The Triad: Fragile, Robust, and Antifragile

Evolution is the essence of antifragility!

“In fact, the most interesting aspect of evolution is that it only works because of its antifragility; it is in love with stressors, randomness, uncertainty, and disorder — while individual organisms are relatively fragile, the gene pool takes advantage of shocks to enhance its fitness.”
(Nassim N. Taleb)

As Taleb advocates in Antifragile: “Everything that has life [the organic and complex versus the mechanical and non-complex/complicated] in it is to some extent antifragile (but not the reverse)” — “the secret of life is antifragility.”

Appreciating Taleb’s work involves initially recognizing it (Antifragile, Flexibility, Robust, Resilience, Agility, and Fragile) and then translating it into practice (The Emergence of the Antifragile Organization), and continuing to evolve . . . “gain”

Antifragility provides a “guide to non-predictive decision making under uncertainty,” that is, “anywhere the unknown preponderates, any situation in which there is randomness, unpredictably, opacity, or incomplete understanding of things.”

Volatility shocks individuals, teams, and organizations — any entity! Black Swans are “large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequence” that harm an entity. Antifragility is the “antidote to the Black Swan”!

Antifragility and fragility are a property of an entity and are degrees on a spectrum. Anything can be classified into three categories (called the Triad — Fragile, Robust, and Antifragile) where Antifraglity is relative to a specific situation, limited to a specific source of volatility and range of exposure (or up to a point).


The Triad

Some entities resist shock and stay the same:

  • Fragile entities suffer because they want tranquility (volatility has a negative impact) — more downside than upside from volatility (concave) — and
  • Antiagile entities simply don’t necessarily adapt (unchanged due to the impact of volatility).

Some entities absorb shock and change:

  • Antifragile entities evolve and grow (or “gain”) from disorder (volatility has a positive impact) — more upside than downside from volatility (convex) — and
  • Agile entities simply necessarily adapt (changed due to the impact of volatility).

And Robust entities simply sustain and don’t care too much (temporarily change due to the impact of volatility and return to their original condition)!

Resilience, Fragilizing, and Antifragilizing

Antiagile entities are resilient within a normal range of change, but Fragile entities are not! Antifragile entities are resilient within periods of unusual change, but Agile entities are not!

Fragilizing entities involves depriving them of or suppressing volatility and shock, which makes them more fragile. Anitfragilizing entities involves exposing them to the right amount of stress and disorder, which makes them more antifragile. Fragilzing Robust entities makes them more Antiagile (less Agile) and ultimately more Fragile. Anitfragilizing Robust entities makes them more Agile (less Antiagile) and ultimately more Antifragile.

Fragile, Antiagile, Robust, Agile, and Antifragile

Agile entities embrace change (as their worldview) and inspect & adapt (as their modus operandi) with the intent of fostering continuous responsiveness in a world where sustainable advantage empowers them to confront future shock.

Antifragile entities embrace disorder (as their worldview) and adapt & evolve (as their modus operandi) with the intent of continuous transformation in a world where transient advantage empowers them to confront present shock.

While Fragile entities resist disorder and thus endure sustainable disadvantage and permanent shock, Antiagile entities resist change and thus endure transient disadvantage and temporary shock; and Robust entities simply manage change.

Fundamentally, heuristics, “simplified rules of thumb that make things simple and easy to implement”, which “are not perfect, but expedient” can be used to foster Antifragility.

The Triad and the Antifragile Entity (Individual, Team, and Organization)

Here are a few categories from Taleb’s Antifragile and the characteristics that foster fragility, robustness, and antifragility.

  • Biological & Economic Systems [Efficiency, optimized; Redundancy; Degeneracy (functional redundancy)]
  • Errors [Hates mistakes; Mistakes are just information; Loves mistakes (since they are small)]
  • Errors [Irreversible, large (but rare) errors, blowups; ; Produces reversible, small errors]
  • Science [Theory; Phenomenology; Heuristics, practical tricks]
  • Ethics [The weak; The magnificent; The Strong]
  • Ethics [System without skin in the game; System with skin in the game; System with soul in the game]
  • Regulation [Rules; Principles; Virtue]
  • Systems [Concentrated source of randomness; ; Distributed sources of randomness]
  • Mathematics (probability) [Left-skewed (or negative skewed); Low volatility; Right-skewed (or positive skewed)]
  • Knowledge [Explicit; Tacit; Tacit with convexity]
  • Political Systems [Nation-state, centralized; ; Collection of city-states, decentralized]
  • Science [Theory; Phenomenology; Evidence-based phenomenology]
  • Psychological Well-being [Post-traumatic syndrome; ; Post-traumatic growth]
  • Decision Making [Model-based probabilistic decision making; Heuristic-based decision making; Convex heuristics]
  • Economic Life (effect on economic life) [Bureaucrats; ; Entrepreneurs]
  • Philosophy / Science [Rationalism & Separable; Empiricism; Skeptical, subtractive empiricism & Holistic]
  • Stress [Chronic stressors; ; Acute stressors, with recovery]
  • General [Large; Small but specialized; Small but not specialized]
  • Model Error [Concave to errors; ; Convex to errors]

Fundamentally, an entity . . .

  • with many non-specialized small parts that are functionally redundant interacting via decentralized control that may make small errors that are reversible
  • that relies on heuristics, tacit knowledge, and growth with many (versus a few) distributed (versus concentrated) sources of randomness that cause acute (versus chronic) stress (with recovery time)
  • that appreciates reality-gaps/errors/mistakes and relies on empirical (evidence-based) feedback to fine-tune its essential/subtractive view of the world
  • that evolves (“It is aggressive in destroying and replacing, in selecting and reshuffling” via “a mechanism by which the system [or entity] regenerates itself continuously” via the adaptive cycle and panarchy)

. . . is more antifragile.


6 thoughts on “The Triad: Fragile, Robust, and Antifragile

  1. An unacknowledged challenge around ‘antifragile’ is that in social contexts it can easily become misused as a means to justify or even advocate any or all forms of bullying – all those violent/abusive myths around ‘toughen you up’ or ‘make or break’ or ‘what doesn’t break you makes you stronger’.

    As one who’s spent a lifetime helping people recover from bullying, and in social-design to mitigate and minimise its prevalence, I worry greatly that the active advocacy of ‘antifragile’ could easily undo many decades of work in this regard, and reinstate many forms of structurally-embedded systemic abuse that we’d hoped had at last been banished from people’s lives.

    A bit more awareness of this risk, please?

    Oh well…

    • Tom, very much appreciate your comment. Completely agree that “it can easily become misused.” Will definitely heed your guidance around “a bit more awareness of this risk.” Appreciate you fostering attention to the potential implications of the concept of antifragility in a social context.

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