Antifragility: How to Turn Your Business Into an Immortal Hydra
The fragile breaks — the resilient resists — the antifragile gets stronger.
The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Badass quote, but what exactly is antifragility?
It’s a concept coined by mathematician and philosopher
Nassim Nicholas Taleb who explained that antifragility seems intuitive until you take a moment to think about it.
Say you’re about to send a gift to your parents, say, a beautiful Japanese vase that would look perfect in their living room. In the post office, you pick up a box labeled “Fragile — please handle with care,” written in red letters.
We all know it doesn’t take much for porcelain to break into a thousand pieces.
Now, imagine your Japanese wasn’t made of porcelain. Instead, it’s made of an antifragile material invented recently. What kind of box would you pick for your gift? Most people would answer “a normal box.” After all, “antifragile” should mean “robust”, or “solid.” You know, something that resists shocks.
Well, that’s an incorrect way to picture antifragility.
If your Japanese vase was indeed antifragile, you’d pick a box labeled “Antifragile — please handle carelessly.” Why?
Antifragility benefits from shocks. You want your strange vase to experience as many accidents as possible to reach your parents in the best possible state.
Seems a bit strange? Great. You’re starting to understand the concept and you’ll get a better hang of it as we explore a few practical aspects of antifragility.
How antifragile systems behave
The easiest way to understand the behavior of antifragile systems is to compare them with other types of systems.
Stress response of fragile, resilient, and antifragile systems.
- A fragile system is like glass. It breaks after a shock.
- A resilient system is like rubber. It recovers after enduring stress.
- An antifragile system is like a muscle. It becomes stronger after getting torn in the gym.
Here’s another snippet from Taleb’s wisdom on how antifragile systems work.
The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means — crucially — a love of errors, a certain class of errors.
Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them — and do them well.
Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time. [emphasis mine]
Also noteworthy; antifragility isn’t always positive.
For instance, obsessive one-sided love is antifragile. The more rejection it faces, the stronger it becomes. Yet such love is often toxic for both parties. In the best-case scenario, it ends up with heartbreak and in worse cases, it leads to harassment and other wrongdoings.
Concrete example — Netflix’s journey to antifragility
When people talk about antifragility, they often mention a particular creature from Greek mythology. The Hydra is a serpent-like monster that has several heads. Each time you cut one of those heads, the Hydra regrow two in its place.
Hercules fighting the Hydra. Source — Wikimedia Commons
In other words, the Hydra benefits from stress and adversity. It instantly becomes stronger. Thus, it’s the perfect illustration of antifragility.
Now, let’s jump forward to the modern era, more precisely to the summer of 2011. In July of that year, Netflix revealed the strategy they use to keep their online servers up and running despite random bugs and breakdowns.
For a company that makes money by streaming videos, a crash of its website is the worst thing that could happen. They knew they couldn’t afford a fragile digital structure. They also knew that Nassim Nicholas Taleb was right when he said: “We’re better at doing than we are at thinking.”
So, instead of theorizing about technical failures, they built a Chaos Monkey.
The logo of Netflix’s Chaos Monkey — Wikipedia
Netflix’s Choas Monkey is a piece of software that walks around their online architecture causing all kinds of trouble. Imagine a hyper-active chimp with a baseball bat in a shop full of Japanese vases.
The idea was that if Netflix’s “shop” could survive a Chaos Monkey, it could also survive a cyber earthquake. Of course, they had software engineers ready to repair broken vases and capture the digital monster whenever it goes too berserk.
As you may have guessed, these self-inflicted disasters strengthened Netflix’s system. It managed to survive real complications like unknown bugs, unpredictable breakdowns, and random attacks.
You could say the Chaos Monkey got Netflix’s online architecture closer to becoming an Immortal Hydra. The former made the latter more antifragile.
Note that Netflix’s infrastructure would cease to become antifragile if the Chaos Monkey was to stop trying to destroy it. Being an Immortal Hydra, then, is a dynamic state — a state where you voluntarily expose yourself to chaos and uncertainty.
Five tips to develop antifragility in your business
Similar to Netflix, you’ll have to design your own antifragility systems, your Antifragility Monkeys so to speak.
Your systems don’t have to be fancy though. They can be anything from a daily habit to a simple rule of thumb. What’s important is to constantly challenge your work methods and explore new avenues.
As a result, you continuously strengthen your business and prepare it for the unexpected. Antifragility is a dynamic state, remember?
Here are a few varied examples some of which I’ve used firsthand.
- Constant tweaking breeds mastery: My sister is an excellent cook. Her secret is to never bake the same recipe twice. Instead, she tinkers — a pinch of spice here, a spoonful of honey there, and voilà. Recipe upgraded.
- Decisions don’t have to be perfect to work: When Jeff Bezos makes a decision, he acts as soon he has 70% of the information needed to make that decision. The idea is to act fast and course-correct later.
- Redundancy equals safety: My former client in Paris Airport built a redundant baggage handling system. If the main machinery goes bust, the backup takes over and ensures continuous service.
- Questioning your process makes it better: When my favorite blogger writes, he systematically asks himself: “What’s wrong with this article?” He does it several times until he fixes every issue he can identify.
- Unless you learn to fail, you’ll fail to learn: Silicon Valley is a place where startups are encouraged to fail. Their philosophy is that if you try enough crazy ideas, some of them will stick.
Fragility and antifragility are relative
In a world that never stops shaking under risk and uncertainty, you don’t want to be a Japanese vase. You want to be a Hydra.
At least, in theory.
In practice, fragility and antifragility are relative, not absolutes. You can never be 100% antifragile but if you try, you’ll already be ahead of most of the population.
So what are you waiting for?
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