Antifragile ~ Nassim Taleb

How to love the wind
Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire
Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind

I first picked up this book six months ago and had no idea what to make of it. Was it satire? Was he serious?

My first impression was that the author had had too much to drink (so what? don’t they all?).

Then I thought he was being altogether too cavalier, too cocky. No, not cocky, smug. Yes, altogether too smug.

Then I thought maybe it’s me (this is my default position); maybe I’m the one that doesn’t get it.

So I read some more. And as I got deeper and deeper into the book, it started to make more and more sense . . . or maybe I started to get more and more smug–who can tell? Either way, I was drawn in.

But how to write about such a book?

I knew it couldn’t be a summary–I cannot claim to fully understand the ideas.

I knew it couldn’t be an opinion piece–how does one have an “opinion” about something so audacious?

And it definitely couldn’t be a “review” in the traditional sense of good/bad, I liked this or that or the other. It’s not that kind of a book.

So I put it away. Forgot all about it.

Until now.

And even now, I’m not sure. What can one say about such a book?

Maybe the way in is to explore why? Why this book? Why not the thriller I just finished last night?

Because sometimes confusion is good. Yes, this is what I’m working on at the moment, my current life lesson–you do not need to understand everything, Tina. Just let it wash over you. Okay so that’s why. Because I let this book wash over me. For once, not trying to grab every idea and pin it down. Wave after wave, I just let it wash over me.

Wave 1: Antifragility

There are three types of entities (individuals and systems)–those that are destroyed by rare, random, and catastrophic events (the fragile); those that resist and persist, survive such events (the robust); and those that actually thrive after such events (the antifragile). Think of three famous figures in Greek mythology: Damocles, Phoenix and Hydra. The first (Damocles), lives in perpetual fear of being annihilated by the sword that hangs over his head. One day that sword will fall. Damocles is fragile. The myth of Phoenix, by contrast, is a story not of certain death, but of eternal rebirth. Each time the Phoenix is destroyed in the flame, it returns to its former glory. The Phoenix is robust and persists. But take the Hydra. Each time one of its multiple heads is cut off, two grow back. The Hydra, does not die, nor does it merely survive–it actually thrives (or improves itself) each time it faces annihilation. The Hydra is antifragile.

So the question is what makes something antifragile?

Many things.

Building redundancies into any given system so that when one cog fails another can pick up seamlessly. By building additional (and redundant) capacity into the system, the system is able to withstand stressors. This is why the human body has two kidneys and why the Hydra needs multiple heads.

Many years ago, after having been in the workforce for almost ten years, I decided to go back to school and get my doctorate. At the time, I was accepted into a program that offered a full ride, so I could have quit my job and gone to grad school full time. But I didn’t. My reasoning then was that I didn’t want my education to take away from my family’s well-being in any way, and quitting my job (even with the full ride) would mean taking a financial hit for the family. So I stayed in my job, and went to school full time (Luckily, I was able to arrange my work schedule around my school schedule). In hind sight, that was the best decision I made. Staying in my job gave me the breathing space I needed once I graduated from my program and before I secured another job. It was a built in redundancy. I already had a job. I didn’t have to scramble around to find one like most freshly-minted graduates. Even now, I try to have more than one gig going at any given time, so that when I encounter “lean times” in one endeavor, I can rely on the income stream from the other to sustain me through the rough patch . Built-in redundancy.

Another (and key) way to remain antifragile is to keep the upside while reducing the downside. In fact, the reduction of the downside should precede increasing the upside, since the reduction of risk makes us the least exposed to catastrophic events. You see, if something is fragile, its risk of breaking makes anything you do to improve it inconsequential unless you first reduce that risk of breaking.

In my own life this as shown up in the area of my health. In order to improve my health and wellbeing, I had to first reduce (eliminate) some of the risk factors that could put my success in jeopardy. For example, I quit a job in order to reduce my stress, which had, up till that point, been the single greatest saboteur of any attempts I made to improve my health. Then, I got rid of all the crappy foods in the house–primarily sugar and flour–because I know myself–if those foods are around I WILL eat them, thereby sabotaging any chance I have of getting well. In fact, if I had done nothing else other than reduceing my stress and removing the sugar and flour–if I had not upped my exercise and if we had not subscribed to a healthy food delivery service–I would still have improved my health and wellbeing tremendously. Reducing risk is the number one move we can (and should) all make.

Wave 2: Learning and Education

Taleb also spends a good deal of time/space talking about knowledge and education. Many of his ideas resonate deeply with me. This notion that “knowledge”–the codified, explainable, academizable, theoretizable knowledge, the kind we acquire in school for grades–is only one type of knowing or understanding of phenomena. The other kind–the more experience-based, intuitive, unprovable sort of knowledge–the “apophatic” tends to be de-legitimized in Western culture. What is valorized, instead, is the model that subscribes to the idea that research yields scientific knowledge, which, in turn, generates technologies, which, in turn, generate applications, and so on.

So what? What’s the problem with this model? It is, after all, derivative of the scientific method.

Maybe so. But it excludes the possibility of alternative processes, such as the one where random tinkering, for example, leads to heuristics, which, in turn, leads to practice and apprenticeship, which then loops back to more tinkering (refining) or any given process. Much of what has been built or created in human history has come from this sort of tinkering over generations. Yet in modern times, we seem overly attached to the idea that theories are “put into practice,” when, in fact, we create theories out of practice. The theory is the child of the cure, not the other way around.

Why is this important? Because we have become a slave to the theory. We are constantly trying to “fit” theories to what we observe, when we should be observing to see what theories/models emerge.

I see this in the field of education all the time. We are so quick to jump on the latest bandwagon and make wild, pendulum shifts in our policies and praxis, even though we cannot isolate variables and control the context in the natural setting of school as we can under experimental conditions. There is a randomness to the learning context that cannot be pinned down, that cannot be defined by rules, but we persist to march, lock-step, from theory to technology to publisher-sanctioned curricula and methodology.

This book also goes on to skewer Academia for its self-serving corruption, which I took great (and secret) delight in because more and more I’m beginning to feel disillusioned by the whole system–its exclusionary practices, its archaic curriculum and pedagogy, its corporate objectives, its bloated and top-heavy structure . . . all of it. And perhaps most of all the strictures that prohibit self-examination and critique, as if to do so would be to somehow scream that the Emperor has no clothes!

It’s all too much.

Wave 3: Via Negativa

This book feeds my need for less (in content if not in breadth). And in fact, this book gives us a discourse in less, or “via negativa” as Taleb calls it.

Sometimes what you do not do is better/more important than what you do.

Yes. A radical thought. Non-action is often better than action. Wu-wei–the doctrine of “passive achievement,” letting things take their own course. This is especially true in the field of modern medicine, where we often over-medicate and over-prescribe tests and procedures–antibiotics for a cold, chemotherapy for non-invasive carcinoma in situ–when, in fact, the side effects of the treatment can wreak worse havoc than the original condition.

And we know this from science (our new God): Disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation. Negative knowledge is more robust than positive. A good negative (no treatment in the cases mentioned above) is one that protects the ordinary guy from bad influences. In many cases, not doing something bad brings greater rewards than doing something good. For example, stopping smoking provides greater benefits than being able to cure people of lung cancer.

We are also now seeing this less-is-more principle at work in the area of longevity. Eating less (calorie restriction) has been shown to cure many ailments and even extend the lives of laboratory animals. Okay, so this research is in its infancy in some ways, but many (most) traditional cultures already practice this calorie-restriction in the form of ritual fasts and rules around food preparation and consumption. Most (if not all) diets are accomplished by removing offensive foods and not so much by adding positive behaviors like adding fruits and vegetables or by adding positive behaviors like exercise.

But most of the world operates by addition (via positiva). Pharmaceutical companies do not profit by telling you to avoid sugar; gyms do not profit by telling you to lift milk gallons rather than weights; stockbrokers do not benefit from your limiting your investments/risk. They have no upside in offering these options. They have skin in the drug/health/money game, and they’re not about to give it up for nothing.

Speaking of “skin in the game,” Taleb says, “Never trust someone who doesn’t have skin in the game.” So if a stockbroker is advising you to buy something, make sure he has an investment in it as well. Ralph Nader extrapolated this idea by creating a simple rule: People who voted for war needed to have at least one child or grandchild exposed to combat. Similarly, the English required that the engineers who built a bridge had to spend some time with their families under the bridge after it had been built. They had to have skin in the game, something to lose, just like everyone else. Never follow a leader who does not live by the rules he wants others to follow.

These are the things I learned from Nassim Taleb’s book.

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