Best-selling author of The Black Swan and brilliant iconoclast Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains – or doesn’t – why fearing volatility paralyzes thinking and systems.
Don’t Expect Answers
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering, a distinguished research scholar at Said Business School at Oxford and the best-selling author of The Black Swan, among many other works.
As befits an author of his credentials, Taleb’s book is brilliant, confusing, idiosyncratic, useful and irritating – sometimes all at once. Everyone understands that if something is fragile, it breaks. Taleb’s core idea – profound and almost revolutionary – is that while fragility poses a danger to complex systems and is a growing menace to the increasingly interrelated global economy, the opposite of fragile is not, for example, robust or sturdy.
Those qualities fall in the middle of a spectrum between fragile and antifragile. Something is antifragile – a term Taleb coined – if it benefits from shocks, stress, disruption, randomness or volatility. Thus, he teaches, people must learn to create systems, habits and practices that survive and benefit from disruption.
Newsweek found this to be, “A bold book explaining how and why we should embrace uncertainty, randomness and error…It may just change our lives.” The Economist called it, “Ambitious and thought-provoking…highly entertaining.”
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors, and love adventure, risk and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.Nassim Nicholas Taleb
In discussing ethics and antifragility, Taleb argues against generalized responsibility and against decisions in which the consequences don’t affect the decision makers, that is, where they have “no skin in the game.” If you’re short on time, read Taleb’s prologue. It gives a clear explanation of antifragility, a concept you can apply usefully on your own.
Shocks, Stress and Disruptions
However, if you stop after the prologue, you’ll miss the highly personal beauty of the remaining hundreds of pages. Taleb casts a wide net. He moves from system to system, identifying common principles in biology, politics, economics and other fields. He provides multimodal ways of accessing and understanding his concepts. These strategies range from the five-page table in the prologue delineating the respective qualities of fragile, robust and antifragile systems to rich examples from mythology.
Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events.Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb divides his discussion of antifragility into seven books of short, episodic chapters. Each moves in unexpected, surprising directions and explores a different idea. Taleb says you must learn to live happily in a world beyond your understanding or capacity to predict. The antifragile isn’t linear, and Taleb doesn’t follow a linear path in teaching these lessons:
Taleb starts – but never claims to complete – the process of defining and mapping antifragility. He argues that many claims of completion are false and dangerous and discusses evolution as an antifragile process that works because it continues to function even when species vanish – the particular may break, but the system endures. Fragile systems fear error and need precise, known rules. Antifragile systems, such as evolution, benefit from error.
Taleb addresses the relationship between modernity and antifragility. Modernity refers to the contemporary desire to organize and control life. Taleb contrasts this with the awareness of the self-employed person who monitors the system for responses and treats personal failures as data.
The modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable.Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb sees the modern world as heir to two fallacies: intervention and prediction. Both relate to the belief that people can and should control the world, and that they will achieve superior results if they do. Taleb presents counterexamples from medicine, politics and literature.
Risk and Conservatism
In developing an alternative model of the world springing from Seneca and the Stoics, Taleb encourages an appropriate, beneficial blending of some extreme risk and some conservatism. This section reads as an idea or inspiration, not as a worked-out plan, and is less mature in thought than the rest of Taleb’s concepts.
Books four and five are intellectually ambitious and challenging. Taleb makes his view of experts quite plain as he describes Harvard intellectuals lecturing birds on how to fly, and then taking credit when they do.
Taleb explores fundamental flaws in modern culture and argues that formal education results from innovation and prosperity. He distinguishes between the teleological mind-set and an American future-oriented “optionality,” which incorporates adaptation and breadth, rather than narrow, fixed planning.
Simplicity is not so simple to attain. Steve Jobs figured out that ‘you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple’. Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb addresses longstanding, pervasive myths and relishes blowing up false answers, especially those codified by centuries of tradition and repetition. He offers a fragmentary dialogue between his recurring mouthpiece “Fat Tony” and Socrates: “Only suckers wait for answers; questions are not made for answers.” Taleb doesn’t tell you the truth, he untells you untruths to help you find answers for yourself. Taleb refuses to lecture you on how to fly. He wants you to use your own wings your own way.
Taleb argues against decisions in which the consequences don’t affect the decision makers. He believes fervently that those with something to lose from a decision are those who should have the responsibility for making it. He abhors policy made from above, that is, made by those whose privilege makes them immune to the choices they inflict on others.
The Arabs have an expression for trenchant prose: no skill to understand, mastery to write it.Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb’s other books – all startling, thought-provoking and atypical – include Fooled By Randomness; The Black Swan; The Bed of Procrustes; Skin in the Game; Dynamic Hedging; and Statistical Consequences of Fat Tails. For an excellent and amusing corollary read, see The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, which Taleb co-authored with Carlo M. Cipolla.