I really enjoyed Taleb’s book The Black Swan, and picked up his Antifragile shortly after it came out. I started it, and was enjoying it, but stalled out for some reason. I don’t remember. It was dark. They were big. His book found itself in my lamentably large and scattered collection of partly read books. But somewhere in my mind was the thought of finishing it, which I just did a short time ago. Really glad I did.
There are places here and there where you have to tolerate some dogmatic bombast from Taleb—he is the kind of guy, as the saying goes, who is “sometimes wrong, but never in doubt”—but the central thesis of this book is pure gold.
Some might want to dismiss his central thesis as a glib attempt to prove that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Taleb knows this, but so did your grandmother. The real point of the book has to do with what toughness actually looks like, how it behaves, how it configures itself before the going gets tough—in short, how does it anticipate the inevitable tough times? And this is where Taleb’s point gets really interesting and is entirely counterintuitive.
Institutions, corporations, management systems, biological organisms can be fragile, robust, or antifragile. According to Taleb, fragile systems require predictability. They want the environment to be placid, and they want as much protection as possible from external stressors. Robust systems do okay when they are in trouble; they are resilient. But antifragile systems are complicated, and they positively thrive in the midst of chaos. Chaos is the soil in which they grow and flourish.
In peaceful times, a fragile system can give out the appearance of stability, but this is just a mask for the fragility. And because it is easy to be foolish, many people strive for just that appearance. Not many people know that the house built on sand had a five-star rating.
“Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (Matt. 7:24–27).
That’s your fragile system, right there.
Two historical examples of fragile systems that did not appear to be at all fragile were the Soviet Union prior to its collapse, and medieval Christendom prior to the Reformation. When subsequent events overtook them—the kind of rare but extreme happening that Taleb calls a Black Swan—their fragility was exposed.
Fragile systems are cowardly, and function in a CYA mode much of the time. Because the world is filled with risk, the way that fragile systems manage this is by trying to outsource the risk. But the best way to cultivate an antifragile system is not through recklessness, but by means of a carefully thought-through “skin in the game” approach.
A lot of pastors could benefit from gleaning the principles found in this book. They want to build a peaceful church that is free of controversy, and so instead they build a fragile one that is entirely vulnerable to controversy. In the name of fighting off infections, they put their immune system under a ban. The elders issue a chin-stroking statement that antibodies are the troublers of the body.
In case anybody is still curious about it, the applications for the Reformed evangelical network in North America are numerous. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard pastors insisting on fragility as though it were one of the fruits of the Spirit. They demand cultivation of fragility as though it were a cardinal virtue. And because this is how the world works, what they have insisted upon they have certainly gotten. Fragility is our middle name.
“And he gave them their request; But sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15).