Review of Antifragile

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Review

This amazing book is brilliant, confusing, idiosyncratic, useful and irritating – sometimes, all at once. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s core idea, which is profound and close to revolutionary, is this: Everyone is familiar with the idea of fragility. If something is fragile, it breaks. Fragility is a danger in all complex systems, and it is a growing danger in the increasingly interrelated global economy. The opposite of fragile is not “robust” or sturdy. “Antifragile” doesn’t refer to things that don’t break. Those qualities fall somewhere 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. In discussing ethics and antifragility, he argues against generalized responsibility and against decisions in which the consequences don’t affect the decision makers. He relishes challenging modern orthodoxies and argues for better ethics from those with “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.

About the Author

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering and a distinguished research scholar at Said Business School at Oxford. He also wrote The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and The Bed of Procrustes.

 

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, where he explains ideas by telling familiar stories. 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:

Evolution Works Because It Is Antifragile

Taleb starts – but never claims to complete – the process of defining and mapping antifragility. In book one, he argues that many claims of completion are false and dangerous. He objects to today’s overemphasis on the particular and to the micromanagement it generates. He discusses evolution as an antifragile process that works because it is antifragile: it functions even when whole species get wiped out. Species die, but the resilient antifragile system continues. Fragile systems fear error and need precise, known rules. Antifragile systems, like evolution, benefit from error. This quality carries ethical implications for Taleb. Heroes risk failure for others. Entrepreneurs, who choose risks, are heroic. While conservative and libertarian commentators hail entrepreneurs as champions, Taleb is rare in linking that argument to larger systems.  

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