ANTIFRAGILE [Book Review]

There, I did it. It took……..a little longer than expected, and that’s already taking into account his particular writing style. Well, here we go.

Nassim Taleb has a relatively unique writing style for his non-fiction books. It’s almost flamboyant, and just as messy as the previous book I read and reviewed, The Black Swan. However, this book seems to have a little more depth, and as the author describes early in this work, it’s more of a continuation. While The Black Swan is more of an awareness type of literature, where he describes the event, Antifragile feels more applied. And as you have probably experienced in advanced classes, the two compliment each other and your understanding on both sides improves quite dramatically (that is, if you decided to pay attention).

I truly experienced this phenomenon when I took Calculus for the first time. AP Calculus during my senior year of high school, which coming from a “hick town” type of community, I felt blessed to even have the class available. Anyways, before Calculus, Trig/Algebra/pre-calculus all felt like a memorization of methods, tables, theorems, and equations (or how to read them). Which was fine, but I still felt uncomfortable applying them on my own. Then calculus starts taking these ideas and incorporating them into practical applications. How the velocity can be determined by the derivative of an items position, or how one can optimize the surface area to volume of an item. I really didn’t understand exponentials until I started integrating them, which turn out to be more exponentials…..

But I digress.

Black swans are events that are “exceedingly rare,” but have major consequences. Mostly because no one sees them coming, or refuses to plan for them due to their “low probabilities.” But there’s a thick gray line between what is normal and what is “Black Swan Territory.” Everything from people and items to corporations and ideas are affected by events somewhere on that line, and they will typically either survive (robust) or die (fragile). But there’s a third option, and that is when the object/idea will improve and become more efficient with these events.

This is called antifragile, a term basically made up by the author since he couldn’t find any other word that best describes this scenario.

Note: I can’t say “there is no term for the opposite of fragile” for one major reason (which is hammered in throughout the book). The fact that I can’t find evidence of it DOESN’T MEAN that the term doesn’t exist. The absence of evidence  is not the same as evidence of absence.

Black swans……they’re out there. Just waiting to PROVE YOU WRONG!

Antifragility. The most visibly acknowledged form of it is in building muscle. How do you build muscle? You stress your muscles. They react (torn fibers, hormone stimulation, whatever the current theory is) to these events and recover stronger than before. There are limits, of course. You can’t expect to improve if you do too much damage (like rip your tendons doings pull-ups); there’s a sweet spot for optimal strengthening.

The term can also be applied to the realm of economics. Large corporations are more fragile, with their large “presence” and complex, tortuous bureaucracies prevent them from adapting to the dynamic market. Larger government, which also over-support “too big to fail” entities, are also more susceptible to economic downturns, in contrast to the partitioned governments of Switzerland.

In describing this phenomenon, the book does has a rough form. There’s an introduction, some philosophical arguments for antifragility, some theories on how to become antifragile, and its implications in society. And of course, the lines are blurred.

Heavily.

I constantly end a chapter not really knowing the main idea behind it and still being slightly lost when the next chapter begins. Maybe its because of a higher-level of thinking and writing. I just like to think of the book as one big picture that has parts “just as they are.”

But here are some highlights that I got from the book (which I have “bookmarked by folding the corners on specific pages).

  • In order for fragility to be effective, the sub-segments of that system have to be fragile. If a product doesn’t make a profit, the company stops producing that unit. As a government improves with time, amendments must be added, edited, and/or deleted. For the human genome to evolve over time, people with weaker genes must “leave the gene pool.”
  • Ironically, the units (both success AND failures) that allow for antifragility to occur are rarely praised. This is true for entrepreneurs, where the majority of them fail (mostly due to luck). It’s these individuals that risk their time and careers trying out new ideas that could be the new black swan. But we still consider failed restaurants/companies/inventions in a negative fashion (which is unfortunate). Because they are like the thousands of ways Thomas Edison failed to make a light bulb before he succeeded (or however his famous quote goes…).
  • In order for development, randomness in the environment must be present. When muscles are stressed, resting time is required for improvements can be incorporated. Fluctuations in tensions and relaxation. And if the stress factors don’t exist, there’s no incentive for improvements to be made.
  • Where some people may find information, too much turns into unhealthy noise. If too many “warnings” are present in the system, many will actually become too independent on the system itself and lose themselves. Slight fluctuations in the stock market is noise. One can look into the details, but too much can prevent the system from being focused on its own flexibility and antifragility. So when Thanksgiving comes……. you aren’t the turkey looking for the food on the ground and miss the axe in the air.
  • One of the main way to become antifragile, in Taleb’s mind, is to have a “barbell strategy.” This is split into a “safe” and an “extreme” portfolio. For investments, for example, you have a large portion of your money in safe investments (government bonds, for example) and the rest is on high-risk investments. Not a lot in the later half, but in events where the payoffs are still large, like your next-Apple stock. Just don’t go all in (or not even close to all in).
  • The other common tactic is through “subtraction.” One does not become more flexible by adding bulk. It’s through the elimination of negative segments and habits that can improve your performance. Excess knowledge in your theory or even carbs in your diet. There’s no “magic pill” that doesn’t have no side effects. Unfortunately, fasting, while quite effective, does not make money for anyone.

The themes which antifragility are applied to cover a few, re-occurring topics: medicine, economics and finance, government, personal development, and a couple others. And the discussions are backed up by a whole section of appendices and references.

The topic is well worth the read, and it constantly led me through the maze of themes present in this novel. While I was constantly thinking of “putting it down,” the hidden gems of useful knowledge throughout the book was almost……addictive. If the book was written in a more open fashion, it would have been addictive, at least in my opinion.

Another note when reading this novel. There is also consistent bitterness against “the man.” It’s almost like he wrote the book to really bash into “success stories” and managers and talkers without skin in the game. It’s easy to get riled up with these side swipes, as many of us have felt the pain of a few crashes in the last couple decades. While it does make the book feel more biased that what the topic should be, it definitely gets points for utilizing ethos to sell the topic.

But here’s my problem. When I try to think of how I, personally, would write a book on such a topic….. I’m at a loss. Do I do separate chapters for separate topics (economy, governmental, medical) after talking about straight theory? I guess I would intersperse theory chapters with “case studies,” almost text book style. Keep the application constant to truly cement the idea into the audience. Kind of like Taleb did, but a little more organized.

But maybe it’s not that important on HOW the terms and ideas are laid out, but more on it just being there. In its own, unique way.

Hmmm….. that sound like a problem that I might have on a personal level. I’ll have to drink a glass of red wine and think about that one.

 

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