The Failure of Fragility
Nassim Taleb centers his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder around the base concept that individuals and systems must pursue something beyond resiliency in the face of adversity. He proposes that we must become antifragile, and that there are three modes which all forms can take: fragile, robust, anti-fragile. Taleb writes, “[…] the fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much. Taleb coined the word “antifragile” to refer to the opposite of fragile. He found that if he asked someone, “What is the opposite of fragile?” people often responded with words like resilient or robust. But truly, if something is fragile and it hits the ground, then it breaks. Antifragile refers to things that grow or become stronger when they break or encounter difficulty.
Taleb sees fragility as a modern problem to some extent. As life has become more predictable and randomness negated, the foundations of life at both micro and macro levels from individuals, to banks, to national governments have become susceptible to the Taleb’s construct of fragility. He uses the metaphor of a person who lays in bed all day every day for a long period of time. As soon as they attempt to get up and walk, their bones may break and body fall into disrepair. In contrast we may think of trail running – how no two steps are the same. Randomness and disorder, Taleb asserts, is what develops antifragility.
Antifragility is not good or bad but is amoral. The question we must ask when it comes to antifragility is, what is that is being made stronger? For example, is disorder serving to strengthen the ego’s narratives, and thereby suppressing the self? Or is it serving a greater integration of the self into consciousness?
I am also intrigued by the theological implications of antifragility. Many Protestant Evangelicals of various streams are often unconscious to how theological assumptions guide their lives. Generally speaking, theological correctness is valued over and above the process of theologizing. So, when such individuals or system encounter disorder and randomness, theological fragility is exposed, and a catastrophic split can occur in one’s faith identity. It is at this point that we often see people leave their churches, faith communities, or Christianity altogether. Commonly this process is called deconstruction, and is frequently met with disdain by remaining Evangelicals. However, from a Talebian lens, deconstruction and resulting reconstruction (in whatever form it takes) is a way of choosing to live out antifragility.
Taleb asserts that nature itself is antifragile, and if we believe that creation is made in the image of God, then our theology must also reflect this image. Christian leaders must ask themselves if their theological landscape reflects the antifragile image of the Divine or the more recent egoic image of modern rational thought.
I come away from this book with more curiosities than answers. I am curious at the connection between fragility, capitalism, and consumerism, and particularly how this has impacted Evangelicalism and broader American systems that iterate “the customer is always right.”
I resonate with the basic premise of this book for the most part. In fact, in some ways it undergirds my entire project which is centered on shadow work; that entering into one’s shadow provides an encounter with disorder and greater antifragility. Likewise, avoiding one’s shadow is a highly fragile approach as it threatens to knock life off rotation the moment it shows up in our relationships, kids, or workplace. Shadow work says, that which we think will kill us, will actually lead to abundance. However, I have concerns and suspicions of how this concept of antifragility can be used to undercut the legitimate claims of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. it reminds me of the troped refrain that “Millennials, want everything handed to them.” Or, equating my generation with “snowflakes” that think they are special and need to be coddled. Of course, we know that is simply not based in reality, and those who peddled this trope were likely caught in their own shadow projection.
I heard Nassim Taleb speak virtually to Ukrainian university students in Kiev about a week after the Russian invasion in May. He shared that he too had grown up in civil war in Lebanon, and how even in such situations, we must continue to live life while staying as safe as possible. My sense and experience with books like Antifragility and The Coddling of the American Mind are used by fragile voices to disown their own fragility onto minorities and oppressed people-ironically, those who’ve already cultivated deep antifragility.
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Random House Publishing Group, 2012). 20.
3 responses to “The Failure of Fragility”
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Michael, great thoughts in this post, as usual. I do have a desire to hear a little more about one comment you make. You wrote:”…deconstruction and resulting reconstruction (in whatever form it takes) is a way of choosing to live out antifragility.” Can you help me understand the connection between deconstruction and antifragility? By deconstruction, I’m thinking especially of the type you reference as leaving faith altogether.
Michael thank you for sharing your challenging thoughts on this book. Can you unpack this statement a bit more, “I have concerns and suspicions of how this concept of antifragility can be used to undercut the legitimate claims of racism, sexism, homophobia,”? Are there ways antifragility can support these communities?
Michael, this was a very complete, and impressive summary of the book. I can tell that you have done a lot of work in this area, wrestling with what is being changed and for what purpose. Was there anything in particular that you are able to apply to your workshops?