In this book, written by Nassim Taleb (author of Black Swan), we are introduced to antifragility, a concept where some systems are strengthened by volatility instead of weakened by it. For example, a set of wine glasses is fragile because any volatility will break them, but humankind is antifragile thanks to evolution and our ability to adapt to environmental changes. Your muscles are are also antifragile, because volatility in the form of strength-training makes them stronger.
And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.
It is of great help that Mother Nature— thanks to its antifragility— is the best expert at rare events, and the best manager of Black Swans; in its billions of years it succeeded in getting here without much command-and-control instruction from an Ivy League– educated director nominated by a search committee.
In short, the fragilista (medical, economic, social planning) is one who makes you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.
There is the medical fragilista who overintervenes in denying the body’s natural ability to heal and gives you medications with potentially very severe side effects; the policy fragilista (the interventionist social planner) who mistakes the economy for a washing machine that continuously needs fixing (by him) and blows it up; the psychiatric fragilista who medicates children to “improve” their intellectual and emotional life; the soccer-mom fragilista; the financial fragilista who makes people use “risk” models that destroy the banking system (then uses them again); the military fragilista who disturbs complex systems; the predictor fragilista who encourages you to take more risks; and many more.
Taleb’s visceral hatred for intellectuals and academics is palpable; he trashes them at least once every few pages. He hates how their attempts at optimization does nothing more than increase the fragility of societies, leading to inevitable black swans that cause tremendous damage. Their efforts at micromanaging complex systems has increased our vulnerability, and we would be better off if those systems were able to self-correct. He uses a rich trove of historical examples, anecdotes, and mathematics to prove his assertions.
…the road to robustification starts with a modicum of harm.
Had Prozac been available last century, 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.
….never has the world been more prone to more damage; never. It is hard to explain to naive data-driven people that risk is in the future, not in the past.
Taleb asserts that it’s better to allow for smaller mistakes to happen naturally than to try and protect a system from these mistakes, with the result of causing a gigantic meltdown instead. The little stresses are beneficial because the system builds immunity to the big events, as if taking a vaccine.
You can’t predict in general, but you can predict that those who rely on predictions are taking more risks, will have some trouble, perhaps even go bust. Why? Someone who predicts will be fragile to prediction errors. An overconfident pilot will eventually crash the plane. And numerical prediction leads people to take more risks.
Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry. Antifragility implies more to gain than to lose, equals more upside than downside, equals (favorable) asymmetry.
…economic growth with fragilities is not to be called growth, something that has not yet been understood by governments. Indeed, growth was very modest, less than 1 percent per head, throughout the golden years surrounding the Industrial Revolution, the period that propelled Europe into domination. But as low as it was, it was robust growth— unlike the current fools’ race of states shooting for growth like teenage drivers infatuated with speed.
Since life consists of volatility and stressors, how you can structure your own life to benefit from random events instead of being harmed by them? An example Taleb uses of a profession that is antifragile is the artist. Even when critics attack an artist, it only leads to more attention to his work and thus increased sales. Putting a writer in jail and censoring his work brings more exposure to them (i.e., no publicity is bad publicity).
Another antifragile profession is a taxi cab driver. The driver can have a horrible day at work (or even week), but the normal passenger traffic will inevitably return. On the other hand, a man who works in a corporation is fragile, because one bad quarter or vicious lie from a coworker means he’s fired. He’s also sensitive to mistakes that those higher up the management chain may make. Once unemployed, he can be left destitute for months, even years.
Approaching women in order to gain sex is antifragile. A failed approach at the coffee shop costs you a negligible amount of time, but the upside from that approach is sexual intercourse. Trying to get laid from your social circle is fragile, because a bad interaction can get you completely ostracized from the group, destroying all the time you spent maintaining relations with its members. Starting over with a new social group will take another large investment, but going outside to chat up girls in the city square takes a small one. Being antifragile means minimizing your downside while maximizing your upside. I’ve inadvertently applied antifragile techniques to my life when it comes to sex, income, and mobility.
Taleb highlights the benefits of Stoic philosophy, which appeals to me more than Buddhism or Taoism because of it’s active instead of passive nature and pliability of use in modern times. He offers many thoughts on personal success:
…the key phrase reverberating in Seneca’s oeuvre is nihil perditi, “I lost nothing,” after an adverse event. Stoicism makes you desire the challenge of a calamity. And Stoics look down on luxury: about a fellow who led a lavish life, Seneca wrote: “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.”
Success brings an asymmetry: you now have a lot more to lose than to gain. You are hence fragile.
When you become rich, the pain of losing your fortune exceeds the emotional gain of getting additional wealth, so you start living under continuous emotional threat. A rich person becomes trapped by belongings that take control of him, degrading his sleep at night, raising the serum concentration of his stress hormones, diminishing his sense of humor, perhaps even causing hair to grow on the tip of his nose and similar ailments. Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as a punishment as we depend on them.
If an additional quantity of wealth, say, a thousand Phoenician shekels, would not benefit you, but you would feel great harm from the loss of an equivalent amount, you have an asymmetry. And it is not a good asymmetry: you are fragile.
Simple test: if I have “nothing to lose” then it is all gain and I am antifragile.
If you take risks and face your fate with dignity, there is nothing you can do that makes you small; if you don’t take risks, there is nothing you can do that makes you grand, nothing.
Don’t be fooled by money. These are just numbers. Being self-owned is a state of mind.
…a free person: someone who cannot be squeezed into doing something he would otherwise never do.
Many, like the great Roman statesman Cato the Censor, looked at comfort, almost any form of comfort, as a road to waste. He did not like it when we had it too easy, as he worried about the weakening of the will. And the softening he feared was not just at the personal level: an entire society can fall ill.
A man is honorable in proportion to the personal risks he takes for his opinion— in other words, the amount of downside he is exposed to.
He offered thoughts on lifting weights in gyms:
People who build their strength using these modern expensive gym machines can lift extremely large weights, show great numbers and develop impressive-looking muscles, but fail to lift a stone; they get completely hammered in a street fight by someone trained in more disorderly settings. Their strength is extremely domain-specific and their domain doesn’t exist outside of ludic— extremely organized—constructs. In fact their strength, as with overspecialized athletes, is the result of a deformity.
On how to make a decision:
If you have more than one reason to do something (choose a doctor or veterinarian, hire a gardener or an employee, marry a person, go on a trip), just don’t do it. It does not mean that one reason is better than two, just that by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself to do something. Obvious decisions (robust to error) require no more than a single reason.
On which books to read:
One of my students (who was majoring in, of all subjects, economics) asked me for a rule on what to read. “As little as feasible from the last twenty years, except history books that are not about the last fifty years,” I blurted out, with irritation…
On which drinks to imbide:
…my rule is drink no liquid that is not at least a thousand years old—so its fitness has been tested. I drink just wine, water, and coffee. No soft drinks. Perhaps the most possibly deceitfully noxious drink is the orange juice we make poor innocent people imbibe at the breakfast table while, thanks to marketing, we convince them it is “healthy.” (Aside from the point that the citrus our ancestors ingested was not sweet, they never ingested carbohydrates without large, very large quantities of fiber. Eating an orange or an apple is not biologically equivalent to drinking orange or apple juice.) From such examples, I derived the rule that what is called “healthy” is generally unhealthy, just as “social” networks are antisocial, and the “knowledge”-based economy is typically ignorant.
He introduces many interesting asides, such as:
- Revolutions happen when people are hungry to become martyrs.
- A loser is not one who fails, but one who doesn’t introspect.
- Procrastination is a sign of low motivation. It can be solved by either changing your environment or doing something you feel passionate about.
- “…the more data you get, the less you know what’s going on.”
- A system built on probability, forecasting, and managing risk is bound to collapse.
- It is better to arrive at a conclusion through experience than reasoning.
- Heuristic knowledge is more valuable than theoretical.
- “Don’t put theories into practice… create theories out of practice.”
- Never attempt to answer a question that makes no sense to you.
- Large size makes systems inherently fragile.
- If you are already healthy, there is no medicine or supplementation that will make you feel better, but there are things you can take which cause harm to your healthy state.
- Mother nature is always more correct than a scientist who comes up with a new theory based on a small set of data that was likely incorrectly computed.
- Ignore anyone who doesn’t apply their ideas or theories to their own life.
- If a product is heavily marketed, it’s either inferior or harmful.
- “Systems make small errors, design makes large ones.”
- Statistics and numbers can be used to prove anything. Time and nature will sort out the liars.
I thought I was well-read, but Taleb’s heroic bookishness of reading 30-60 hours a week would stun even professional book reviewers. And with this self-taught knowledge comes the ability to make connections across disparate disciplines, a concept explained in Robert Green’s Mastery. Combine a mathematician with someone extremely well-versed in ancient history and you get the ideas that Taleb has put forth that has so quickly changed how we look at finance and modern economies. While the book has some technical passages, Taleb does a great job at explaining his work for those who don’t have mathematical backgrounds.
It’s hard to categorize Antifragile. It’s part-history, part-philosophy, and part-mathematics. Most books introduce derivitive thought that I’ve seen elsewhere, but Taleb’s book introduces completely new ideas that lit up my brain. Very rarely do I read a book and think, “This book will change how I see the world,” but this one managed to do it. It’s easily the most important work I’ve read in the past year.
Read More: “Antifragile” on Amazon