"The love that is never to be realized will often remain a man'a guiding ideal." - From the book Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
In 2009, while meandering through a bookstore in Adelaide, Australia, the cover of a book caught my eye (1):
Reasoning that any book cover combining the words "Captain" with "Blood" could not fail to be stimulating, I bought the book. Since that time, I have read Captain Blood numerous times, around twice a year on average - without question, it remains my favourite book of all time.
What do I love about Captain Blood? Without giving too much of the story away, let me tell you.
It is the story of a doctor, who in the midst of an act of kindness is caught and branded a traitor by the very authorities that should have redeemed him for his actions. Yet there is more to the story than that.
It is the story of a wanderer, an adventurer at heart, a vagabond who, with little recourse left to him, turns to a life of piracy. Yet what a noble pirate he is, a man with "rags of honour." Still, there is more to the story than that.
It is the story of a romantic idealist, a man with a soul that forces him to eschew all relationships save the idea of the one he places above all others, and the one that also happens to be completely unattainable. However, despite the impossibility of it, this forlorn vision remains his guiding ideal, driving him to accomplish great things. Yet there is even more to the story than that.
Behind the veil of the book cover, beneath the doctor, wanderer, and romantic idealist, Captain Blood is a story about a man who is constantly beset by calamitous misfortune, yet he does not break under the force of the waves. Nor does he merely endure. In fact, he becomes stronger with every catastrophe that life throws his way.
It is the story of a doctor, wanderer, and romantic idealist who sails through life by being antifragile.
In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb goes to great lengths to describe a phenomenon that, for some reason, has no word for it in any language (2). This phenomenon, the opposite of fragile, he dubs "antifragile."
The word "fragile" is easy enough to understand; fragile things diminish under conditions of uncertainty. They break when exposed to volatility. They collapse under stress. Human constructs such as wine glasses, digital computers, military dictatorships, and centrally planned economies tend to be fragile.
When asked what the opposite of fragile is, most people think of a word like "resilient" or "robust". Yet robust things simply resist uncertainty. They merely endure volatility. They only withstand stress. True, robust things do not get worse under conditions of uncertainty, volatility, or stress, at least not for a very long time, but nor do they get better. As such, robust things are not truly the opposite of fragile things; they exist in some kind of neutral territory. Natural inorganic systems, such as rocks and mountains, are robust.
Thus, the opposite of fragility is not robustness, but antifragility. Antifragile things do not diminish under conditions of uncertainty, or simply resist it - they thrive on it. Antifragile things do not break when exposed to volatility, or merely endure it - they get stronger. Antifragile things do not collapse under stress, or merely withstand it - they get better. Rather than suffer from random events, antifragile things use the energy from those events to regenerate in a continuous fashion, to grow. Natural organic systems are antifragile - in fact, they seethe with it.
Put simply, the definition of antifragile is this - any thing or person that improves under conditions of uncertainty, volatility, or stress is antifragile. The reverse is fragile.
The Essence Of The Odyssey
It seems utterly amazing that such a core feature of natural organic systems, indeed of life itself, has no real word to describe it other than the word "antifragile." What is the reason for this?
Perhaps the reason is that humans tend to make quick judgements about things based on what they see or hear - when most people witness or experience a situation containing uncertainty, volatility, and stress, they usually associate these characteristics only with their immediate effects which include confusion, fear, and pain. For example, when a parent sees their child fall and subsequently cry out in confusion, fear, and pain, the usual immediate reaction is to comfort them, to teach them not to fall next time so as to avoid any further confusion, fear, and pain. Yet it is only by falling that one learns how to get up. Beyond the confusion, fear, and pain lies the realm of growth - the realm of the antifragile.
Thus, despite its ubiquity in the world, maybe the concept of antifragility is, quite frankly, too disparate from our immediate senses to have earned itself a word in any language. Humans tend to react to and create words for situations that can be immediately seen or heard; antifragility is a long term effect, something that emerges with time. Something that gets better with time.
Thankfully, the concept of antifragility remains alive and well in certain stories, particularly adventure stories such as Captain Blood that describe the antifragile through actions and deeds, without pinning it down with a word. Indeed, it is only through action that antifragile things, or people, emerge. It is only through action that antifragile things, or people, grow.
Life is full of apparent setbacks. Yet most, dare I say all, of these supposed "setbacks" actually represent free energy that you can decide, at any time, to use to make yourself better. By doing this, perhaps one can truly understand what it means to be antifragile - a phenomenon that, ultimately, requires no word.
It's either that, or go read Captain Blood...
...or both! Solace.
References (1) Sabatini, R. 1922. Captain Blood. Vintage Books. (2) Taleb, NN. 2014. Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Random House.