Antifragile as a desirable concept was popularised by Nassim Taleb. In the 2012 book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, he postulates that there are fragile things, people, and organizations that are harmed more in the event of chaos and disorder. There are also resilient systems that can recover quickly from disorder and robust systems that stand up to chaos. But, he is interested more in the idea of antifragile, which is a system, organization, thing or person that grows stronger because of shocks.
The most succinct quotes from him on it states,
“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
“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. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
The Muddled History of Antifragility
Examples are said to exist in nature where muscular and bone systems grow stronger when exposed to external force. Even though I think that this is an example of the body rerouting resources to where they are needed and not antifragility, I do think that the concept is interesting. I think more clearly that it comes from “what does not kill you makes you stronger” which comes to us from Nietzsche. Nietzsche is suggesting that, “He divines remedies for injuries; he knows how to turn serious accidents to his own advantage; that which does not kill him makes him stronger.” In Nietzsche’s work, this is a skillset and attitude that lets some survive better. If you read the entire quote it comes off as a bit of an ode to psychopathy, but this is but one of the reasons why Taleb perhaps does not acknowledge Nietzsche as the source material for the idea of antifragility. Also, “there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile” is perhaps correct, but “what does not kill you makes you stronger” was the opening quote of the movie Conan the Barbarian in 1982. And that would have been a nice way to open a book with a bang. But, one doesn’t get to be an ersatz Malcolm Gladwell without co-opting or obscuring the source for an idea that resonates.
I do also think that often Nassim Taleb is an economic Deepak Chopra where enough sophistry and resonating anecdotes obscure a lack of wisdom in a cloud of intellectual fireworks firing off to nowhere in particular. If you confuse people enough, then any path in a created wilderness can seem like a true path. But, while I do think that we can all agree that antifragile would be a good thing for an industry itself to aspire to be, it would also be something good for a company to want to be and it would be a good thing for a technology to be able to provide.
Is Being Antifragile Preferable to Resilience?
So far our dreams have been about us enabling resilience. We hope to make the response to chaos better through enabling 3D printing access by organizations. We hope therefore that their deployment of 3D printing can automagically make a company more resilient. We also hope that an entire supply chain could be more resilient with the deployment of 3D printers throughout it. Likewise, perhaps, a military in its entirety could possibly be more resilient to attack and guerilla-like disruption through simply throwing 3D printers in the mix. But, could we perhaps go even further than this and make systems antifragile? Could we be a simple sauce to bring antifragility as a quality to any organization that aspires to have it? To answer this we first have to understand just how attractive antifragility could be for a company.
With resilience you improve your ability to absorb shocks. A port strike in Long Beach will therefore not hinder you as much as another since you are more flexibly able to deal with the fall out. A second strike in Ningbo Zhoushan may circumvent your ring fenced approach, however. Or a longer Long Beach strike may still affect you. Resilience is akin to a rubber band that is stretched and then returns to its initial position. Over time, the band can break, lose elasticity or work less and less. As a system it may have to be replaced, reinforced, or strengthened. Resilience is like being bamboo, strong and springing back in the strongest of storms. Robustness is more like being like an oak and resisting the shock. Again here, the system can fail. Here’s where the sweet aroma of antifragility becomes intoxicating. With antifragility we don’t just survive a strike, we become better at surviving strikes. A supply chain interruption will lead to us being a better company. We will not just overcome, we will emerge even stronger.
You can clearly see the siren call of this idea. But, we must be careful. Antifragility as an idea is extremely powerful but we do not yet really know how to achieve it. We can aspire to it but we can not know that it will ultimately succeed. We run the risk of aspiring to be antifragile but not succeeding to be at all robust and resilient to any kind of shock at all. In reaching for the ephemeral and ultimately very enticing goal of being antifragile we may not get much if any long term gain at all. Antifragile is therefore something that is a laudable aspiration but may not in any way, shape, or form actually be attainable for us.