Natural systems become stronger each time they’re confronted by a disruptive event. They improve not by resisting change but by adapting to changing circumstances. You might say that they learn from experience. In biology, the best “mistakes” – mutations that bestow an advantage – endure, while those that don’t eventually disappear.
The same rules apply to systems created by humans. Yet many people want to stop that undulating course of the world’s complex systems by trying to fight or even eliminate inherent fluctuations. From finance to education, they want to get rid of the natural stressors. They envisage a scenario where major events are predicted so that the most disruptive can be avoided. They want a graph where the line showing events and their magnitude over a specific period is as close to a straight line as possible.
In economics and finance, they aim to all but flatten the business cycle. In education, they want to make every child’s achievements equal. So, some schools have eliminated red correction marks because they might undermine the confidence of sensitive children. In school sports, they award medals to every participating child, telling them that they’re all winners and that nobody lost. (See my blog: “Education and Parenting: Are We Sowing the Seeds of Disaster?”)
In the financial world, governments and central banks aspire to remove natural market fluctuations by aggressive intervention policies and restrictive legislation. Not long before the 2008 financial crisis, they confidently predicted that their robust systems meant “the end of booms and busts,” while simultaneously allowing the development of banks that were too big to fail. When they did fail, the authorities forced the taxpayer to bail them out, yet didn’t hold any individual in those banks, or the agencies that regulated or rated them, personally liable. (See my blog: “Skin in the Game”). Many financial institutions have again become too big to fail because the authorities have yet to fundamentally change the system.
As individuals we too want to eliminate the ups and downs of nature and the systems that directly affect us. When we feel down, we demand anti-depressants from our doctors. When we ache, we expect another pill; we even want pills for ailments we don’t have “just in case.”
From children to politicians, educators to bankers, fewer of us stand on our own two feet and take responsibility for our actions. By removing too many of our natural challenges, we’re weakening our ability to handle the big ones. As a result, we’re becoming as vulnerable to unexpected events as ice cubes are to a sharp increase in temperature. We’re convinced that we can build a robust defense against every possible occurrence; that no matter how much the temperature rises, we can always build a better freezer.
It’s understandable that we should try to predict the future and build bigger and stronger defenses against perceived threats based on those predictions. Yet, for at least two reasons each approach is a waste of resources and doomed to fail much of the time. First, it’s nearly impossible to predict when we’ll be confronted by challenges and what kind of challenges they will be – we can’t even accurately forecast the weather for more than about a week. Second, by strengthening all the defenses to withstand challenges, we’re actually undermining the inherent abilities most systems have to become more resilient through dealing with stress.
We can learn much from our bodies. They grow stronger because they’re constantly exposed to mild stressors: If we don’t take regular exercise, for example, we become physically and mentally weaker, and less able to handle any stresses, particularly big ones. At the biological level, organisms become immune to diseases by developing resistance to them. In business, astute venture capitalists invest in entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. But they’re especially drawn to those who have steered a steady and honorable course through a prior business failure, and so are more likely to identify future dangers. (See my blog: “Must We Fail before We Succeed in Business.”)
According to Nassim Taleb, the noted Lebanese American scholar and author, we should build systems that are what he calls “antifragile.” Most people, he says, would suggest words like “robust” and “tough” as antonyms of “fragile” because robust and tough things are, by definition, not fragile. But antifragile doesn’t mean “not fragile.” Antifragile things are improved by the stresses of chaotic and unpredictable situations; they benefit from the encounters.
Taleb is right. We must become counterintuitive and accept that we cannot know the future. Rather than build robust defenses against every conceivable threat (which is impossible), we must strike a balance between reasonable defense and extraordinary flexibility. We must become more adaptable so that we can respond quickly to the unpredictable. We must be agile and learn from our mistakes. Only then can we become progressively better at dealing with both the future and the many challenges with which it will inevitably present us.
P.S. I highly recommend you read Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.