I read ‘Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder’ by Nassim Taleb

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I do not describe myself as a voracious reader and rarely have patience to read a book from start to finish. However, some books are too good to resist, even for a restless mind like mine. Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder is one such book. The book has had a huge impact on my life, and in this blog post I will tell you how it can change your life as well. So, stick on.

Stress is beneficial (conditions applied)

According to the author, some things benefit from shocks, setbacks and stressors. Taleb calls them antifragile, a neologism he feels was necessary to coin. Ask anyone the opposite of fragile and they will probably say things like robust and resilient. However, Taleb says that such an antonym is not accurate. Robust or Resilient is the characteristic something that resists stress and stays unchanged when exposed to damage, whereas antifragile is something that gains from the damage. 

The best example of Antifragility described in the book is that of the mythological character ‘Hydra‘ – a serpent-like creature that lived in the lake of Lerna, near Argos, and had numerous tentacle-like heads. Every time it’s tentacles were cut, it would grow new ones. In a way, Hydra is antifragile because it gains from the damage inflicted upon it.

The legend of Mithridates IV 

Legend has it that King Mithridates IV of Pontus used to ingest very small doses of poison. He started with smaller doses and progressively increased the dose. Ultimately he came to develop an immunity against them. The king was able to fortify himself against the drugs of others, and that offered him protection against the risk of poisoning by his enemies. This phenomenon has been named Mithridatization.

A more scientific name for this phenomenon is Hormesis and can be described as:

 “An exposure to a small dose of a substance that, over time, makes one immune to additional, larger quantities of it.” 

It has been proven scientifically that a little bit of an otherwise harmful substance acts to benefit the organism. It makes the organisms better overall as it triggers some overreaction and creates in it the ability to withstand greater doses of the harm.

Linear vs NonLinear

A linear relationship can be expressed as a straight line on graph. In the equation Y = ax + b, if you increase the value of ‘x’, the value of y will also increase. 

Real life examples of linearity can be observed in driving. When you increase the acceleration in your car, your car moves faster, and it slows down when you decelerate. The distance covered by the car in a given time frame has a linear relationship with the speed.

However much of life is non-linear and doesn’t work the same way as a car. Spending two weekends in Thailand is not twice as pleasant as a single one. 

Hormesis is non-linear

The response of stressor (or damage) on the organism is non-linear, meaning that only within a certain limit, the stressor is beneficial. If it exceeds the limit, it ends up doing harm. 

Example of non linear dose response

#1. Physical Exercise 

Moderate regular exercise makes us stronger, but too much exercise without adequate rest creates problems in the body. Therefore, exercise can be called a ‘stressor’ which can be harmful if done beyond a particular limit. 

#2. Consumption of Alcohol

Another example is that of consuming alcohol. Some studies have proven that moderate consumption of alcohol (ethanol) increased the lifespan of earthworms, but when the dose was increased beyond the Hormetic limit, it ended up reducing the lifespan. Many studies have related moderate consumption of alcohol in humans with improved heart health and longevity.

#3. Diet

 It has been argued that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables comes from the presence of toxic phytochemicals in them rather than the alleged vitamins and minerals. Eating them leads to mithridatization of sorts, where the body develops immunity against the harm and becomes stronger in the process. According to this view, plants protect themselves from harm and fend off predators with poisonous substances that, ingested by us in the right quantities, may lead to hormetic adaptations. In other words, low-dose poisoning triggers health benefits.

Hormesis is necessary for survival.

The difference between a non-living thing and a living thing is the ability of the living to benefit from stress. Infact, according to the author, antifragility determines the boundary between what is living, say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a chair. 

This ability of benefiting from nonlinear dose response to stressors ( like physical damage, toxins, emotional headwinds, volatility, and uncertainty) plays a crucial role in survival and evolution. 

Comfort causes atrophy

Depriving systems of stressors is not necessarily a good thing, and can be very harmful !

It’s no wonder why Cato the Censor looked at comfort  as a road to waste. He believed that having something too easy is bad because it causes ‘weakening of the will‘. You must have heard that the best horses lose when they compete with slower ones, and win against better rivals. 

Under compensation from the absence of a stressor degrades the best of the best” – Nassim Taleb

Taleb gives the example of modern-day medical intervention to illustrate how overmedication for even simple ailments leads to dependence and weakening of the body’s innate ability to deal with illnesses. 

Today a lot of people depend on mood boosting medications like Prozac to treat depression and anxiety. Opioid usage has reached epidemic proportions, affecting not just older people but also teens. But the question is:  Is easy access to opioids to silence our natural mood swings and anxiety a good thing? 

Maybe not.

Opioids are notorious for causing tolerance and addiction, and if not used judiciously can wreck our lives. Easy availability of these drugs tempts us to look for an easy way to deal with our problems, devoiding us of the ability to deal with them naturally. In the process they stifle creativity and natural problem solving, and lead to maladaptations. The authors says:

Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s “spleen,” Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced.

Bottomline

The book discusses the concept of antifragility in great detail, and I have barely scratched the surface. But if you ask me what the biggest take away for me was, I would say:

Our bodies, and other complex systems (like the society as a whole) have an innate ability to benefit from the right amount of stress. Having an understanding of how antifragility works can help us improve ourselves, not just at an individual level but also the society as a whole. In the words of the author:

“It is quite perplexing that those from whom we have benefited the most aren’t those who have tried to help us (say with “advice”) but rather those who have actively tried—but eventually failed—to harm us.”

If you found the content of this post interesting, I recommend that you read ‘Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder’ by Nasim Taleb today !

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