Antifragiles and risk handlers

Previously titled: Achievement focused and risk focused types

I wrote this in 2009. After reading the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb in 2012, a superb philosophical essay, I realize that the people I call achievement focused are “antifragile” by his terms and the others are experts at handling risk (not fragilistas, which Nassim uses as a derogatory term).

When it comes to performance there are two personality types. We’ll call them antifragile (previously: achievement focused) and risk handlers (previously: risk focused). These two types of people approach success and failure in almost opposite ways and it’s good to realize this and know which type you are, as well as recognize these categories in the other stakeholders of your projects.

Risk handlers see success as a bar that they have to reach.

The best example of a risk handler is an airline pilot. The pilot has to get the plane and the passengers to the destination airport, safely. That’s a complete success. Nobody is going to thank the pilot for flying further, higher, faster, visiting a new city on the way, or doing acrobatics. Rather, the pilot has to look out for everything that can go wrong during the flight and avoid or recover from that situation. They’re constantly looking at risk, or potential failure, and try to avoid it.

Other examples of risk handlers are accountants, business managers of stable organizations, project managers, film producers, civil engineers, security and military officers, criminals, surgeons, mountaineers, and unfortunately many parents.

Antifragile (achievement focused) people assume a baseline level of success and strive to maximize value from there.

The purest antifragile person is an artist. Every artist, once competent, will succeed in applying paint to canvas, delivering a song, or remembering their lines. Artists are not concerned with reaching this baseline but with how far they can go from there. Is it new? Is it inspiring? Is the audience ecstatic? Can it be better? Can the work or the artist push new boundaries? Artists are always focused on achievement, and by definition this always has to be ahead of what they can currently reach.

Other antifragile roles are entrepreneurs, other growth-oriented managers, scientists, product managers, film directors, architects, good doctors with a health mindset, misfits and agitators, athletes, and all kids.

It’s not helpful to label antifragile people as risk takers and risk handlers as risk averse. In a risk handler’s eyes, an entrepreneur who takes on some big idea is at risk of failing. That same startup founder might think that the pilot who flies them to a meeting takes on an impossibly greater risk. A better description is that antifragile people set up their projects to limit or externalize risk in the first place. If a startup fails or a movie flops, the investment is lost but nobody dies. Risk handlers are good at taking on unavoidable risk, managing it during their project, and discharging it safely. Once an airline crew takes off or a surgical team opens a person they enter a period of elevated risk that they have to control and back out of once the task is done.

When you’re running or are otherwise a stakeholder in a project you’ll encounter some combination of these two personality types in different roles. The project itself will also have an orientation, in other words it’s being run in an antifragile or a risk handling style, depending on the personality of the leader or the culture of the organization.

It’s important to recognize these approaches, to avoid friction between people who are unaware of the difference and to know what you’re getting into or what to expect from others. I try to be antifragile and run projects that way whenever the organization allows it. I once tried to enlist two of our best software engineers for my new project. One, who was antifragile, eagerly joined and performed better than anyone else I’ve worked with. The other, equally brilliant, guy declined because he thought my project was too risky, by which he meant that success was not well-defined. He was clearly a risk handler. Failing to see these differences when you set up teams is likely to lead to tension and disappointment.

That is not to say that teams should only have one personality type, or that one of them is clearly better. If your whole creative team is antifragile, maybe you should hedge with a risk handler as project manager. That’s why films have a producer. If your organization is getting slow you might want to hire an antifragile product manager to pull on opportunities. If the appointments are good, the friction and balance between these two personality types can be healthy.

There’s a time and a place for each approach. If a mountaineering expedition doesn’t put risk handling first, they’ll probably lose people. Science is antifragile, but may require large risk-handling projects to build accelerators or spacecraft. Startups are created by antifragile entrepreneurs, but blue-chip companies are run by risk handling accountants. When, and whether, to make the transition is crucial. Transitioning to risk-handling management just because the company has grown large is a mistake, as it will by definition limit growth. A massive product introduction, such as a new aircraft or operating system, can be managed with a risk-handling process but at the core the initiative to bring such a thing to the market is antifragile. On the other hand a great public work such as construction of a new bridge is fundamentally about risk handling and any antifragile flair, such as bold architecture, is an adornment to it.

Your kids are antifragile. Remember that’s their achievements, not yours. As a parent you have to keep them safe, and in times of fear or hardship that may make parents too much like risk handlers. It’s important to look beyond this and keep some antifragility, so that you can show your kids how to have dreams and not to give them up or run out of them.

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