Moving beyond fragility and resilience, Nassim Nicholas Taleb draws our attention to a new word to the English language: antifragility. He defines this as the ability to benefit, thrive or grow when exposed to “shocks … volatility, randomness, disorder, … stressors … risk, and uncertainty.” Unimaginable as this may seem, the author notes that antifragility is Illustrated in how “lack of stress (here, bones under a weight-bearing load) can cause aging.” Similarly, drawing from Greek mythology, the author points out that while Damocles could easily be killed from the sword dangling over his head, demonstrating fragility, a phoenix is reborn from its ashes, amazingly bouncing back. But what is most intriguing is that a hydra grows two heads when one head is cut off. The hydra thus goes beyond resilience to being antifragile.
Using several chapters grouped into seven sections, Taleb carefully examines this important subject highlighting the value of leveraging the opportunity for growth that is hidden in every challenge. For example, reflecting on the crisis that overtook his homeland, he states:
My Levantine village of origin, Amioun, was pillaged and evacuated during the war, sending its inhabitants into exile across the planet. Twenty-five years later, it became opulent, having bounced back with a vengeance: my own house, dynamited, is now bigger than the previous version. My father, showing me the multiplication of villas in the countryside while bemoaning these nouveaux riches, calmly told me, “You, too, had you stayed here, would have become a beach bum. People from Amioun only do well when shaken.” That’s antifragility.
In view of this I am compelled to question why the low-income community I am privileged to serve has not learned from this, regardless of whatever is responsible for their difficult circumstances. Perhaps pain is an indispensable part in the journey to significance. I often wonder if my community does not regard pain as a final destination, instead of a stop-over.
Antifragile reminds me of Bolsinger’s argument in support of the need for leaders to be tempered. Inspired by the practice of blacksmithing, Bolsinger describes tempering as a multi-layered process of:
heating, holding, hammering, cooling, and reheating that adds stress to raw iron until it becomes a glistening knife blade or chisel tip … [ultimately resulting in] something greater than the sum of its parts.
Bolsinger admits that “leading change is difficult. It requires us to hew hope out of despair.” Sometimes this hope seems out of reach, but history is filled with example after example of individuals who were defined by their hope. In other words, Taleb and Bolsinger both suggest that antifragility is an essential characteristic of leadership. We see antifragility demonstrated in leaders like George Washington, Martin Luther King, Mandela, Tutu and many others. This also suggests that life’s challenges may be viewed from the perspective of opportunities to transition from survival to resilience to antifragility.
Taleb’s work also brings to mind Eve Poole’s book, Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership. Right from the beginning, Poole identifies eight important stakeholders in the leadership ecosystem: leaders in training; learning and development practitioners; executive coaches; weary leaders; talents; leaders in transition; and others. In other words, everyone has the potential to be antifragile.
Some would argue that Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame resembles an antifragile political leader. Against the background of a bitter genocide that claimed the lives of some one million of his countrymen, Kagame has managed to lead his country into greater prominence than it previously enjoyed. Among the country’s many achievements is her ranking as the sixth safest country in the world (and the safest in Africa) for solo travelers. Widely regarded as a benevolent dictator, Kagame is one African leader I hope to study in my search for modern individuals that exemplify antifragility. It is my hope that our generation would see many more examples of antifragility, and like Taleb, many more promoters of it.
 Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. (New York. Random House, 2012), 3.
 Taleb, Antifragile, 58.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid, 203.
 Bolsinger, Tod. Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change. (Downers Grove, Illinois. Intervarsity Press, 2020), 5.
 Bolsinger, Tempered Resilience, 209.
 Poole, Eve. Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership. (London. Bloomsbury Business, 2017) location 55.
9 responses to “Beyond Resilience”
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Henry: What wonderful connections between this reading and the others that we’ve encountered thus far. You write of the low-income communities you work with, “Perhaps pain is an indispensable part in the journey to significance. I often wonder if my community does not regard pain as a final destination, instead of a stop-over.” As you’ve reflected on this over the last few days and even in your NPO, have you been closer to identifying a root that would lead to this outcome/perspective?
Kayli, as always, thanks for being so gracious. A few things come to mind as I reflect over the “roots” that could result in low-income communities embracing an antifragility mindset. First, a hope rooted in Christ. While all outward circumstances (like high level corruption, generational poverty, etc) may spell doom, low-income community members can hope in a God who raises the dead, makes water come out of a rock, and rains down manna from heaven if needed. Second, I think an asset-based mindset instead of a need-based one would be extremely helpful. It will help residents in these areas consider what is strong, instead of what is wrong. Finally, taking personal responsibility for development, instead of waiting for government and external agencies will make a huge difference.
Henry, I appreciate the connection you made between this reading and Eve Poole’s book and the optimistic view that everyone can achieve antifragility. You reference how hard it is for people in low-income communities to embrace stress. I believe the difficulty with struggle is universal right now. I was part of a funeral today for a 15 year-old young lady that took her own life. Her family does not struggle financially. She was popular and gifted. What do you think is missing in communities doing better with the “stuff” that makes up life but struggles with relatively small amounts of challenge?
Hmmmm! Roy, you raise a very important question. I think there are no easy answers but would suggest that suicide is based on hopelessness – the inability to see a way out from whatever problem that lead to the feeling of wanting to end one’s life. I think Judas, who probably qualifies as the non-poor, lost sight of the hope of forgiveness (although he’d seen Jesus forgive Zacchaeus and others), and once he reached that point, he took his life. On the contrary, Peter, Thomas and other apostles also fell short of the mark in various ways, but their sorrow was not a hopeless one; as such they were able to receive forgiveness, restoration and even advance in their spiritual journey. For me that’s antifragility. Again, no easy answers.
Well written, brother. My interest was peaked by this statement but I was left hanging!! Tell me, do you have any ideas to the question?
In view of this I am compelled to question why the low-income community I am privileged to serve has not learned from this, regardless of whatever is responsible for their difficult circumstances.
Eric, I wish I had the answer. But my guess is that in addition to a deep sense of hopelessness there’s a need-based mindset instead of an asset-based one. So instead of seeing the God-given talents, knowledge, physical assets, relationships, etc, there’s a focus on the deficiencies, and it is overwhelming. Finally, I think there’s very little thinking about taking personal responsibility for development, instead most look to government and external agencies to do what only the community can do for themselves
Henry: Great example of antifragility with Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame. The task he had to face and how he has handled it is a great lesson for other leaders to follow. Negative examples are everywhere, but positive examples like his helps us to understand this philosophical concept in the real, nitty-gritty world of politics.
Troy, you’re very right. We need more real-world, concrete examples of antifragility to appreciate its impact in our world. Of course Kagame is not without his faults. In a recent conversation I was enlightened about some of his “unconventional” practices in making sure that everyone in the country tows the line. Things I wrestle with a lot. But I cannot deny that he’s made a significant difference in his country.
Henry, thank you for this well written personal reflection of the book within your context. Your pondering about the people you serve being stuck in their pain is a powerful and profound question. I am wondering if within the culture they have a means for identifying that pain and a process for overcoming it? For me personally, I have to embrace the idea of Christ endured the Cross because he was able to see the joy on the other side.