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Do You Want to be Antifragile?



In 2012 former financial trader turned intellectual, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, coined the phrase antifragile in his book Antifragile - Things that gain from Disorder. He makes an interesting point - there is no word for the opposite of fragile. You may think that robust is the opposite of fragile and you would partly be right. A box of bone china is fragile. If you kick it around a bit, you will destroy that china. If you removed that broken china and replaced it with an anvil, and you kicked that around, it will withstand the beating. But would it be the opposite of destroyed? No, the kicking around of the anvil will not change the characteristics of the anvil - it will not make it stronger. Antifragile things get stronger when placed under stress.


Muscles are antifragile. When you take them to the gym and put your pectorals under extreme strain by bench pressing your bodyweight, they will get broken down, but then they would repair themselves and come back stronger. If you do that for a couple of months and then increase the weight, those pectorals are going to strengthen and grow until you can comfortably wear that sawn-off tank top to the mall. Vaccines are also antifragile. The flu vaccine will give you just enough of the poisonous disease to immunize your body and make it stronger to resist the real virus.


The best example of antifragile can be found in Greek mythology and the Hydra. This demonic-looking reptile creature had multiple heads. When one head was lopped off, another two grew in its place. This beast thrived under stress. So how can you make yourself more antifragile?


1) Intentionally Inject Stress into your Life

This advice comes with a health warning - don't do anything stupid like run into a burning building or leap into a burning volcano. I am talking about exposing yourself to positive stress. Ten things come to mind in no particular order: take cold showers, try intermittent fasting, run a marathon, hit the gym, memorize an inspiring poem, walk to the grocery store instead of driving, swim for 15 minutes in a cold lake/ocean/river, go for a run in a nonelectric thunderstorm, go to church, visit an old age home.


2) Start Thinking like a Risk Manager of an Insurance Company

What do insurance companies do? They take risks. They embrace volatility and they make money from it. How do they do this? They build contingencies into their business. They ask questions such as what if this happens. Human beings are designed to avoid risk. It has been handed down to us from our caveman ancestors, In our fragile state, we are obsessed with self-preservation. The problem with this is that it forces us into comfort zones and the more comfort we have in our lives, the softer and weaker we become.


Point one was the injection of risk into our lives. Point two deals with the risk management of these risks. You need to consider the implications of your actions. What happens if I leave my job to start a new business, what happens if the business takes longer to get off the ground? Maybe you need to build in a buffer/reserve fund to ride you over. Maybe you need to sell that BMW and get a Toyota. Maybe you need to find a cheaper apartment. The more nimble you are, the quicker you can adjust to changing circumstances.


3) Be Flexible and Nimble

Big is robust but it is not necessarily antifragile. Large companies such as Kodak are more fragile than smaller companies that can easily pivot. Kodak's strategic failure was due to its inability to adapt to the changing world of digital photography. The Darwinian belief of survival of the fittest is a misnomer - it is the most adaptable that can survive.


In your personal life, flexibility is a function of your financial obligations. If you own a large house, and a large mortgage on that house, if you own an expensive timeshare in an exclusive ski resort, if you have four kids in private school, your flexibility is minimal. You are also fragile because your options are limited especially if you are middle-aged and working for a corporation with a fat salary and benefits. Your vulnerability stems from numerous fronts.


Firstly, if you are retrenched you may have difficulty finding a new job because of your age and skill set. If you have spent a long time with that corporation, you are probably well skilled in the processes and functions of that specific corporation. These skills are not easily transferable. Not only are you vulnerable from a financial point of view, but also from an emotional one. You are a slave to this job. This corporation has you by the balls. They know you have limited options and that this job is the only way to finance your financial obligations. They can then exploit you and by the time you realise this and are desperately miserable, you realize there is no way out. They have both your emotional and financial future in their hands. This is a highly fragile situation you want to avoid.


4) Remove, don't Add

Consider this possibility. The solution to many problems in your life may not be found in the addition of things but the removal of things. If you want to be antifragile, start by removing food from your diet that is known to be bad for you such as sugar, fizzy sugar drinks, processed meats, alcohol, french fries, ice cream, and potato chips. You can also remove those late-night Netflix binges and get to bed earlier to accumulate some high-quality Zs. You could also rip out that Xbox from the wall, put it in its box, and donate it to someone else - after which you can put on your running shoes and go for a run.


5) Barbell Strategy

This is a strategy that comes out of financial markets but has some real-life applications. In financial markets, it is the combination of a very risky asset - such as a derivative, and a very low-risk asset such as a cash deposit or a bond. You typically allocate a small percentage to the risky asset and a larger percentage to the low-risk asset. The risky derivative provides you will the potential for outsized returns if the market moves in your favour. But what of the market does not? You are protected because the bulk of your investment is in the low-risk asset. This combination of the safe with the speculative is a necessary condition for antifragility. So how can this play out in real life? You should go crazy things once in a while like go bridge diving, spend some, and find a side gig while working your full-time job.


In summary, I would like to quote from the opening of Taleb's book: "Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, despite 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".


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