Consider two twin brothers, John and George, who work as a human resources clerk for a bank and a taxi driver, respectively. In his book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses these two hypothetical brothers to think about how we assess and respond to risk.
John has a fixed and predictable monthly income, a routine schedule, and the feeling of stable middle-class job security. George, on the other hand, has a much more varied routine, his monthly income can range widely, and he often laments that he does not have the job security that his brother does. As it happens, both brothers make roughly the same amount of money each year. Given all of these details, which brother has the riskier employment situation?
The Risk of Randomness
We are probably tempted to say that the taxi driver job is riskier given the fluctuations in income. But remember that John works in the banking industry. What happens to his job in the event of another global economic crash or recession? Is John’s employment actually more secure, or does it merely appear so because there is less randomness? Taleb argues that counter-intuitively, George likely has a more secure employment situation. The reason this does not seem obvious to us is because of what Taleb calls the central illusion in life.
Randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing – and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.
We often talk about wanting to help kids to develop resilience, the capacity to overcome obstacles and deal with life’s challenges. But a key feature of resilience that we overlook is that it is often a direct response to randomness. And that means when we try to predict or control, we actually end up creating fragility instead of resiliency. Taleb explains that “man-made smoothing of randomness produces the equivalent of John’s income: smooth, steady, but fragile.” While everything is going as expected, John is secure. But as soon as the random and unexpected occur, John is at a loss. Whereas, George’s situation is continually calibrated to respond to randomness, he is much less fragile.
Thanks to variability, these artisanal careers harbor a bit of antifragility: small variations make them adapt and change continuously by learning from the environment.
One reason that risky play is so beneficial for child development is that it gives kids plenty of practice with dealing with the unexpected, forcing them to adapt to various situations, just like George adapts in his employment.
What is the Turkey Problem?
One of Taleb’s most memorable parables in his book Antifragile goes something like this. Suppose you are a turkey whose job it is to create projections for future quality of life for your flock based on previous historical data. Every day since you started your record, you and the other turkeys are well-fed and given ample room to wander at leisure. As time goes on, you become increasingly confident in your projections that tomorrow will be similarly favorable, and the next day, and the day after that. But what you and the other turkeys don’t know is that Thanksgiving is right around the corner. The crucial point is that whether your historical record consists of one week or one year has no actual bearing on your rather dismal future, even though your feeling of security increases, you’re no less fragile for feeling less fragile.
The turkey problem is that we often mistake the continued absence of harm as evidence that there will be no harm. The turkey thinks that because there is no current evidence that the farmer is harming him (in fact, to the contrary, the farmer is feeding him quite well), that means that his future is secure. And in a similar way, John the HR guy mistakenly interprets the absence of immediate job insecurity as a sign that he has job security. And because of this mistake, neither John nor the turkey are preparing a contingency plan for how to deal with an unexpected adverse event.
If we want to avoid being thanksgiving turkeys, we have two options. We can seek resilience or we can go even further and seek to be antifragile. The first option tries to insulate ourselves from potential harms. For example, we might imagine that John saves a significant portion of his earnings in case he loses his job, or that he proactively justifies his job’s existence by seeking to go above and beyond what is required, adding value that the company comes to depend on heavily. Basically, resilience is about minimizing the downside of negative events, and preserving “normalcy” as much as possible. But now imagine that John recognizes the turkey problem, sees his situation as fragile, and decides to become antifragile. John might take online courses to gain certification in a different field in case he needs to switch careers, or he might set aside additional money to invest in stocks when the market price is low. In both of these options, John isn’t just aiming to survive in the event of a crisis, he’s positioning himself to potentially benefit from the randomness by finding ways to turn adversity into opportunities.
For those of us who thrive on structure, the turkey parable can be hard to accept. We have a plan and we’re sticking to it! For example, you may have created a really great school plan for the year and then life unexpectedly interrupted that plan, forcing you to readjust. But even though this can feel like a terrible occurrence at the time, looking for the upside can turn this into an opportunity for spontaneous kinds of learning or opportunities to bond as a family or a chance to reconsider some of the assumptions you had going into the year.
Combining the insights from the stories of the twin brothers and the turkey, we are able to begin looking for ways that we might inadvertently creating more fragility in today’s kids, whether by overscheduling them with planned activities or disallowing activities, sports, or games that involve genuine physical risk, or even by intervening too much in their conflicts with others (particularly their peers.) On the positive side, these insights can also prompt us to think about ways of cultivating resilience in kids and in ourselves, and even of cultivating the kind of antifragility that lets us see adversity as an opportunity instead of simply just a setback.