Designing for Anti-Fragility

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Principles Series
Last Edit
Apr 3, 2022 01:48 PM
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Nicholas Nassim Taleb is most well-known for his book, The Black Swan, which speaks about the outlier events that the normal distribution tends not to capture and are inherently unpredictable. Since then, he’s kept on as a very original and outspoken thinker who has presented many controversial ideas. One of the more recent one’s that has been met quite receptively is the concept of anti-fragility.

What is anti-fragility?

The gist of anti-fragility is this: some things are fragile, and when they are stressed, they break. Physical goods are a simple but obvious example: if you smash a table or burn a chair, they break. This concept holds when we look at systems, even if they are more complex. At least when things are first engineered, if they experience a stress, they will often break. Think of a production line, a software system, or even the first attempt at a social gathering. They’ll tend to bias toward fragility.
The opposite of fragility though, is anti-fragility. An anti-fragile system is one that improves as it experiences stressors. Nature boasts many of the best examples. Take our immune system for instance: as it is exposed to various stressors, it builds up immunities to those – something we spoke about in covering the case of peanut allergies. Obviously this is true only up to a certain point – certain stressors will still overwhelm an immune system. But it trends toward anti-fragility.
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Designing for it:

This is a good concept to merge with a point made by Naval Ravikant in his recent interview with Joe Rogan. In reluctantly speaking about politics, Naval noted that our systems would be in much better shape if each side realized that the other may gain control of said system, and that a good test for a political system is to assume that the other guys will get to run it for five years. Or better yet, actually have them run it for the first five years!
This would undoubtedly result in a more robust and anti-fragile political system. Systems would need to take into account many of the edge cases and loopholes that could be exploited by (from their perspective) malintentioned actors. The systems would more likely be simpler as a result and have it be much harder to break as a result.
Indeed, if you look at the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, it is clear that this kind of thinking was involved in our founding. Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton all wrote about the risks of power grabs and abuse of rules in the new government and voiced concerns that now feel prescient 200-plus years later. One favorite comes from Federalist Paper #62: “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”
That all said, this view works outside of politics. Business systems should be designed to handle bad or (more likely) incompetent actors. Technology always needs to be built to handle a whole variety or stressors. And your personal life can learn from this mindset as well to be designed knowing that you’ll have various motivations, moods, and mindsets throughout the week.
To design any such system to have anti-fragile elements takes time and thought, but it will also lead to exponentially improved in the long run.