Tandon in the News

Stress Best

How surprises make you stronger


WHAT is the opposite of fragility? Though not quite right, “resilience” and “robustness” are two words that come to mind. If fragility means something that breaks under stress, its exact opposite should mean something that grows stronger under pressure. There is no word that quite captures this, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an American essayist and scholar, so he has invented one: “antifragile”.

The neologism is necessary because antifragility, he argues, is the secret to success in a world full of uncertainty. Mr Taleb’s earlier books were devoted to showing that no one can measure the likelihood of rare events—or “black swans”, in his now famous phrase. From the financial crisis to the tsunami that struck the Fukushima nuclear reactor in 2011, the worst-case scenario will never be quite bad enough. So instead of trying to predict the future and failing, the best thing to do is try to benefit from shocks when they occur.

That, after all, is what nature does. Evolution is a system for turning random mutations to lasting advantage. The body responds well to certain pressures; the bones in the racquet-holding arm of professional tennis players are stronger than those in the other arm, for example.

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