Antifragile

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Published: Original, 2012; this version, 2014 (426 pages)

Started reading: 30.October.2016

Finished reading: 26.November.2016


Brief description

Antifragile is the answer to the question of how to live in a world we do not understand.

Stoicism is an antifragile philosophy. The common law is an antifragile legal system. Genes are antifragile. City-states are antifragile. Meditation – anapana, vipassana, transcendental – is an antifragile practice, because stressors such as outside noise or an unquiet mind strengthen the meditators focus through mindfulness. The human body, up to a certain point and in certain ways, such as muscle growth and fasting, is antifragile.

Antifragility, a term coined by Taleb who thought no single word yet existed to capture what he was describing, is the exact opposite of fragility. While the fragile is harmed by volatility, uncertainty and disorder, the antifragile gains from them, thrives – it goes beyond mere robustness, the ability simply to endure setbacks, unharmed.

Antifragile systems can be fractal – smaller units sacrifice themselves, or are fragile, for the sake of the collective entity. Evolution is an example of this, as are economies powered by startup entrepreneurship, like California’s, where to fail is to move society a little closer to finding ideas that really work. Also think of what small,warring city-states did for the advancement of western civilisation.

In The Black Swan, Taleb exposed how humans are terrible predictors of the future. We get hit by significant unexpected events – natural disasters, wars, financial crises, political elections, personal setbacks, tragedies or windfalls – and while we rationalise them from hindsight, a clear-eyed examination of history shows we get no better at preventing the next occurance.

Antifragile takes The Black Swan to its natural and prescriptive conclusion. If we can’t predict the future, then we can at least design ourselves and our societies to be impervious to it (robust), or to grow from it (antifragile), since fragility, robustness, and antifragility are current and measurable, not future and unpredictable, properties.

This leads to one of Taleb’s central themes, which is to focus on the payoff not the probability of any decision: f(x) versus x. To give an example, you can’t predict with much accuracy when or how frequently (x) an earthquake will occur in a particular zone, but you can accurately estimate the death toll, the function of x. Therefore, you might decide to force people to build in a different area or to certain standards.

There is so much to take away from this book: barbell strategies, the importance of redundancies to insulate against unexpected disasters (i.e. having cash in the bank),  the benefits of being a flaneur, designing societies where decision-makers have “skin in the game”, why small is better than “too big to fail”, etc etc. And a bunch of heuristics for living life with antifragility. But two strong, general insights I took away are below.


Actionable insights

> A respect for anything old, that has stood the test of time, is a powerful heuristic to apply to personal and public choices. Time is the ultimate form of volatility, thanks to the law of entropy. Things that are fragile will generally be ground down by time, whereas the antifragile will endure. This leads to the surprising result known as the Lindy Effect, which states that the longer a nonperishable item exists, the longer it is likely to exist. In line with his respect for the old, Taleb advocates the power of intermittent fasting – a barbell approach to eating that plays on the antifragile responses of the human body, which have developed over millenia of feast and famine cycles experienced by our ancestors. He also doesn’t drink any liquid less than 1000 years old – which basically rules out everything but coffee, water and wine.

> We should all have a general skepticism for academic ideas, noting the greater power of disconfirmatory over confirmatory evidence. A deep and powerful point, which I probably won’t do justice here, but suffice it to say that the onus of proof should be laid on anyone seeking to be additive rather than subtractive, particularly when it comes to new medicines or technologies.  We are so bad at understanding causes, and our academic explanations for all sorts of things change all the time, that it is much better (a) to study phenomenology rather than causal mechanisms, and (b) accept instances of disconfirmation (as in Karl Popper’s theory), and be suspicious of ‘confirmatory evidence’. Disconfirmation chips away at the metaphorical chunk of granite to get us closer to the statue, whereas its opposite is often undone by confirmation bias and causal opacity, leading us astray.

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