A Brand New Word with Powerful Strategic Value

Early in his new book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of excellent earlier books mostly about market behavior such as The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and Dynamic Hedging) throws out some interesting facts: among them – for centuries we didn’t have words for all the colors we now take for granted, such as no word for ‘blue.’ It’s hard to imagine describing things like sky or clear water on a sunny day without it, but that is apparently what human beings were stuck with. A word takes time to sink in, to come into use and his new word may take more time than most to be fully appreciated, tied as it is to the field of Complexity Science, which itself is poorly understood by many. Either way it will be talked about!

He has coined a word that he has not been able to find in English or numerous other languages to date: antifragile. As the name suggests he positions this as the true opposite of fragile whereas most people, when asked, will say the opposite of fragile is robust, resilient, strong or unbreakable or words like these. He argues ‘antifragile’ is actually quite different from robust, strong or resilient, a different concept altogether and one which he makes a case for as a key to importantimage strategic understanding of human behavior and organizations.

My guess is you’ll hear plenty about ‘antifragile’ in the next year or two and most of it will be misunderstandings of what Taleb is attempting to capture. I found Mark P. McDonald’s purposely one-star review of the book on Amazon particularly accurate. In it he references an article by Taleb in the Wall Street Journal as good pre-reading for anyone considering wading through this 500-page, philosophically overly-complex tome.

For me this seems to fill in a piece I’ve struggled to explain in my own work so I will outline what I think from a first run through of the book. What follows is my operating hypothesis for assessing whether I think what he’s onto makes sense the way he’s laid it out or needs more work. Matching his idea to one’s own experience is essential, as usual, in understanding what he’s getting at. He would no doubt agree. It’s ironic that he puts down academics in the saltiest possible language only to be guilty of enunciating theories himself. Therein lies the real puzzle, which I’m not sure he fully comes to grips with.

Here’s one way this played out in my life. I would hardly describe myself as robust. A frequently exhausted, undiagnosed asthmatic kid, I was left out of sports by pretty well every team I ever got near. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I tried swimming and squash, found these two fit for me, finally put on some weight and muscle and became a bit stronger physically. Slowly I stopped thinking of myself as just a wimpy, bookish nerd.

Even then, my first leadership role was physically taxing – six and half 14-hour days a week for nearly three years with only a week here and there off. I didn’t exactly thrive physically on anything but adrenalin, but learned valuable lessons in managing whatever energy I have to tolerate that pace. This is a key to antifragility – to learn and improve from adversity in the midst of trial and error action.

At the end I was quite ill, with major stomach problems and exhaustion. I purposely looked for managerial (read ‘desk’) jobs instead of the union/political life I’d been leading because I read that politicians work round the clock for their lifetimes. They live longer than other people, but it seems clear that’s not because politics keeps you going (though it probably keeps you mentally alert and engaged), but mainly the reverse – people who can stick it out in politics are physically very robust to begin with.

However – and it’s a very important however for me or others or organizations – though I clearly still wasn’t highly robust, I could see what was enough to attain what I aimed for and keep up to that level. I was able to turn in a very strong performance in jobs that others considered required strength. How could this be? In fact, in presentations about job search I tell audiences that from this I learned I work best in jobs in very turbulent environments where others fear the work, where the decisions they’d have to make scare them. That made it possible for me to do well in certain types of top executive roles. Some people would say I was strong, but really the better word really is “antifragile.” I purposely tried to choose jobs where I didn’t need to be ultra-strong physically, but able to learn faster than others and adapt to thrive. Turbulence actually provides the energy and I just guide things.

I don’t think I’m really any stronger mentally or emotionally than average, but from the buffeting of growing up weak and learning to thrive in turbulence, those new skills allowed me to do what others didn’t feel they could. So strategically for me, I worked on developing these skills of bouncing along in rapidly changing situations, where others were caught up in the emotional turmoil, but I just stepped aside from that and dealt with daily challenges logically. Take a look at your own skill set and you may find you easily learn skills in specific areas that other find tough that allow you to improve not just survive in certain types of challenging situations. Those can then become rewarding areas to pursue, not just where your strengths are, but where you happen to be stronger than others and where employers will pay for those rare skills.

Now, many people might argue this is ‘resilience,’ but I agree with Taleb, it is something quite different. It’s not just bouncing back, but actually using the energy to bounce AHEAD. He points out the growing use of the term “post traumatic growth” to contrast with those shattered by “post traumatic stress.” The latter are ‘fragile’ and the former learn to grow and become stronger as a result of the traumatic stress they’ve experienced or witnessed. They might not have been ‘robust’ or ‘resilient’ initially, which is to say so strong they survived the effects, but rather they used the effects to make themselves stronger in those areas and are able to go on with life feeling better than they were to begin with, not just the same as they were before, unaffected. They are very much affected – but for the better, not for worse. This is definitely something to design strategy toward.

In future posts I’ll try to take this a bit further and make it more digestible than the book.