After finishing Nassim Taleb’s novel, The Black Swan, I immediately ordered his next book, Antifragile.
I really enjoyed The Black Swan, and I liked Antifragile even more. This was hands down one of the best books I have ever read.
The Good – Thought-Provoking Ideas
The central idea of the book is the distinction between the fragile, the robust and the antifragile. The fragile is something that breaks with disturbances (i.e. glass). The robust is something that is neither harmed nor gains from disturbances (i.e. a rock). The antifragile is something that benefits from disturbances. Put another way, the fragile wants tranquility, the robust doesn’t care too much, and the antifragile grows from volatility.
Mother Nature is the ultimate example of antifragility, made stronger from millions of years of stresses. Some other examples of antifragility include “evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes, the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance…even our own existence as a species on this planet.” I liked the idea of writers being antifragile because a scandal or an attack on their ideas would bring attention to them – intense criticism helps books spread.
Here are a few additional central ideas from the novel:
1. Subtraction & Simplicity
“The simpler, the better – less is more and usually more effective.”
“Much of what other people know isn’t worth knowing”
“The simplest technologies, or perhaps not even technologies but tools, such as the wheel, are the ones that seem to run the world. In spite of the hype, what we call technologies have a very high mortality rate.”
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing that you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundreds of other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. Innovation is saying no to 1000 things.” ~ Steve Jobs
“More data – such as paying attention to the eye colors of people when crossing the street – can make you miss the big truck. When you cross the street, you remove data that is anything but the essential threat.”
“If you have more than one reason to do something, you should not do it: by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself. Obvious decisions require no more than a single decision.”
“The problem with the commercial world is that it only works by addition, not subtraction: pharmaceutical companies don’t gain if you avoid sugar, the manufacturer of health club machines doesn’t benefit from you lifting stones and walking on rocks, your stockbroker doesn’t gain from your decision to limit your investments to what you see with your own eyes, say your cousins restaurant or an apartment building in your neighborhood; all these firms have to produce ‘growth in revenues’ to satisfy the metrics of some slow thinking analyst sitting in New York”
“The source of harm lies in the denial of antifragility, and to the impression that we humans are so necessary to making things function. We should not take risks with near healthy people; but we should take a lot more risks with those deemed in danger. If the patient is close to death, all speculative treatments should be encouraged. Conversely, if the patient is near healthy, then Mother Nature should be the doctor.”
“The world has never been richer and has also never been more heavily in debt. The richer we become, the harder it is to live within our means. Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.”
2. Mother Nature – Standing the Test of Time
“Time is the best test of fragility: it encompasses high doses of disorder, and nature is the only system that has been stamped robust by time”
“What Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.”
“I resist eating fruits not found in the ancient eastern Mediterranean. I avoid fruits that do not have an Ancient Greek or Hebrew name, such as mangoes, papayas or oranges. As to liquids, I only drink liquids that are over 1000 years old – water, wine and coffee. I derived the rule that what is called healthy is generally unhealthy, just as social networks are antisocial.”
“The longer a technology lives, the longer it can be expected to live. Not the same for perishable things like humans – the longer we live, the shorter we are expected to live. If a book has been in print for 40 years, then it will be expected to be in print for another 40 years. Things that have been around for a long time are not aging like humans, but aging in reverse.”
“I expect the future to be populated with wall to wall bookshelves, the device called the telephone, and such, using the notion that most technologies that are now 25 years old should be around another 25 years (most, not all). But the fragile should disappear or be weakened – the large, optimized, over reliant on technology or the so called scientific method instead of age tested heuristics. Corporations that are large today should be gone, as they have been weakened by size, which they thought was a strength. City states and small corporations are more likely to be around, even thrive. Nation states and the currency printing central banks might stay nominally, but they will have their powers extremely eroded.”
3. Having Skin in the Game
“Anyone producing a forecast or making an economic analysis needs to have something to lose from it, given that others rely on those forecasts (to repeat, forecasts induce risk taking; they are more toxic to us than any other form of human pollution)”
“The problem with people who do not incur harm is that they can cherry pick from statements they have made in the past, many of them contradictory, and end up convincing themselves that they were right all along.”
“Never ask anyone for their opinion, forecast or recommendation. Just ask them what they have – or don’t have – in their portfolio. One should say whatever he wants, but ones portfolio needs to line up with it. Never ask a doctor what you should do. Ask him what he would do if he was in your place.”
“The rule of this book is as follows: I eat my own cooking”
“Tourism assumes completeness of vision and gets one locked into a hard to revise program, whereas the flaneur continuously modified his targets as he acquires information. Because innovations drift, one needs flaneur like abilities to keep capturing the opportunities that arise, not stay locked up in a bureaucratic mold.”
“I disbelieve in structured learning. I believe that one can be an intellectual without doing so in the classroom, provided that one has a private library instead of a classroom, and spends time as an aimless but rational flaneur benefiting from what randomness can give us inside and outside the library. Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, adventure, mess, uncertainty, and self discovery; all these things make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock. It’s as if the mission of modernity is to squeeze every drop of variability and randomness out of life”
“Anything one needs to market heavy is either an inferior or an evil product. You certainly need an advertising apparatus to convince people that Coke brings them “happiness” – and it works. We accept that people who boast are boastful and turn people off. How about companies? Why aren’t we turned off by companies that advertise how great they are?”
I thought The Black Swan was a long and difficult read – and well, Antifragile was even longer and equally, if not more, difficult. The book is divided into 25 chapters, but also into 7 books, and each of them could have been its own separate novel.
I think this summary “sentence” is a good representation of its complexity:
“Now we aim – after some work – to connect in the reader’s mind, with a single thread, elements seemingly far apart, such as Cato the Elder, Nietzsche, Thales of Miletus, the potency of the system of city-states, the sustainability of artisans, the process of discovery, the onesidedness of opacity, financial derivatives, antibiotic resistance, bottom-up systems, Socrates’ invitation to overrationalize, how to lecture birds, obsessive love, Darwinian evolution, the mathematical concept of Jensen’s inequality, optionality and option theory, the idea of ancestral heuristics, the works of Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, Wittgenstein’s antirationalism, the fraudulent theories of the economics establishment, tinkering and bricolage, terrorism exacerbated by death of its members, an apologia for artisanal societies, the ethical flaws of the middle class, Paleo-style workouts (and nutrition), the idea of medical iatrogenics, the glorious notion of the magnificent (megalopsychon), my obsession with the idea of convexity (and my phobia of concavity), the late-2000s banking and economic crisis, the misunderstanding of redundancy, the difference between tourist and flâneur, etc. all in one single – and, I am certain, simple – thread.”
Taleb regularly references people and books that I have never heard of. It seems like half the time I have no clue what he is talking about, and half the time I am marveled by the ideas he is proposing. If you look at the reviews on Goodreads, you will see a lot of 1s and a lot of 5s – you either love or hate the guy. He’s witty, he’s cocky, and he is the recipient of a lot of hate, but it’s tough to deny how thought-provoking his ideas are.
Like one of Antifragile’s central ideas, I am confident this book will stand the test of time. I will for sure be re-reading this gem at some point in my life.