The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, September 19, 2014

Using Redundancy to Become Antifragile

Nassim Taleb is a favorite author of mine and his books have been quite influential on my thinking. His latest is named Anti-Fragile.

We live in a world where everything is optimized, which is fine when everything is running well, but can be catastrophic once a monkey wrench gets thrown into the works.

Below is an excerpt an article from The Art of Manliness, where the topic is how redundancy builds our ability to become not only resilient, where you can bounce back; but anti fragile, where you actually thrive from the knocks that you take.

The full post may be read here.

Two Is One and One is None: How Redundancies Increase Your Antifragility

The word “redundant” typically has a negative association in our culture. It means something that is needlessly repeated, and thus superfluous.

But in engineering, redundancies are often intentionally built into a system. By duplicating critical components, if one piece fails, the other can act as a back-up and keep the machine functioning.

Think of the lives saved because airplanes have redundant everything – spark plugs, fuel pumps, even engines (aircraft can often easily fly with just one working engine).

These kinds of redundancies are also built into the human body. As philosopher Nassim Taleb observes, “We humans have two kidneys…extra spare parts, and extra capacity in many, many things (say, lungs, neural system, arterial apparatus)… Layers of redundancy are the central risk management property of natural systems.”

Taleb argues that redundancies aren’t just useful in human and technological machines, but in many others aspects of our lives as well. In fact, intentionally cultivating some redundancy can make us more antifragile. As we discussed in our post on this concept last year, antifragility is a quality that goes beyond mere resilience. Resilient people meet a challenge and bounce back to where they were before. Someone who is antifragile, on the other hand, is able to use setbacks as a springboard to even greater strength – like a phoenix rising from the flames. When things, and people, are falling apart, the antifragile are able not just to survive, but thrive. They’re positioned to actually “gain from disorder.”

How redundancies increase our antifragility is obvious: if you only have one of something, and it fails, you can be up the creek without a paddle. Members of the military have a maxim that neatly sums up Taleb’s philosophy: “Two is one and one is none.” If you bring one piece of gear on a mission, it’s bound to break, and when it does, you’ll find yourself in a real pinch. Far better to have not only a Plan A and a Plan B, but a Plan A, B, and C. Former Navy SEAL Richard J. Machowicz calls the intentional creation of strategic redundancies “advantage stacking” – “you want to stack so many of the advantages in your favor that, when the order comes, when the opportunity presents itself, you can’t help but win.”

“Two is one and one is none” may sound fatalistic, but it’s also realistic; Murphy’s Law is far too often in effect. Or as Taleb puts it, “Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens—usually.”

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