The term antifragility was introduced into the English language by Nassim Taleb when writing his book of the same name which appeared in 2013. I was somewhat chuffed to learn about this concept as it verified an observation I had made some 50 years ago.
It was in the early days of my marriage. Divorce was not nearly as common as it is today. Despite this fact, I did have within my social circle, sufficient acquaintances who had decided to terminate their marriage. I remember giving some thought to the fate of children whose parents divorced when they were still young. I had noticed that the children of my friends who emerged from a family of divorce were either better adjusted psychologically than the average child, or had a greater number of psychological difficulties than the most of their peers.
An example of Antifragility
How does this relate to antifragility, you may ask? To understand this term, we need first to understand that things such as glass objects are fragile, while articles made of steel are strong and robust. But, what do we call something which grows in strength when offered a series of moderate setbacks? This is what antifragility is all about. Interestingly enough Taleb recognised this condition in the banking system when he was a successful investor and studied the ups and downs of the stock market.
Psychological and Physiological Antifragility
I am, however, more interested in how the term anti-fragility helps us to understand both psychological behaviour and the physiology of the body. Small struggles of the mind and body tend to make us stronger. If your muscles are not used they become weaker. If our muscles are overused they are damaged. But if our muscles are used a little bit more each day, or each week , they then grow stronger. The same can be said of the immune system. A few germs in the environment are necessary for the development of immunity.
Returning to my Early Experience
To return to my observation of many years ago, I now have an interpretation for this early hypothesis. If the amount of stress of their parent’s divorce is handled optimally, the children can emerge with greater resilience; they become antifragile. However, if the stress of the divorce procedure is beyond the capacity of the child to process, then that child will suffer emotional damage.
Resilience and Antifragility
Linda Graham is an American psychologist who has written a brilliant book on resilience. She describes resilience as the learned capacity to cope with adversity. Developing resilience over one’s lifespan illustrates the concept of anti-fragility. Graham in her latest weekly blog was referenced a book written by Johnathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff called the Coddling of the American Mind In this book, the authors document how child-rearing practices in America are overprotecting growing children. Parents are not allowing them to experience the challenges which have been a traditional part of growing up.
Today parents are so concerned about the physical safety of their children that there is a tendency to overprotect them. As a result, today children in cities have to be under parental protection 24 hours a day. Children are no longer allowed to be on the streets without adult supervision. Parents can be punished for allowing their children to participate in activities that the current law considers to be dangerous. Thus a child cannot be allowed to go to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. The growing child does not participate in the tasks which allow them to develop their independence. Several decades ago, a child reared in the city could go to visit friends in the local neighbourhood, play in the streets, or make their way to the park without adult supervision. Today these growth experiences are denied because of what many people perceive as over-protective regulations.
A Commencement Speech
The benefits of encouraging an antifragile lifestyle are beautifully illustrated in the words of John Roberts, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, in his commencement speech to his son’s middle school:
He said, “From time to time in the years to come:
- I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.
- I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.
- Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. ·
- I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and the failure of others is not completely deserved either. ·
- I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.
- Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”
The Reader’s Contribution
Would you like to share your experience of the role of antifragility in your own life? Let the other readers know how you have benefitted from the challenges you have overcome. How you have emerged with greater strength?