you’ll find that famous quote to be true.

This article is an excerpt from my book The Decision-Making Blueprint.

Footnotes

  1. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  2. Threat and Challenge: Cognitive Appraisal and Stress Responses in Simulated Trauma Resuscitations