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Why trauma may be just what you need

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Nassim Nicholas Taleb became notorious in 2008 as one of the few thinkers on economics – he would not call himself an economist – to have seen the inevitability of the coming collapse. He identified it as a "black swan," an event so rare that it's easy to imagine it doesn't exist, until it happens, as it eventually always will. His book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, became an international bestseller published in 32 languages.

Now he is back with Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, an expansion of his thinking on risk beyond business and the markets to all sides of life. He begins from the standpoint that the opposite of being vulnerable to random events is not simply to be sturdy or adaptable, but actually to thrive on some degree of calamity and improve by it – "antifragility." He rails against the "fragilistas" who make things more dangerous by seeking an unrealizable stability, and advocates for a "hormetic" approach (strengthening the system with small doses of toxins) in education, health, politics, careers, finance and many other areas.

In this passage, Mr. Taleb considers the "antifragile" benefits of trauma, redundancy and overcompensation

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One day, sitting in the office of David Halpern, a U.K. government adviser and policy-maker, he informed me of a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, the opposite of post-traumatic stress syndrome, by which people harmed by past events surpass themselves.

We hear about the more lurid post-traumatic disorder, not post-traumatic growth, in the intellectual and so-called learned vocabulary. But popular culture has an awareness of its equivalent, revealed in the expression "it builds character." So do the ancient Mediterranean classics, along with grandmothers.

Intellectuals tend to focus on negative responses from randomness (fragility) rather than the positive ones (antifragility). This is not just in psychology: it prevails across the board.

How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble. I hold – it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction – that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity (from the unintended side effects of, say, an initial invention or attempt at invention).

The idea pervades classical literature: In Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up the genius (ingenium mala saepe movent), which translates in Brooklyn English into "When life gives you a lemon …"

The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates! This message from the ancients is vastly deeper than it seems. It contradicts modern ideas of innovation and progress on many levels, as we tend to think that innovation comes from bureaucratic funding, through planning, or by putting people through a Harvard Business School class by one Highly Decorated Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (who never innovated anything) or hiring a consultant (who never innovated anything).

This is a fallacy – note the disproportionate contribution of uneducated technicians and entrepreneurs to various technological leaps, from the Industrial Revolution to the emergence of Silicon Valley, and you will see what I mean.

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Many, like the great Roman statesman Cato the Censor, looked at comfort, almost any form of comfort, as a road to waste. The record shows that, for society, the richer we become, the harder it gets to live within our means. Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.

Cato would have smiled hearing about the recently observed effect in aeronautics that the automation of airplanes is underchallenging pilots, making flying too comfortable for them, dangerously comfortable. The dulling of the pilot's attention and skills from too little challenge is indeed causing deaths from flying accidents.

Part of the problem is a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation that forced the industry to increase its reliance on automated flying. But, thankfully, the same FAA finally figured out the problem; it has recently found that pilots often "abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems."

It is said that the best horses lose when they compete with slower ones, and win against better rivals. Undercompensation from the absence of a stressor, inverse hormesis and absence of challenge degrades the best of the best. In Baudelaire's poem, "The albatross's giant wings prevent him from walking" – many do better in Calculus 103 than Calculus 101.

This mechanism of overcompensation hides in the most unlikely places. If tired after an intercontinental flight, go to the gym for some exertion instead of resting. Also, it is a well-known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second-busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy and unmotivated – the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks. Overcompensation, here again.

I've discovered a trick when giving lectures. I have been told by conference organizers that one needs to be clear, to speak with the fake articulation of TV announcers, maybe even dance on the stage to get the attention of the crowd. Some try sending authors to "speech school" – the first time it was suggested to me, I walked out, resolved to change publishers on the spot. I find it better to whisper, not shout. Better to be slightly inaudible.

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When I was a pit trader (one of those crazy people who stand in a crowded arena shouting and screaming in a continuous auction), I learned that the noise produced by the person is inverse to the pecking order: As with Mafia dons, the most powerful traders were the least audible. One should have enough self-control to make the audience work hard to listen, which causes them to switch into intellectual overdrive.

This paradox of attention has been a little bit investigated: There is empirical evidence of the effect of "disfluency." Mental effort moves us into higher gear, activating more vigorous and more analytical brain machinery.

Consider this remarkable ability humans have to filter out noise at happy hour and distinguish the signal among so many other loud conversations. So not only are we made to overcompensate, but we sometimes need the noise. Like many writers, I like to sit in cafés, working, as they say, against resistance. Consider our bedtime predilection for the rustle of tree leaves or the sound of the ocean: there are even electric contraptions that produce "white noise" that helps people sleep better.

Now these small distractions, like hormetic responses, act up to a point.

I haven't tried it yet, but I am certain that it would be hard to write an essay on the runway of Heathrow airport.

Something flashed when I heard "post-traumatic" during that London visit. It hit me right there and then that these antifragile hormetic responses were just a form of redundancy, and all the ideas of Mother Nature converged in my mind. It is all about redundancy. Nature likes to overinsure itself.

Layers of redundancy are the central risk-management property of natural systems. We humans have two kidneys (this may even include accountants), extra spare parts, and extra capacity in many, many things (say, lungs, neural system, arterial apparatus), while human design tends to be spare and inversely redundant, so to speak – we have a historical track record of engaging in debt, which is the opposite of redundancy ($50,000 in extra cash in the bank or, better, under the mattress, is redundancy; owing the bank an equivalent amount, that is, debt, is the opposite of redundancy).

Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens – usually.

An additional head for Hydra is no different from an extra – that is, seemingly redundant – kidney for humans, and no different from the additional capacity to withstand an extra stressor. If you ingest, say, 15 milligrams of a poisonous substance, your body may prepare for 20 or more, and as a side effect will get stronger over all. These extra five milligrams of poison that you can withstand are no different from additional stockpiles of vital or necessary goods, say extra cash in the bank or more food in the basement.

A system that overcompensates is necessarily in overshooting mode, building extra capacity and strength in anticipation of a worse outcome and in response to information about the possibility of a hazard. And of course such extra capacity or strength may become useful by itself, opportunistically.

We saw that redundancy is opportunistic, so such extra strength can be used to some benefit even in the absence of the hazard. Tell the next MBA analyst or business-school professor you run into that redundancy is not defensive; it is more like investment than insurance. And tell them that what they call "inefficient" is often very efficient.

Indeed, our bodies discover probabilities in a very sophisticated manner and assess risks much better than our intellects do.

To take one example, risk-management professionals look to the past for information on the so-called worst-case scenario to estimate future risks – this method is called "stress testing." They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome.

But they never notice the following inconsistency: This so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time. I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed.

We consider the biggest object of any kind that we have seen in our lives or hear about as the largest item that can possibly exist. And we have been doing this for millennia. In Pharaonic Egypt, which happens to be the first complete top-down nation-state managed by bureaucrats, scribes tracked the high-water mark of the Nile and used it as an estimate for a future worst-case scenario.

The same can be seen in the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which experienced a catastrophic failure in 2011 when a tsunami struck. It had been built to withstand the worst past historical earthquake, with the builders not imagining much worse – and not thinking that the worst past event had to have been a surprise, as it had no precedent.

Likewise, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Fragilista Doctor Alan Greenspan, in his apology to Congress, offered the classic "It never happened before." Well, nature, unlike Fragilista Greenspan, prepares for what has not happened before, assuming worse harm is possible.

If humans fight the last war, nature fights the next one. Your body is more imaginative about the future than you are. Consider how people train in weightlifting: The body overshoots in response to exposures and overprepares (up to the point of biological limit, of course). This is how bodies get stronger.

From the book Antifragile, copyright 2012 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, Inc.

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