Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Fire-Activated Seeds

Written by: on October 26, 2022

Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder is precisely what I would picture if I were asked to describe a philosophical and informational theory book. Taleb, a Lebanese-American statistician and philosopher, dives deep into the necessity of stressors as a pathway towards growth. While I do feel the book was a bit long winded and he took a roundabout way to get to his major points at time, there were structural components of this book that I found helpful and could envision utilizing in the future:

  • Chapter Summaries and Map, located just after the table of contents, provides readers with the 30,000-foot view of the book, the key markers, and what to look for in each chapter.
  • His use of story to illustrate a concept was helpful. For those like me, my brain cannot live in the philosophical alone. Using the trail versus treadmill image when he states, “an environment with variability (hence randomness) does not expose us to chronic stress injury, unlike human-designed systems”[1] allowed me to comprehend more fully something that I likely would have been fuzzy on if it hadn’t been added. These images are found all throughout.
  • The Graphical Tour of the Book, literally mapping the fragilities, provided another layer for the reader who may be more visually inclined to understand the concepts.

While largely heady, Taleb provides multiple avenues for the reader to engage with the content, ultimately reaching a far broader audience in the process.

Coming off discussions of Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension in which he drives home that “we can know more than we can tell,” Taleb makes what I consider a parallel statement with antifragility.[2] “Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them – and to do them well.”[3] These stressors he speaks of that we encounter, whether we are open to them or resist them, are ultimately for our growth and development. For organizations, there is a necessity for stressors to bring about innovation and change. Taleb states, “organisms need to die for nature to be antifragile—nature is opportunistic, ruthless, and selfish.”[4] Nature knows what it needs to survive, even if that is enduring a stressor. Looking further into nature,

“Some species actually require fire for their seeds to sprout. Some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, Eucalyptus, and Banksia, have serotinous cones or fruits that are completely sealed with resin. These cones/fruits can only open to release their seeds after the heat of a fire has physically melted the resin.”[5]

If there were never wildfires in some regions, there would never be opportunities for certain plants and trees to repopulate in that space. The resistance to fires would mean the resistance to new growth, which is what Taleb narrows down to for me. What in my life is covered in a serotinous shell that needs a bit of fire right now? What is being activated when the stressor comes?

While I can loosely understand and appreciate the larger concept that Taleb delves into, this statement is what causes me to develop more questions:

“Our antifragilities have conditions. The frequency of stressors matters a bit. Humans tend to do better with acute than chronic stressors, particularly when the former are followed by ample time for recovery, which allows for the stressors to do their job as messengers.”[6]

He very well could have addressed this, and I not realized it, but I wonder what happens when there is not a recovery time between stressors. Do the stressors still serve the same impact? Do they compound and have the ability to cause unintended consequences? How many stressors in a row tips the scales into ‘too many’ stressors in a row? As someone who feels I have been faced with numerous challenges sequentially and not provided recovery time, are those stressors able to do their messaging?

If we can know more than we can tell and do things well without understanding them, I find myself pointed back to the mystery of the created beings that we are. The inner workings of how we are wired, how our brains have been created to function, how little we actually control in our ‘being’ as we tend to focus on the doing. So, I leave this week reading with little clarity and more questions.

[1] Taleb, 64.

[2] Polanyi, x.

[3] Taleb, 4.

[4] Ibid., 67.

[5] Britannica, accessed at https://www.britannica.com/list/5-amazing-adaptations-of-pyrophytic-plants#:~:text=Fire%2Dactivated%20Seed&text=Some%20plants%2C%20such%20as%20the,has%20physically%20melted%20the%20resin.

[6] Taleb, 58.

About the Author

Kayli Hillebrand

Associate Dean of International and Experiential Education

5 responses to “Fire-Activated Seeds”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    This book was indeed heady and at times wordy, but I also found it insightful and even at times, profound. You ask good questions about stressors: how frequently, how much rest between them, etc… I thought of my cross country days in high school. My coach knew just when we need to put in a lot of miles, and when to ease up, when to do speed work, when to run slowly. It get’s very scientific and detail orientated and more on this subject would have been helpful. I think stressors work the same with our spiritual growth…do you?

    • Kayli Hillebrand says:

      I’d agree, Troy. If we look at the life of Jesus, you can see the different ‘stressors’ he encountered, how he reacted, their varying intensity up to his death, and throughout it all, his desire and insistence on silence & solitude with the Father.

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Kayli, your post was a great read. I echo what you say about needing examples when it comes to philosophical content. A question from one of you statements – you wrote: “For organizations, there is a necessity for stressors to bring about innovation and change.” How have you found that true in your context of higher education? Is there an example of that from your own experience?

  3. mm Andy Hale says:


    What an excellent assessment of the book. Since you zeroed into the stressor factor of the book, do you think he put enough emphasis on paying attention to the stress we manage with an antifragile approach to life? Do you imagine unprepared people thinking they can take on the world but not realizing they have not prepared themselves for self-care, soul-care, familial care, boundaries, and on?

  4. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Kayli, Taleb indicates that we should let nature take its course. Are there lessons from nature that can inform your question, “I wonder what happens when there is not a recovery time between stressors. “?

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