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Friedrich Nietzsche is credited with saying “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Kelly Clarkson has made the phrase popular, in recent times, and I would not be surprised, if over time, she gets more credit for the quotation than its originator. 

I listened yesterday morning to a BBC interview between Justin Rowlatt and Nassim Taleb, a professor/economist/former hedge fund manager. He’s written a lot about financial risk, especially, his book The Black Swan, which is about the extreme impact of certain kinds of rare and unpredictable events (outliers) and humans’ tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events retrospectively. He has extended his analysis and was trying to explain his notion of ‘antifragility‘–something does not merely withstand a shock but actually improves because of it.

What went through my mind as I heard his comments, and thought of Nietzsche/Clarkson was that Jamaica (and many Caribbean islands) must be on its (their) way to becoming the most resilient economy(ies) in the world. Jamaica has faltered badly over decades, buffeted by natural disasters, bad economic ideas, poor implementation of good ideas, and more. Should this have been building institutions and people who are able to withstand rough economic times very well? That latter part may be true, in the sense that people have figured out how to survive in an environment where economic gains are slim, even dwindling. But, if true, would we choose that as the way forward? Keep on failing, because it will make us better. I’m not convinced.

Taleb talks with great animation about how Silicon Valley is successful because it embraces what is the ‘natural’ order, of much more failure than success. He argues that any economic activity that has never had the need for government bailout was indicative of areas that would be very successful. He cited restaurants, as an example. Well, Jamaica is full of eating places; I have no idea what the rate of success has been. But, if we assume that most of them have failed, what does that give us? Another good example would be the sports or music industries: we see the few successes and marvel at them, but we often do not see the pile of talented or untalented persons who have tried and failed. Jamaica’s reggae music industry is riddled with failures. In other words, the few who succeed do not or cannot carry the many who fail. (For some, that is precisely why you have government and social programs, because the vast majority of people will be failures.)

We know that luck plays a great part: the right break (a chance to play–baseballer, Cal Ripken got a chance then never missed a game in 2,131 outings, breaking a 56-year old record); someone influential in the audience getting excited; the right time, simple accidents, etc. Christoval Colon ended up in The Caribbean, otherwise, who knows what might have happened to Hawaii?

Rightly, Jamaicans are all agog at what happened to Tessanne Chin. But, she’s almost a perfect example of the ‘hard work pays off, eventually’ maxim. ‘Hard work wont kill you’ is another maxim. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But, it was not hard work alone that got her to where she now stands. Fresh from a wonderful ‘homecoming’ in Kingston, including getting the keys to the city. Hard work can get you there. But, hard work is no guarantee that you will get there. She was a good singer, from a family of very good musicians, who had not gotten ‘the break’ she needed. She got one, and so far, is running with it.

Is the case that Jamaica needs it lucky break? Legalisation of marijuana could be it. Right time? Right place? Just speculating. It may not be.

The failures from which some individuals seem to grow blinds us to what is left behind. Is this why economic failure does not seem to offer the prospect for general economic success? Economic fragility seems to foster greater fragility.