Antifragile Systems

Antifragile book coverThe title of the new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb contains a new word for your vocabulary: “Antifragile”. It refers to systems that are the opposite of fragile — systems that are not merely resilient or robust in the face of adversity, but that actually thrive in stressful conditions. Taleb’s book is a fascinating exploration of the old adage, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, which (as Taleb explains) applies not only to biological systems, but to medical, economic, and political systems as well. I’ve only skimmed the book so far, but it looks like its worth a deeper read.

I find it interesting, however, that the IEEE fellow, Robert W. Lucky, finds it hard to identify a single example of an engineered system that manifests this trait. His article on Antifragile Systems in IEEE Spectrum (Mar ’13), attempts to suggest a few meager examples, but they fall far short (at least in my mind). The grand world of engineering and technology bear potent witness to the limitations of all our sophisticated sciences: our brightest minds can build things that, at best, only tolerate adverse conditions, but none that can actually use them to their advantage.

I think that distinction is what separates successful people from perpetual strugglers. The successful ones have discovered one of God’s best kept secrets: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perserverance” (Jas 1:2-3). To some, such an exhortation seems like positive thinking or wishful optimism. Quite to the contrary, this is a brilliant statement of the functional design that has been engineered into every living system on God’s green earth. (Stubborn intellects find, in this design pattern, evidence of evolution — attributing the trait to a random cosmic accident. But the fact that our greatest engineers cannot reproduce this quality in any of our human creations exposes the futility of this line of thinking, and highlights instead the majestic brilliance of our Sovereign Creator.)

Success in the face of challenges is our birthright — bestowed on all of us (both good and evil) by a loving and benevolent Creator. But it is our choice whether to embrace it or not. Those who do remind me of men like Drew Brees, whose autobiograhy is titled “Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity”. Drew has discovered the counterintuitive realization that God has given us the power to be “more than conquerors.” Our Lord never intended us just to survive in the difficult times. He has designed us to THRIVE. He has wired us to be ANTIFRAGILE.

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