Complicated stuff eventually makes sense and joins up somewhere. Like a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle bearing the image of a sand dune.
Complexity would be like having many of the pieces from a hundred different jigsaw puzzles. Complexity doesn’t always join up.
The trouble is, we are a pattern-identifying species living in a universe of randomness. Think about how you happened to arrive in this place with me, colouring in this book. We might suggest it was because of this, this, and this, but it is likely to be far more complex.
Nassim Taleb has made the study of randomness his work. In his book Fooled by Randomness, Taleb admits that after all his explorations, he cannot avoid being the fool of randomness himself. He saves his harshest words for those who make themselves out to be experts, those who believe they can predict the future – especially those in some or other world of economics.
When we admit to life being as complex as it is we are opening up the possibility for developing what has been called “complexapacity,” our capacity to deal with complexity. When we know our talents and dreams are, we are growing our ability to surf the randomness. In the aftermath of World War II, Wallace Stevens identified the terrible “pressure of reality” needing to be met by nations; he also understood there to be a personal expression of this. Stevens believed that the pressure of reality, of how things were, had to be met by our “power of imagination.” He did not see one overpowering the other, but something new emerging in-between.
In another of his books, Taleb explores this as the opposite of fragility. We may suggest this opposite is resilience or robustness but Taleb identifies it as “antifragility.”
To be fragile – in the sense I’m outlining here – means we do not know who we are or what we must do, and we’ll be more reactive to the stressors we face, feeling crushed
When we are robust or resilient, we know something of who we are and what we want to do and probably working this out on a daily basis facing our personal pressure of reality, meaning we will be more responsive to the stressors we face, maintaining our integrity.
Becoming antifragile assumes that we know a lot about who we are and what we must do and are continually pushing the boundaries. Understanding the pressure of reality to be only part of the story, we’ll initiate imaginative responses, providing the possibility of growth.
We are all of these things, of course, depending on what it is we’re facing. As a result, we can probably say that it’s possible to be more or less antifragile.
SOMETHING TO DO: As you take a typical journey from home to some place of work or shopping or leisure, notice all the points at which randomness enters. The points at which you stop in queues, the changes of traffic lights, the timing changes effected by this, the people you meet, your feelings about all these things and how stressed or relaxed you are when you reach your destination. Then all the things hidden to us: the things happening in the other people’s lives that have placed them in the queue where they find themselves, with light changes, et cetera, which you may or may not interact with. Or, if there is someone significant in your life, think over how you happened to meet them. What had to be happening, and then compare this with the story you tell each other and yourselves which makes it sound as if it was inevitable.