ARTICLE: Anti-fragile

I’ve been wrestling with whether you could find one word the connects everything in our coaching philosophy. “Old school” and “natural” are names we use because they are associated with the principles and the values we want to bring into our coaching – but recently a random conversation with a colleague in the cafeteria brought me across a word that may define what we do more than any other: “anti-fragile”.

Anti-fragile is a term coined by professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb,a former trader and hedge fund manager.Taleb felt the existing antonyms to “fragile”, such as robustness, did not suffice to describe his concept. “Anti-fragile” in essence means that something cannot only withstand shocks and random chaos – but improves from it. And this, of course, is the key characteristic of the natural world and our coaching model.

“Nature is anti-fragile”, my friend told me in the canteen, “it’s about identifying asymmetrical opportunities were taking a short-term pain leads to long-term gain and where avoiding short-term gains protects us from long-term detriment.” The habits he describe are all around us – that ibuprofen pill that takes away the pain of inflammation but slows and impairs the healing process. Or that bare foot run which burns your feet but hardens the soles over time. That stressful challenge which moulded you into a stronger and more decisive individual. Or the time you hid away from responsibility to avoid getting into trouble but that ruined your future prospects in that area or your reputation in the eyes of your peers.

Think about the poor examples again: they are the essence of a person who is essentially fragile. So it is with things we create – smash our cars and they are never the same, send vibration through a glass and it shatters. Nature, however, is largely anti-fragile – certainly living organisms can be destroyed just as machines and things, but keep the stress within certain parametres and you get a stronger organism on the other side, better adapted. Over generations this trait has shaped the evolution of life on this planet into ever stronger, quicker and more effective life-forms.

Perhaps it’s too early for me to talk about the book, because I only ordered it this week (thanks to a gracious €100 euro book shop voucher from my coming in-laws, what a great present!). Yet, my colleague described it so well – here is the message for old school runners and athletes in general:

Anti-fragility for athletes
“His perfect workout is, “Go to the gym and get into a fight on the way. Win. Go into the basemen and lift something very heavy.” Randomness and convexity teach the body to be strong and adaptable. Taleb scorns the idea of running on a treadmill. “If a Martian saw people on treadmill machines, they would think they were in a Russian labor camp.” –

Taleb proposes that anything that is anti-fragile only grows better and better when subjected to stress and chaos and that we should embrace randomness and chaos in our lives to benefit likewise. A certain amount of hardship, irregular eating patterns and disorder is what our organisms are designed for, how they thrive. This explains why the “should we eat meat or not debate” may be entirely void – Taleb calls us “essentially half cows, half lions” – in reality we are designed for irregular meat intake.

The regimentation of modern life is our curse – it weakens us and makes us the fragile creatures we are treated as today. The interventions of medical science largely reflect a “fragile” view of the human organism. Taleb touches on this too. Breaking his nose during a trail run he was taken to a hospital where the doctor promptly prescribed icing. “What’s your statistical evidence for that being effective”, was the retort. “Uh-oh,” seemed to have been the answer. Either way Taleb understood that the short-term gain of dampening the inflammation was too small to justify the potential slowing down of the body’s natural inflammation process.

Had he, on the other hand, been stung in the throat by a wasp and suffocating, the right choice would have been to get medical intervention as the potential risk of the drug is outweighed by the fatality of not “risking it”. Apply this every day and you get a powerful recipe for success – only accept artificial treatment that is absolutely necessary and which is proven beyond doubt to help with no side-effects. Guess what side of this divide stretching, anti-inflammatories and running shoes fall on? These interventions are again born out of a belief in humans as essentially fragile.

Where does this take us?
Anti-fragility is a powerful concept if you can show how it relates to old school training techniques. Thinkers like Cerutty and Hebert in particular cultivated a culture of training that embraced methods that subjected athletes to variation, sought to unleash an uninhibited approach to running, worked out in a natural and disorderly environment and encouraged improvisation.

I am sure I will do a lot more thinking on anti-fragility once I have actually read the book but until then, let the term play on your mind and when you read our “old school” articles or consider how modern running technique coaching works – you will see anti-fragility at work. It’s the anti-thesis of how we organise, teach and treat people in mainstream education, medical science and organisations today. As a believer in anti-fragility you achieve success through heuristic trial and error (meaning experience-based – the person has to be able to learn something for themselves – not just be told). My own improvement in running technique and breaking of the vicious injury circle I was on came about because of obedience to this principle.

Fragilista – can we be on the other side of that fence please?
Only once I was made to experience was what right and wrong  about my movement patterns and empowered with the belief and knowledge to practice it, make mistakes and correct them, did lasting improvement take root. Taleb describes how we tend to perceive improvements as linear when they are generally a series of two steps forward and one step back (or other sequences).

This was the case for me – for certain periods my skill soared, then it regressed a bit before soaring again. And this trend can continue – because the mistakes give us the awareness necessary to grow again. Success breeds only complacency.  Taleb says that we are largely better at doing than at thinking, something I noticed when changing my technique. The less thinking, the better the doing. Traditional physiotherapy and strength and conditioning, for instance, ahs tried to cultivate “robustness” rather than “anti-fragility” – by applying unnatural cures with straightforward short-term benefits. Taleb classes these as the “fragilista” and defines them as people who provide “benefits that are small and visible, and side-effects potentially severe and invisible”.

The opposite view is that the more complex the system, the simpler solutions it needs and humans, unlike most machines, are highly complex. Taleb sees many modern professions having drifted away from the very simplicity we humans need to flourish simply because added sophistication is needed to justify the existence of their profession. Sets, reps, miles, when done with mindless automation prepare us only for the predictable, not life, and does not make us stronger but more fragile. Those big calves we built to protect our Achilles tendon suddenly ruined our ability to move – woops!

“Let the simple, and the natural, take its course,” is one of his messages. This is our aspiration. I wonder does that make us “anti-fragilista”? Certainly after being introduced to Taleb’s concept I feel justified in saying that we are aspiring to be and to create “anti-fragile” athletes – not merely robust. Expect to hear more of it here…


anthony said…
Interesting read. Might look up that text myself.