Becoming “antifragile”

Earlier this year, the IT department at the institution where I work was upgrading some server equipment.  The upgrade was supposed to be routine and the IT department was told by outside vendors that the upgrade would not create any significant downtime for major systems on campus.  But something went terribly wrong.  As one colleague described it “It was the perfect storm.  No one could have predicted that we would be without some services for as long as we were.”  The campus lost email communication.  Students lost access to their dining accounts.  Our course management system was inoperable.  For a few days, our campus was taken back several decades in time and were without many of the technological avenues of communication, collaboration and convenience of which we had grown accustomed.  In a way, we were technologically paralyzed.  Little by little, however, systems were repaired and we were able to regain access to the technologies that make modern universities function.

Jump ahead in time to this past weekend.  Late Friday night, our institution upgraded its course management system (CMS) and many feared a repeat of the earlier server disruption.  Leading up to the upgrade, minor panic spread across some departments.  Would we lose access to our grades?  Would we lose the courses we had created?  Would the CMS even be operable?  With a new semester starting days after the upgrade, many faculty members wondered whether the university would be able to start on time.  Others feared that graduating students would not be able to receive diplomas because their grades from the prior semester would be lost.  Several faculty members petitioned the administration to delay or forgo the upgrade because of the potential disruption that could occur.  But the upgrade went ahead as planned.  I’m happy to report that no major problems occurred and the new semester started on time

I’m sure some of my colleagues will say we got lucky.  The memories of the server upgrade linger and some people fear that we’ll have a repeat of that event in the near future.  The reality is we probably will.  Maybe it won’t be a server or the course management system, but some stressful disruption will undoubtedly occur.  It always does.  Despite the best intentions of qualified, intelligent people, some events are unpredictable and uncontrollable.   My bigger concern, however, is not the unpredictable, stressful disruption but how we respond to the event itself.

In his new book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposes the concept of “antifragility.” Many objects in nature, Taleb writes, are fragile.  A wine glass will break when dropped.  A house of cards will tumble with the slightest breeze.  Fragile things are hurt by stress, unpredictability, randomness and uncertainty.   Antifragile things, however, are strengthened when exposed to stress or unpredictable disruptions.  Take the mythical Hydra.  With each new decapitation under Hercules’s sword, the Hydra grew stronger and multiheaded.  But antifragility is not just the stuff of myth.  In science, there is a concept called hormesis which proposes that through limited doses of a harmful substance, organisms can become stronger, healthier, and prepared for a bigger dose next time.  In medicine, it’s called Wolff’s law.  Bones will adapt to the stress under which they are placed.

Larger societal systems can also be described in these terms of their fragility and antifragility.  Taleb presents the airline industry as an antifragile system.  When a tragic airplane crash occurs, the airline industry focuses on the causes and tries to learn from it.  The goal is to better understand the cause to help prevent future events.  An antifragile system never lets an error go to waste.   They grow stronger through mistakes and through unpredictable challenges and stimuli.  Antifragile systems do not see mistakes and stress as problems to be avoided but powerful agents of change that can make processes stronger.

Which brings us back to the upgrade.  We can try to prevent errors and stressful disruptions by avoiding innovation, upgrades and change altogether.  While this might alleviate some fear, this choice could also make us more susceptible to the unpredictable events that will undoubtedly occur despite our best efforts.  By avoiding stress, we’ll actually make ourselves less likely to respond to the random stressors that will occur.

Or we could choose to become more anitfragile. We can embrace the minor disruptions and see them as educational opportunities.  Each planned upgrade will help us grow stronger and better prepared to weather the unpredictable events.

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