Antifragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Date read: 4/1/17. Recommendation: 10/10.

Taleb introduces his concept of antifragility, which explains that certain things (including us) benefit from a degree of randomness, chaos, and disorder. While comfort, convenience, and predictability, breed the opposite–fragility. He presents this as part of what he calls 'the central triad' which ranges from fragile to robust to antifragile. As he explains antifragility, he discusses the value systems that hold us prisoner, ancestral vs. modern life, and Seneca's version of Stoicism. It's a dense read, but worth it for a glimpse into the originality of Taleb's ideas.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

With randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

If about everything top-down fragilizes and blocks antifragility and growth, everything bottom-up thrives under the right amount of stress and disorder. The process of discovery (or innovation, or technological progress) itself depends on antifragile tinkering, aggressive risk bearing rather than formal education.

Yet simplicity has been difficult to implement in modern life because it is against the spirit of a certain brand of people who seek sophistication so they can justify their profession.

But 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."

The record shows that, for society, the richer we become, the harder it gets to live within our means. Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.

If tired after an intercontinental flight, go to the gym for some exertion instead of resting. Also, it is a well known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated - the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks.

Layers of redundancy are the central risk management property of natural systems. We human have two kidneys, extra spare parts, and extra capacity in many, many things (say, lungs, neural system, arterial apparatus). *debt is the opposite of redundancy

Information is antifragile; it feeds more on attempts to harm it than it does on efforts to promote it.

Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it is not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book...Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer. *Jobs/professions fragile to reputational harm aren't worth having.

A midlevel bank employee with a mortgage would be fragile to the extreme. In fact he would be completely a prisoner of the value system that invites him to be corrupt to the core - because of his dependence on the annual vacation in Barbados.

Much of aging comes from a misunderstanding of the effect of comfort - a disease of civilization: make life longer and longer, while people are more and more sick. In a natural environment, people die without aging - or after a very short period of aging. For instance, some markers, such as blood pressure, that tend to worsen over time for moderns do not change over the life of hunter-gatherers until the very end.

Typically, the natural–the biological–is both antifragile and fragile, depending on the source (and the range) of variation. A human body can benefit from stressors (to get stronger), but only to a point.

"Machines: use it and lose it; organisms: use it or lose it." -Frano Barovic

Language acquisition: You pick up language best thanks to situational difficulty, from error to error, when you need to communicate under more or less straining circumstances...One learns new words, mostly by being forced to read the mind of the other person - suspending one's fear of making mistakes.

Touristification: systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness from things, trying to make maters highly predictable in their smallest details. All that for the sake of comfort, convenience, and efficiency.

If you are alive - something deep in your soul likes a certain measure of randomness and disorder.

Also consider how easy it is to skip a meal when the randomness in the environment causes us to do so.

Ancestral life had no homework, no boss, no civil servants, no academic grades, no conversation with the dean, no consultant with an MBA, no table of procedure...all life was random stimuli and nothing, good or bad, ever felt like work. Dangerous, yes, but boring, never.

An environment with variability (hence randomness) does not expose us to chronic stress injury, unlike human-designed systems. If you walk on uneven, not man-made terrain, no two steps will ever be identical - compare that to the randomness-free gym machine offering the exact opposite: forcing you into endless repetitions of the very same movement.

Much of modern life is a preventable chronic stress injury.

So organisms need to die for nature to be antifragile - nature is opportunistic, ruthless, and selfish.

If nature ran the economy, it would not continuously bail out its living members to make them live forever.

Further; my characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn't introspect, doesn't exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on. These types often consider themselves the "victims" of some large plot, a bad boss, or bad weather.

He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once. And someone who has made plenty of errors - though never the same error more than one - is more reliable than someone who has never made any.

Buridan's Donkey Metaphor: A donkey equally famished and thirsty caught at an equal distance between food and water would unavoidably die of hunger and thirst. But he can be saved thanks to a random nudge one way or the other.

When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. You can see here that absence of randomness equals guaranteed death.

Consider the life of the lion in the comfort and predictability of the Bronx Zoo (with Sunday afternoon visitors flocking to look at him in a combination of curiosity, awe, and pity) compared to that of his cousins in freedom. We, at some point, had free-range humans and free-range children before the advent of the golden period of the soccer mom.

If you want to accelerate someone's death, give him a personal doctor....access to data increases intervention, causing us to behave like the neurotic fellow.

It is almost impossible for someone rational, with a clear, uninfected mind, someone who is not drowning in data, to mistake a vital signal, one that matters for his survival, for noise - unless he is overanxious, oversensitive, and neurotic, hence distracted and confused by other messages. Significant signals have a way to reach you.

Our track record in figuring out significant rare events in politics and economics is not close to zero; it is zero.

Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it - books have a secret mission and ability to multiply as everyone who has wall-to-wall bookshelves knows well.

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.

What we learn from reading Seneca directly, rather than through the commentators, is a different story. Seneca's version of that Stoicism is antifragility from fate. No downside from Lady Fortuna, plenty of upside.

Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as punishment as we depend on them.

Seneca's practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting - a way to wrest one's freedom from circumstances.

Seen this way, Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.

Seneca also provides us a catalogue of social deeds: invest in good actions. Things can be taken away from us - not good deeds and acts of virtue.

Seneca said that wealth is the slave of the wise man and the master of the fool. Thus he broke a bit with the purported Stoic habit: he kept the upside.

This kind of sum I've called in my vernacular "fuck you money"–a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects, such as having to attend a black-tie charity event and being forced to listen to a polite exposition of the details of a marble-rich house renovation. The worst side effect of wealth is the social associations it forces on its victims, as people with big houses tend to end up socializing with other people with big houses.

Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life on an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and alarm clock.

What we call diseases of civilization result from the attempt by humans to make life comfortable for ourselves against our own interest, since the comfortable is what fragilizes.

Another fooled-by-randomness-style mistake is to think that because life expectancy at birth used to be thirty until the last century, that people lived just thirty years. The distribution was massively skewed, with the bulk of deaths coming from birth and childhood mortality.

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. And when you take risks, insults by half-men (small men, those who don't risk anything) are similar to barks by non-human animals: you can't feel insulted by the bark of a dog.

Anything one needs to market heavily is necessarily either an inferior product or an evil one. And it is highly unethical to portray something in a more favorable light than it actually is.

If you ever have to choose between a mobster's promise and a civil servant's, go with the mobster. Any time. Institutions do not have a sense of honor, individuals do.