My wife has been collecting Christmas ornaments for years. She has many delicate, ancient ornaments of sliver-thin glass.
The proliferation of ornaments has led to the continued purchase of special boxes with cardboard dividers and tissue paper to house the fragile ornaments. Routinely, I'm chastised for lacking care in the packing since I tend toward the bull-in-the-ornament-shop method of taking down Christmas. Yet, I understand that the ornaments could be easily crushed.
The human fear of loss makes fragility easy for us to understand. What isn't quite as easy to comprehend is antifragility. I was introduced to the concept of antifragility in the new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: "Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder."
When asked what is the opposite of fragile, most of us would respond robust or strong, but that is an inadequate definition. Robust or strong is the middle of the fragile spectrum.
An example will explain the difference. Take a hammer and hit a Christmas ornament -- that is fragile. Take the same hammer, hit a bar of steel and nothing happens. That is robust and neutral. Finally, take the hammer and pound on a rubber ball. That ball, bouncing around the room breaking Christmas ornaments, is antifragile -- the ball gained from the disorder of the hammer.
Taleb's book excelled in making me think, and you really can't ask more of a book. Given my profession, my thoughts tended toward how the law, when it is working best, makes fragile societal structures antifragile.
Certainly, individuals within the legal system can be fragile, but the legal system itself is antifragile. Many individual judges rule on the law, and the individuality and independence of the judges lead to decisions that vary within a range based on the written law. Those decisions are refined by new laws from the legislature or through the appeals courts.
The entire appellate court system and the concept of precedent is a built-in antifragile process where bad legal decisions are transformed into making the legal system stronger and more predictable.
The same thing happens in the daily practice of the law. Most lawyers think of this as planning for the worst-case scenario. All of that legalese in the fine print is lawyers trying to make contracts not easy to break, and not just strong, but strengthened in the event of default.
Forms I've drafted become stronger as I add clauses when something goes wrong or a new issue comes up. I consistently add boilerplate language to my forms to save time, conflict and make the legal process easier for my clients.
The disorder of the legal practice and the conflicts that arise teach the attorney how to adjust the process for better results -- more antifragile.
One legal innovation that has been around for a long time is loan collateral. Giving someone a loan is a fragile proposition. If the person you lend the money to loses their job or gets sick, collecting the loan can be about as easy as gluing a broken ornament back together.
In order to make the lending process less fragile and tending toward antifragile, the law allows the loan to be secured, or protected, by property owned by the borrower. When the loan isn't paid back, the bank takes the house or the car back and the loan is still paid.
Wise loans are antifragile. Needless to say, there were a whole bunch of unwise and fragile loans that weren't properly secured in 2008 that crashed the whole economy.
Antifragile doesn't mean bad things won't happen. Antifragile is about preparing and thinking so that when bad things do happen, you gain rather than lose.
For a final example, when I was writing this column, the exact same 12 pre-1946 vintage Christmas ornaments my wife has were listed on eBay for only $20, with $5 shipping.
Assuming UPS doesn't break my new box of old ornaments, I'll have a stash that makes taking down the Christmas tree this year much more antifragile.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. He can be reached at 801-392-8200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.