The Adverse Effects of Stability (Notes from Antifragile)

For organic systems, a certain degree of instability breeds stability. Small natural forest fires prevent bigger ones. Jellyfish, one of the oldest species on the planet, thrive because they benefit from climate fluctuations. We inject children with disease-causing microorganisms (vaccines) to improve their health. Biological longevity, in other words, arises from a small dose of harm.

Problems quickly surface when we attempt to eradicate all potential sources of harm. Consider the soccer mom, who calls the doctor when she detects even the slightest fever. Can you imagine growing up in such a sterile environment and then moving to a sprawling, germ-infested metropolis? Imagine an assiduous co-worker who arrives at 8am precisely every day. How would you react if, one day, he shows up a few minutes late? In finance the longer a bull market lasts the more a crash will come as a surprise. In sum, when we erase instability, we breed artificial stability, which inevitably breaks—sometimes catastrophically.

Meanwhile, business schools are churning out MBAs who recommend management strategies designed to eliminate errors. Innovation, of course, emerges from error—mistakes are a vital source of information. The Silicon Valley mantra “fail early, fail often” embodies this virtue. As Robert Suttons suggests in his gem Weird Ideas That Work, “[Companies should] encourage people to keep generation new ideas… and to avoid reverting to proven ideas and well-honed skills, rewarding success isn’t enough; you have to reward failure as well.”

(These are notes from a section in Taleb’s Antifragile)