Hormesis is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. Is hormesis a basic principle of biology — or is it merely a strange but unimportant quirk of nature that only applies in exceptional circumstances?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb–the options trader turned philosopher–is intrigued by hormesis, and sees it as but one example of a much broader phenomenon: a fundamental principle he calls “antifragility”. The principle of antifragility applies not just to biology–but to sociology, economics, and perhaps even physics. Taleb has been developing this idea for a number of years. Antifragility made a subdued appearance in his 2007 blockbuster work, The Black Swan, a guide to dealing with unpredictable yet momentously consequential events in our increasingly volatile world. Taleb has now more fully developed the concept of antifragility in his most recent book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.
The antifragile is the antithesis of the fragile. You might suppose that the opposite of “fragile” is something like “robust” — something that resists change. But Taleb points out that that would be the wrong answer. A fragile thing – a package of wine glasses, perhaps — is easily broken when subjected to a stressor, such as being dropped. Something robust is merely resistant to breakage. But an antifragile object actually benefits by being subjected to stress. Taleb conjures up an image of the fragile as an object we would ship in a box marked “Handle with Care”; by contrast, a box holding the antifragile would be labelled “Please Mishandle”
At first, this seems to be a tease. Are there really such antifragile things? Yes, indeed; the world is full of them, including you and me. And there are steps we can take to become ever more antifragile.