Have you wondered what the long-run impacts of the events of 2020 will be? Are you secretly hopeful? Maybe even excited? Yet, guilty because so many have lost so much including loved ones? If you answered yes to these, then you are realizing the potential for people to be both fragile and antifragile in response to chaos and uncertainty. This article explores why 2021 may be The Year of Antifragility!
This is the start of a new personal blogging project, called the Antifragile Way, and will evolve with time to explore a major concept and force that could shape the world and our personal lives, so stay tuned. Visit JharrisPHD.com for past personal articles, biographical information, and my photography portfolio. All blog posts related to this topic will be posted on AntifragileWay.com.
A Primer on Antifragility
The phrase “antifragile” appears to have entered the mainstream lexicon shortly after the publication of the book of the same title by Nassim Taleb as part of his Incerto series. The concept is relatively straightforward, a “thing” which improves, becomes stronger/better as a result of stress, pain, and chaos can be deemed “antifragile”. Note, this is NOT the same as being resilient or robust, meaning one recovers well, fast in response to trauma and chaos (i.e. returns to the pre-event condition); this literally means one is BETTER OFF due to the negative event/experience (i.e. stronger, richer, faster, etc. as a result of the growth after the event). If a system, country, firm, or person is truly “Antifragile” then they should actually WANT to experience negative events and shocks as to induce the ex-post growth an antifragile response can create. Said another way, if time travel/manipulation were possible, the antifragile would select the option of making (or allowing) the “bad” event to happen as opposed to taking the option of going back in time to prevent its occurrence.
Why 2021 and Beyond May Induce Antifragile Growth
Without need of reference or detail, 2020 has been a stressful year for many in a multitude of ways. The general condition of stress, pain, and chaos has likely impacted nearly every member of the civilized world to some degree in this past year. Sadly, many have been or will be proven to be quite “fragile” to the experience, and will not come out better as a result (clearly, COVID-19 has proven many individuals fragile as they passed away from the deadline virus, same for businesses closed permanently as a result of pandemic mitigation efforts). Thus, the first necessary condition for antifragile growth has broadly been put into place, stress and chaos. In fact, many people and firms have already found unexpected and often surprising growth in 2020, and with the potential for a true end of the pandemic in 2021, it is conceivable that many more will so in the years that follow. From a historical point of view, the conditions for mass antifragile growth may have never been so strong on such a global basis.
The Antifragile World
It is reasonable that one could read the above paragraph and assume I am some form of naïve optimist. This is one possibility, but I would contend that the world has actually been extremely “antifragile” over the centuries (and possibly millennia). While I shall not endeavor to prove this universally in this post, I will elucidate a simple example from the 20th century to highlight the historical truth; that being the experience of the “losers” of World War II. Objectively, Japan and Germany were the big “losers” of World War II to the Allied powers; yet just decades later these countries are major economic powerhouses and centers of innovation and capital on the global stage. I postulate that this would not have occurred without the intervention of the major losses sustained in WWII; the rebuilding effort as well as the coerced joining of the free world made it possible for these countries to be the powerhouses they are today. Does this imply WWII was a good thing? I couldn’t possibly say yes to this, an estimated 75 million people (or 3% of the world’s population at the time) died from the fighting and war crimes/atrocities committed during the period; the cost of this is immeasurable. Yet, as the concept of “survivorship” postulates, those who did survive have the potential to thrive and grow; a review of history proves this happens often. If you would like an older, yet potentially more relevant historical reference, go study the relationship between the Black Death pandemic and the Renaissance period in Europe, or even the 1918-19 Spanish Flu Pandemic and the “Roaring ‘20s.” (Reminder, past performance is no guarantee of future performance).
The Antifragile Person
Studying the fragile, robust, and antifragile responses of systems, nations, and firms is interesting (Taleb’s book does a great job of this), yet it is not the focus of my interest. I am far more interested in what makes an individual antifragile in response to stress and chaos, especially in the extreme form. To be clear, I am not asserting that all people can have antifragile growth, some will be very fragile (and literally die as has happened to millions from COVID-19). Further, I’d speculate (and hope) that the majority of people will simply be “resilient/robust” to the events of 2020; this is a good outcome, one that policy makers should see as the goal. Yet, the most interesting, long-term breakout growth from the events of 2020 will be from individuals who ultimately prove antifragile as a result of the stress endured, yet survived. This could be new businesses started, new products launched, new ways of working, new products of art and creativity, or even small personal/family improvements on the micro level that make the person more productive in society. Of course, antifragile growth is not linear in most cases. The event or shock occurs and the person is damaged or stressed, it is in the recovery from the damage and stress that the antifragile growth is observed, usually with some needed time for the growth to occur. Thus, if you are reading this and not feeling “antifragile” that does not mean you or anyone else will not be when measured a few years later. The simplest analogy/example is the process by which muscles grow and strengthen from weightlifting; the act of lifting weights damages and tears the muscles, the repair and healing process makes them stronger than before, hence if you understand weightlifting you understand antifragility.
Can A Person Intentionally Make Themselves Antifragile?
This is a deep personal and philosophical question; in fact, it is the ethos and thrust of my AntifragileWay.com blog project. I would postulate that we all can have antifragile responses to stress and chaos, and if you are alive today to read this post, you probably already have. Think back to the some of the worst experiences of your life, even back to childhood, did you end up in a better place after all was said and done? Did a breakup, job loss, business failure, or other calamity leave you permanently alone and/or broke/poor? If you answered no, then if you were at minimum somewhat resilient to the event; if you can objectively say you are now happier and wealthier and further along in your life and career, then you have a plausible case of antifragility. I intend to dive deeper into the hows and whys that make this true for many in future posts, but for now, I’ll give one piece of advice. Avoid and minimize your own fragility! Being antifragile requires capitalizing on randomness, volatility, and frankly getting “lucky”. My personal belief (guided by my own lived experience) is that if you can stay in the game, luck and randomness can pay off in one’s favor. One needs to be prepared to take those opportunities and have the courage to act when the opportunities appear; hence, no risk, no reward. Since you cannot control the arrival of the opportunities, you should focus on preparing and building up systems and habits make sure you are at least resilient to stress and chaos (which will occur). This is as simple as living a healthy lifestyle, avoiding debt, having excessive savings and investments, building broad rings of strong personal relationships, and living and acting morally/ethically at all times. All easier said than done to some extent, but all in the scope of one’s control more than not. Be ready for the opportunity to come to you, be it in 2021 or later.
Final Note on Chaos and Black Swans
Before Antifragile, Taleb wrote The Black Swan which was published in 2007 and thus given credit for an ex-ante prediction of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis; whether this was a true prediction, luck, or just an obvious read of the status of the world at the time (my belief) the book made Taleb and his Black Swans (unpredictable, highly impactful events) famous. A lesser discussed, but extremely salient point comes in the early sections of the book. That point, here paraphrased, is that most of the world’s and individuals’ significant progress and failures came as a result of the influences of Black Swans (to note, they can be both negative and positive). This is profound, and I’ll leave to the reader to read Taleb’s work for themselves, but it wasn’t until earlier this year when I re-read Taleb’s entire Incerto did I understand the profound significance of the statement and how true it has been in my own life. The world, and each person, WILL have major surprises and shocks, many negative and destructive, that is just the world we live in. We are who are, we have had the successes we have had, the progress we have enjoyed, not in spite of these events, but because of these events! I’ve already referenced Germany and Japan and their growth in the rebuilding post WWII, but this last major world war also had all sorts of profound effects on the rest of the world and the United States. In fact, major gains in social progress, such as equal rights for women and minorities can been observed as given accelerants due to necessary steps taken by the Allies and the US to win the war (i.e. prejudices about woman and minorities in the workplace and society take a back seat to the need for able bodies to fight, make the emblements of war, and otherwise maintain the civil society while the soldiers are overseas).
Thus, I am less afraid of Black Swans of the global, local, or personal kind as I used to be. In retrospect, they have served me well, I have by and large been antifragile in the face of chaos and stress. Do I worry that this will always be the case? YES, I intend to do what I can to maintain my resilience and ability to capitalize on whatever may come. Fear of loss, acknowledgement of risk and danger are motivators to take safety precautions, build up reserves, and otherwise be humble in face of an uncertain world. I advise you to do the same, be simultaneously optimistic and realistic. Once you realize that antifragile growth is possible in the aftermath of Black Swans, you can spend less time dwelling on the negative and more time planning for the recovery and growth.