Become Antifragile Beyond Resilience and Gain From Adversity (Nassim Taleb Antifragile Review + Black Swan)

Siim Land

How are you dealing with the unpredictable nature of life? When sh*t hits the fan, what are you going to be doing? Will you perish, survive or thrive?. Become antifragile and you’ll actually emerge as an enhanced version of yourself?

Antifragile Definition

Antifragility is the term coined by Nassim Nicholaus Taleb, which he uses to describe the opposite to fragility, that is beyond resilience.

Taleb opens up his bestselling book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder: “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.”

His previous book the Black Swan, he sets the background for Antifragile. A Black Swan is an unexpected, extreme event with a huge impact and is often rationalized after the fact with hindsight. Examples: World War I, 9/11, the mortgage crisis of 2008.

The idea behind being antifragile isn’t about merely expecting sh*t to happen and then accepting it as it is. Instead, it’s about not only surviving but also thriving in the adversity – survthriving.

Fragile, Robust or Antifragile –
Which One Are You?

Taleb also uses 3 heuristics (tools/models) to describe his point. The Triad consists of the following.

  • Fragile – suffers or is destroyed by chaos and volatility. Seeks equilibrium and wants to avoid change in fear of breaking.
  • Resilient – remains the same in volatility. Isn’t influenced by nor cares about chaos and tranquility.
  • Antifragile – gets stronger and grows at times of volatility. Gains more than loses from adversity. Seeks out disorder and chaos by staying in motion.

When you drop a piece of glass onto the ground, it breaks into a thousand pieces – it’s fragile. A piece of metal ingot is robust. There’s not much that could do it harm – it’s resilient. Our human organism will actually benefit from adverse stimulus and gets better when received in adequate amounts – it’s antifragile. It’s like the mythical Greek fire, which gains more flames when you throw water at it.

Us humans are an extraordinary example of antifragility. Stressors and adversity we experience have the potential to make us stronger, beyond resilience.

Fragile – Handle With Care

In the book, Taleb uses the Greek myth about the Sword of Damocles to describe fragile phenomenon.

Damocles was a courtier of King Dionysius II who was envious of his power and affluence, pandering him by saying how fortunate he was. The king then offered to then swap places so that he could experience this abundance first hand. Damocles happily accepted and sat down on the throne, surrounded by luxury, servants and indulgence of all kind. Dionysus then placed a huge sword above the throne that was hanging at the pommel only by a single hair. Seeing that, Damocles got extremely anxious and afraid, because he could’ve lost his head at any moment. He then realized that with great power came great responsibility and danger, begging to end the swap.

The Looming Sword of Damocles
The Looming Sword of Damocles

Cicero also used this story and asked: “Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?” It’s clear that being fragile isn’t very appealing, as the hair could snap at any moment and when it does, the sword would fall and instantly kill you.

Fragile things are large with too much baggage to carry around, don’t have a built-in response system to stress and over optimized by leaving no room for randomness and variability.

People who obsessively try to eliminate all randomness and volatility are “fragilistas.” Over-protective parents, comfort seekers, lottery winners etc.

Resilient and Robust

This heuristic symbolizes the mythical Phoenix, that dies by its own fire and is then reborn from its own ashes to its initial state. Even though its immortal, it isn’t any better or worse off from this reincarnation. It simply stays the same and circles around in this cyclical Samsara.

The Phoenix Reborn from Its Own Ashes
The Phoenix Reborn from Its Own Ashes

Being resilient is great – you remain indifferent to change and external events. By the same token, you also lack desire for both the negative as well as the positive. It’s just one big…meh!

For Taleb, resilience is a “sissy” move because you’re accepting the status quo and not seeking out to improve upon the situation. Rest assured, the likelihood of the highly improbable asserts that sh*t will hit the fan sooner or later. Being robust means that you know it’s going to happen and will just stand there waiting for the universe to throw sh*t at you.

The amazing quote by George Bernard Shaw is great for this: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

This is where antifragility comes into play.

Antifragile – Please Mishandle

For the last part of the Triad, Taleb uses the Hydra from Greek mythology, which was a lethal, dreadful serpent monster with multiple heads. If you cut off one of its head, it would immediately grow back 2 in its place. The Hydra would only get stronger by unskilled heroes who didn’t know how to be victorious. Only Hercules realized that the wound needed to be scorched.

Become Antifragile Hydra-like
Become Antifragile Hydra-like

Antifragile objects are small and thus more mobile. They maintain their increased ability to maneuver and be flexible in different situations. Responses to stress are built into the system, such as our skeletal system. Astronauts in space lose their muscle mass and bone strength because of there not being enough stimulus from gravity and impact with ground.

An antifragile thing also has built-in redundancies. Living organisms have 2 lungs, 2 kidneys etc. If one stops working… no worries…there’s a back-up one. Therefore, it’s not always such a good idea to be as efficient with everything as possible. Some extra baggage is needed to survthrive in chaos. The difference is that you’re not hoarding useless functions and gadgets but are still quite frugal.

Being Antifragile

A fragile object has to be put in a tight air sealed box and protected with paddings. You would handle the box with extreme caution, so to not break it. Every action or move you make is dangerous and to be avoided as much as possible. The best most sustainable mode of being would be to simply be there completely still.

Something robust would also be stagnant. Despite its increased resilience and toughness, it would still remain mainly motionless because of its exact nature. It just wouldn’t be negatively influenced by external stressors that much, by the same token, it wouldn’t be eager to face them either. This…meh type of attitude and a mindset of indifference.

On the flip side, being antifragile means that you know how you’re going to be benefiting from adversity and will thus yearn for it. External stressors are just fire to our flames that augment and enhance.

The approach towards life in this case is completely different, because you won’t be cautious nor too lack enthusiasm or involvement. Instead, you approach each situation as an opportunity to learn and emerge as an advanced YOU+ version of yourself.

Become Antifragile

The fact is that being antifragile is the best option there is. No matter what happens – you’ll gain from the situation.

Become Antifragile
Become Antifragile

How to become antifragile then?

What makes something benefit from adversity and Black Swan type of events is the ability to adapt internally and be self-resourceful, thus being independent of external conditions.

Hormesis – the Fire to Our Flames

This phenomenon is called hormesis in biology. When you expose an organism to only a very small dose of a lethal or damaging stimuli, such as physical training, cold exposure, heat, sunlight, fermented foods and intermittent fasting, you will get a beneficial response.

The body will always try to maintain a stable core temperature, blood sugar levels and caloric balance. Hormesis disrupts homeostasis, the state of inner equilibrium. An adequate stress response creates an environment, which requires certain adaptations to take place, so that we could survive. As a result, the organism will then adapt to these new conditions and gets stronger.

But the key notion lies in how much stimulus you’re creating. If it’s too much for the organism to handle, then it will actually get weaker. What makes a poison deadly is the dosage.

Mediocristan vs Extremistan

In Taleb’s earlier book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable he describes 2 models of distribution types for unexpected events.

  • Mediocristan is where normal things happen, where they’re expected, and have low impact. Any single phenomenon or individual will represent only a small part of the total. For example, height, weight and your caloric intake are in this realm. If you take a few hundred people, there is no human whose height significantly differs from the average. You won’t meet someone who is a 1000 feet tall.  Low-impact changes have the highest chances of occurring, and huge, wide-impact ones have a very small probability.
  • Extremistan is a different place. There nothing can be predicted with great accuracy and unlikely, seemingly impossible, events occur frequently and have a huge impact. One single observation or event can completely disrupt the outcome. Imagine a room full of 30 random people. If you calculated the average of their salary, the odds are the average would seem pretty reasonable. However, if you added Bill Gates to the room and then do it again, your average would jump up by a huge margin. One individual would comprise more than 90% of the total draft. Book sales, viral videos and 9/11 type of accidents are all from Extremistan.

Where Are You From?

Mediocristan is what natural, biological evolution looks like and functions. It’s a system with moderate and gradual variation. Our caloric intake belongs here as well. No matter how much you eat at Christmas Eve, you can’t double your weight in a single day. This is the realm, in which the 99.5% of the world lives in.

Non-biological man-made systems, such as business, finance etc. live in much harsher conditions, in Extremistan. Single events have changed history, such as the storming of Bastille and World War I. Sudden, explosive, violent, irreversible. Most of all, unforeseen.

With the development of technology, we’ll be moving further into Extremistan, but we still think we’re in Mediocristan. It’s going to be a winner-takes all effect. If you stand around wondering who the sucker is, then look no further – it’s you.

Don’t Be the Turkey

The famous example Taleb uses in his book is the Thanksgiving turkey. “Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race ‘looking out for its best interests,’ as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.” We all know what people eat at Thanksgiving dinner, and that butchers are especially busy during holidays.

A Complete Paradigm Shift for the Turkey
A Complete Paradigm Shift for the Turkey

It’s foolish to base our future forecasts a posteriori because it predisposes us to be dependent of events that have happened in the past. Our mind will always default to this mode and expects things to stay the same because it likes comfort.

First rule of Extremistan: “Don’t be a turkey.”

By the same token, for something to have a significant impact, it needs to be a Black Swan. This applies to physiological adaptations as well. Evolution happens gradually, but in order for something to take affect it needs to be instigated by something powerful. You don’t get stronger by lifting a pillow off the ground millions of times. On the flip side, deadlift 400 pounds only for a few repetitions and you get a much greater response.

Controlled Randomness

It’s in our nature to want to avoid change because any deviation from homeostasis forces us to exert more energy and makes us adapt to novelty. We’re slaves to our habits and want things to happen exactly the way we want them to.

Despite our hardest efforts, what’s certain is that the only constant is change. Uncertainty is an innate part of the conduct of the cosmos. We can never be completely sure what’s going to happen to us next.

Complete randomness is, by virtue, complete randomness. What about controlled randomness – deliberate carving of oneself into antifragility. That could work.

Strategies to Become Antifragile

Now I’ll go through the different ways of forging yourself into antifragility. Through fire and steel, by sweat and blood, we will get stronger and augment our being.

Adversity is to be expected and yearned for.”

It’s not the challenge per se that makes us better but the overcoming aspect of it that does so. In difficult situations and in adverse conditions we’re forced to adapt to novel stimuli. As a result, we bulletproof ourselves to whatever might happen to us.

The Antifragile Body

These are the activities you can do to become physically antifragile as an organism.

  • Resistance training – Lifting weights and doing heavy resistance training in any shape or form requires you to contract your muscle fibers at an immense rate. As a result, the body recognizes the necessity of increasing their size and efficiency, thus you get stronger and increase your bone density as well. The key notion lies in doing it HEAVY. A 400 pound deadlift is a much greater stimulus than lifting a pillow millions of times.
  • High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – By the same token, doing HIIT causes similar adaptations as resistance training. You’ll hit your cardiovascular system with a sledgehammer and thus create a much greater response than doing slow jogging for hours upon end.
  • Intermittent fasting The eating patterns of our ancestors were Black Swan events – feasts and famine. Absence of food is actually very beneficial for us. The body perceives that small stress response as a signal to maximize nutrient partitioning and speed up protein synthesis. You trigger immense growth and augmenting processes that clear your system and make you sharper. By the same token, if coupled with feasting, it can yield extremely anabolic effects.
  • Cold/Heat exposure – Temperature is an external stimulus that causes us to regulate our core temperature. In the modern world we’re experiencing less fluctuations in this regard. We have central heating and can wear fluffy clothes to keep ourselves warm.
    • Exposure to cold increases our ability to voluntarily control our autonomic nervous system by regulating our inner thermostat. Take cold showers, ice baths, wear less clothes and sleep with only your sheets.
    • Extreme heat makes us sweat more, which detoxifies the skin and body from toxins. However, you don’t want to be chronically too hot either. Take saunas, do Bikram yoga and get a sweat on during training daily.
  • Fermented foods – Eating food with live bacteria in them is incredibly good for the gut. This keeps the microbiome healthy and supports the immune system as well as your cognitive functioning. Eat sauerkraut, kimchi, raw unpasteurized milk, kefir, yogurt, pickles etc.

The Antifragile Mind

Now, take your mind beyond resilience.

  • Stoicism – An ancient school of philosophy, which basically teaches the person to be less dependent of external material objects, such as wealth, family and people. Instead, one should seek happiness in virtue and in oneself. Any negative event that happens to you is an opportunity to practice some type of virtuous behavior e. forgiveness, antifragility, adaptability, concentration etc.
  • Practice via negativa – It’s the act of first removing the downside before you add more things to your life to make it better. You substract afflictive habits, activities, objects and people who make you weaker. Stop eating unhealthy food before you start taking supplements.
  • Seek out novelty – Deliberately make yourself face new and uncertain situations. This forces you to adapt to the stress and conditions you to handling random events. Whatever happens to you, you’ll be able to benefit from it because of having the reference experience of over-arching adeptness.
  • The Barbell Strategy – Taleb describe this method as a “dual attitude of playing it safe in some areas and taking a lot of small risks in others, hence achieving antifragility.” Small risks expose you to the potential gain you get from adversity, whereas playing it safe prevents you from completely being wiped out. For instance, keep your day job, but at night also take massive action on your side hustle. Slowly progress towards becoming completely independent.
The Barbell Strategy
The Barbell Strategy
  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable – Getting too comfortable is the worst thing you could do to your antifragility. Constantly being on the positive side of life will condition you to become lazy and slow. You’ll “lose your gains” without constantly facing stimulus that forces you to adapt. The Hydra won’t grow a new head unless one of them gets cut off. You have to cultivate the skill of moving inside the eye of the storm and dwell in it. Once you get used to being uncomfortable, you could walk through hell and back without giving a damn. Examples: cold showers, walk in the rain, talk to strangers, do public speaking, do the things you’re afraid of.
  • Maintain your mobility – Don’t grow too large and accumulate a lot of baggage, thus become fragile, if you know what I mean. Maintain your flexibility in everything you do. Don’t become too rigid with your activities. Always have a back-up plan and add redundancies e. 2 lungs, a savings account etc. Definitely don’t sell your second kidney. Also, don’t get too attached to anything in life, whether that be people, locations or events. Be willing to embrace Black Swan events at an instance. When it’s go time, you’ll know it and are ready.

Deliberately Become Antifragile

What separates us from the mythical Hydra is that we can choose to be antifragile. It was the nature of the serpent to have a self-growing physiology. We as humans have something similar but we also possess higher levels of consciousness. We’re meta-aware about Black Swans and antifragility, thus we can deliberately create environments of controlled randomness.

Such voluntary forging of greatness was also the result of why Spartans became the best warriors of all time. Instead of dwelling comfort all the time, they sought after adversity themselves, thus their toughness quadrupled.

The Agoge was the rigorous training regimen of Spartan youth. We don’t have to go through the same brutal conditioning to achieve similar results.

Body mind empowerment is an idea of enhancing your physical and mental performance across all domains, including antifragility. It’s also about becoming more conscious as a person and thus improving upon the condition of mankind as a whole. 

Get the FREE Body Mind Agoge Book and start empowering yourself.
P.S. Check out my YouTube channel for a review about Antifragile.

Body Mind Agoge Cover
Body Mind Agoge Cover
  • Jeff Ben

    Great post. Very well written. You took some complicated ideas and explained them very well.

  • Lee Witt

    I agree with Jeff below. You made Taleb’s work very accessible. Nicely done.