Antifragility: How disorder makes us stronger

December 14, 2012, 5:59 PM UTC

FORTUNE — How did Switzerland become the most stable country in history? Its currency, unlike ours, keeps hitting new highs post-crisis, yet Switzerland doesn’t have a large central bank working behind the scenes. For that matter, it doesn’t have much of a central government. In Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Taleb jokes that the average Swiss citizen can name the presidents of France and the United States before they can name their own.

It turns out Switzerland perfectly captures Taleb’s idea of antifragility — the concept that certain things grow stronger with shock and turmoil, as opposed to fragile things, which just break down.

Taleb argues that Switzerland is a model of stability precisely because it doesn’t have a big central bank or national government. Instead, its dozens of sovereign mini-states squabble and fight constantly. This turmoil actually makes the country stronger because the Swiss get small problems out of the way before they can metastasize into something bigger like, say, a fiscal cliff.

What Taleb introduces in Antifragile — a book the brash options-trader-turned-philosopher calls his life’s work — is an old concept that seems to have been forgotten today. Fragile things, such as big banks or debt-laden consumers, tend to break under stress. But the world is full of things that grow stronger when exposed to stress. Your muscles get stronger when you lift weights at the gym. Immune systems strengthen from exposure to germs. Fifty Shades of Grey sales soar despite critical disdain.

What riles Taleb is that our leaders have increasingly shifted the modern world in the opposite direction of antifragility. As a result, our economy and society are vulnerable to little shocks. The financial system is dependent on five large banks that are too-big-to-fail, no matter how big their mistakes. Our central bankers juice the economy for short-term gain without knowing how they’re affecting the next decade. By avoiding shocks to our banks and economy — AKA the natural business cycle — we actually harm both. “Avoiding small mistakes makes the big ones more severe,” Taleb writes.

Taleb finds baneful examples of fragility in many corners of society. Overprotective parents shield their children from adversity, but also from hardships that help them mature. Doctors prescribe Prozac far too readily: One in 10 Americans is on an antidepressant. Far better, he asserts, to let our moods swing the way they naturally do.

“Had Prozac been available last century,” Taleb writes, “Baudelaire’s spleen, Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced.”

There’s proof that small mistakes can foster better futures. In science it’s called hormesis, the concept that limited doses of a harmful substance tend to make organisms stronger, healthier, and prepared for a bigger dose next time. Taleb invokes hormesis to explain historical trends, citing tragedies such as the Titanic disaster. Had the Titanic not sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, he argues, we would have no doubt built bigger and bigger ocean liners until even more people perished in a crash.

More recently, the Fukushima nuclear disaster highlighted nuclear reactor vulnerabilities, which should help prevent future catastrophes. Such events are unpredictable, which is why Taleb calls them Black Swans. His point is we need to be prepared for what we can’t predict, which is why we need to become antifragile.

Taleb apparently concocted the term “antifragility” during the 1,100 days he spent in seclusion writing the new book, a follow-up to his previous bestsellers Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. What sometimes goes unsaid about Taleb is that he’s a very funny writer. Taleb has a finely tuned BS detector, which he wields throughout the book to debunk pervasive yet pernicious ideas like stock options, which are so dangerous because they have no downside for the executives who receive them.

What makes Antifragile distinct from his previous books are Taleb’s prescriptions for regular people. How do you make your life more antifragile? How do you live a fulfilling, enjoyable life immune to ruin? Start simple, he advises, and cut out visits to the doctor. Why? Because doctors are incented to prescribe, prescribe, prescribe. Unless you’re truly sick, medicating everything from high blood pressure to high cholesterol tends to produce unintended side effects (think of the Vioxx effect).

At work, follow your body’s rhythms and introduce small stressors. Get up and take a walk when you hit a wall. Why work long, low-energy hours like the Japanese when starting and stopping is far more efficient?

For that matter, why strive for bland, cosseted consistency? We need bad days to appreciate the good, vegetables to enjoy steak, and financial hardship to prepare us for good times. The takeaway: Antifragility isn’t just sound economic and political doctrine. It’s also the key to a good life.

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. Follow Scott Cendrowski @scendrowski

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