The Art of Antifragility

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )


Which would you rather be: a delicate candle or a strong bonfire? According to the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb, there’s no question. He opens his book Antifragile with the following words:

Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos; you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.

Taleb, a Lebanese-born American, is an international expert on the topic of randomness, and has become somewhat of a guru to businesspeople and coaches worldwide.The above quote summarizes his central message: The effect that the winds of change have on us depends on our approach – if we’re small and vulnerable like a candle they’ll extinguish us, but if we’re big and strong like a bonfire they’ll strengthen us.


Taleb’s idea is embodied in the original term he coined, “antifragile.” What is antifragile?

We generally make a distinction between things that are fragile and things that aren’t. For example, glass and porcelain are fragile, and so we handle them with care and put “Fragile” stickers on them. Plastic and wood on the other hand are durable, so we don’t worry so much about dropping them and don’t put warning stickers on them.

But are these the only options for categorizing how objects react to blows? Taleb observes that there’s a third, unnamed category: things that not only don’t break when they're hit, but benefit and become stronger because of it. Taleb calls this category “antifragile.”

An example of something antifragile is our immune system: When the immune system encounters a hostile substance, it doesn't collapse but rather develops antibodies. Another example is muscles: When a muscle strains, its fibers tear on a microscopic level, but on the macroscopic level the muscle is strengthened and grows bigger.

Another example: our brain! The brain grows by facing challenges, that force it to develop new skills and abilities.

It’s no coincidence that these examples are all taken from the human body. According to Taleb, human beings in general are antifragile. Whether we’re individuals, societies, or businesses, the saying "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger" applies to us. We must constantly challenge ourselves, or we will atrophy.

Education and Spirituality

Taleb’s thesis is exciting and convincing, but it seems to me there are at least two areas which it fails to take into consideration.

The first is education. Being the fire and wishing for the wind is very appropriate for adults. But is it something we want to wish for our kids? Would you heap difficulties and challenges upon your children in order to make them stronger? Isn’t it better for a child to be a delicate flame before turning into a raging fire?

The second area is spirituality. The "be the fire" approach is very much this-worldly, suitable for the world of action. But wouldn't we agree that for our spiritual wellbeing there's value in being delicate, humble, even fragile? Taleb himself proudly describes his attitude as "non-meek" – not exactly a staple of spirituality… It's no coincidence the central image in the Torah for the soul is that of a candle: “The soul of Man is the candle of God.” The soul is like a delicate candle, and requires being sheltered from the wind, not tossed into it.

What these two areas share is the property of temimut – innocence or sincerity. Both a child and a soul require a certain kind of innocence in order to exist. Like many intellectual doctrines, Taleb’s philosophy is fitting for the un-innocent world of adults and action, not so much for raising children and leading a spiritual life.

A Fire on the Outside, a Candle on the Inside

After 20 long years of waiting, Isaac and Rebecca finally merit having children – the twins Jacob and Esau. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the two children have completely different characters:

The boys grew up. Esau became a man of hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man who dwelled in tents. Isaac loved Esau for his game, but Rebecca loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:27-28)

A famous question regarding these verses is, how could each parent so clearly prefer one child over the other?

One possible answer is, that what Isaac and Rebecca favored were the different ways in which the children grew up. It seems that each one of them loved the path of life the other one lived through: Rebecca, the ba'alat teshuvah (returnee to God) who grew up outside of the holy land and holy family of Abraham, loved the sheltered, childhood of the righteous Jacob, which reminded her of how her husband grew up; Isaac, on the other hand, who grew up protected in Abraham’s home in the Land of Israel, loved the free, outdoorsy childhood of Esau, in which he saw the potential for teshuvah that Rebecca had demonstrated.

Returning to Taleb, it appears that both Isaac and Rebecca read his book, but arrived at opposite conclusions: Isaac became convinced of the value of antifragility, wanted a child who would be a strong fire, and therefore enjoyed seeing Esau grow up exposed to the winds of the world; whereas Rebecca was unconvinced, wanted a child who’d be like a delicate candle, and was therefore happy that Jacob grew up encased in the “lantern” of the tent, protected from the wind.

But then comes the turning point: When Jacob matures, it is Rebecca herself who sees to it that he comes out of the tent of innocence and into the world of experience. First, she instructs him to disguise himself as Esau and receive the blessing of the firstborn, and afterwards sends him out from the Land of Israel to the world she grew up in, the world of the deceptive and unpredictable Arameans.

So now we're confused: does Rebecca want a fragile or an antifragile son? The answer is, she wants both, and more importantly, she knows in what order these two goals should be attained. Rebecca was one step ahead of Taleb. She realized that in order for her son to become a strong bonfire, he must first be a tiny flame of innocence. Thus, once he grows up, this flame will continue burning inside him, preserving his soul's inner tenderness – a vital asset, essential to counterbalancing the outer roughness created in us by life’s hardships.

Point to ponder: Many parents would like to raise their children sheltered from negative outside influences. Others claim children should be exposed from a young age to the harsh facts of life, and will thus be better prepared to face them later on. Rebecca teaches us how to integrate these two outlooks: First we must raise our children in a way that protects the tender nature of their soul, and later we should gradually expose them to the world so they become strong and resilient. This is the winning combination that produced our father Jacob, and by extension, the Jewish people. You want to be an antifragile fire on the outside, a fragile candle on the inside.

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