Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
Will Melt Your Fucking Brain
One Line Summary
Don’t be a Sucker
“The general principle of antifragility, it is much better to do things you cannot explain than explain things you cannot do.”
– Nassim Taleb
I came into reading Antifragile not expecting much. I had heard it was a book about “randomness” and how systems gained from disorder. Okay, easy enough. I had no idea that opening this book was going to send me into an intellectual rabbit hole of probability, philosophy, logic, mathematics and Fat Tony.
Warning, your brain power is going to bechallenged if you read this. I’m going to be defining lots of terms and maybe bringing up ideas you’ve never heard of. But stick with it. This one is absolutely worth it.
The main premise of the book is easy enough to understand. In all of life, we can divide every system into one of three categories: Robust, Fragile, and Antifragile.
Robust systems are resistant to random shocks. Think of the Zen monk who, no matter what happens, is able to keep his emotions in check.
Fragile systems are those which are greatly harmed by random shocks. Think of your car, which is prone to all kinds of problems due to randomness. These systems are usually overly optimized, large and complicated. One small bump and the entire thing falls apart. It only took a mortgage crisis to bring down almost the entire economic system. Hence, Capitalism is fragile.
Most people assume that Robust is the opposite of fragile. But what Nassim Taleb hits you with is that this is totally wrong. Systems that are what he called Antifragile are the opposite of fragile.
Antifragile systems BENEFIT from random shocks. The easiest example of this is the effect of weightlifting on the human body. By putting muscles under stress they are not expected to have to handle, muscle is broken down and forced to regrow stronger. While Capitalism is fragile, the concept of economic systems as a whole are Antifragile because they evolve based on failures. Capitalism itself is the result of failed attempts at feudalism, and whatever replaces Capitalism will come from Capitalism’s failures.
This brings us to the second property of Antifragile systems: some part of the whole must be sacrificed in order for the system to benefit. Muscle cannot grow back unless some of it is torn to shreds. A new species cannot evolve unless some of its members are killed from natural selection.
The final property of Antifragile systems is that random shocks benefit the system, but only to a certain degree. While it may be good fitness to push yourself to failure, it would likely be bad fitness is you were hit by a speeding car. So there’s a limit, and this function of benefits can be represented by a convex function. It is non-linear, and as you’ll see, many direct practical problems in your life come from this inability to recognize non-linear effects.
Now let’s talk about what Taleb calls a Black Swan event. These are intense random shocks that nobody can really predict. And yet in hindsight, everyone says they saw it coming.
Taleb argues that it’s our fear of uncertainty and negative Black Swans that causes everyone to rush in and proclaim that they knew it was coming. This makes us feel secure in our world, safe from Black Swans. But not only is this security an illusion, it actually hurts systems by trying to deny Antifragility what it does best: killing off the weak in favor of the whole.
Why it’s Awesome
“So let us call here the teleological fallacy the illusion that you know exactly where you are going, and that you knew exactly where you were going in the past, and that others have succeeded in the past by knowing where they were going”
Self-development is Antifragile because you as a person are Antifragile. When you are put through the worst of the worst situations, these often don’t break you as soon many people fear. Rather, they are perfectly designed to strengthen your character.
As a student of self-development, this means that embracing Antifragility is core to your growth. You have to ask and seek out these experiences that challenge you. An old you must die in order for a new one to live. And it won’t be pleasant.
This is what the soccer mom’s of the world don’t understand about risk and struggle. In their attempt to shield their children from Black Swans, they rob them of the power of Antifragility. Taleb calls this “naïve interventionism”, and it’s really just people’s egos wanting to believe they can control and fix everything.
Of course, this will never be a narrative you will hear from mainstream sources. Antifrigiliy is not a scalable idea because it’s far too nuanced. But almost no one can argue “safety”. Unless you’re Nassim Taleb. Dude is such an asshole, it’s hilarious.
Another concept of Antifragility directly relates to the Mastery process and the idea of patience. When benefits come to you, they do not come in nice, evenly distributed amounts like our brains would believe. They are exponential, almost non-existent in the beginning and then slowly compounding over time. By applying patience and letting randomness do its thing, results begin to pour in.
I’m tempted to say that the entire spiritual idea of “manifesting desires” so dominant in the self-development community can be attributed to this idea of patience, randomness and convex gains. The ability to be patient and hold a desire long enough in your head allows enough time for Black Swans to activate your natural Antifragility and allow convex gains to occur. Then of course it seems like a miracle, like the Universe must have been planning this all along.
But hey, what do I know. I try to stay away from making hard claims about the Universe. The truth is that the human mind can only grasp so much. Rationality has limits, which is exactly why Black Swans happen. We overestimate our ability to make predictions because we think our mental models of the world can’t be wrong. But not only can they be wrong, THEY’RE ALL WRONG. No map can match the territory. And so Black Swans will never go away.
In the face of an a-rational reality and never ending Black Swans, the solution becomes not how to “optimize” your life (which is fragile) but how to protect yourself against negative Black Swans while gaining from positive ones.
One solution Taleb proposes he calls Optionality. Essentially it’s the idea that in the face of uncertainty, your negative risk is reduced when you have different options. Leave more open to in the moment decision making because the truth is you really don’t know what the future will bring. This way, when the inevitable occurs and one option becomes cut off, you have another.
There’s also what Taleb refers to as a Barbell Strategy. Essentially it’s when you enact on both the extremely high risk and extremely low risk side of a situation at the same time. Example, quitting your full time job to become a writer (extremely high risk) and getting a part-time job to pay the bills (low risk). This protects you from negative Black Swans but also puts you in a situation to embrace positive ones.
The last concept I want to talk about that I love from this book is Via Negativa. This is the idea that desired outcomes can be achieved simply by removing all that is not desirable. Someone who carves a statue out of marble is removing all the excess. Similarly, if you want to have good in your life, start by removing the bad. I don’t totally agree with this as a strategy because just removing bad isn’t exactly inspiring. But I like the concept itself.
Where Via Negativa becomes important is in Enlightenment and consciousness work. Enlightenment is not a concept, it’s what remains after you drop all concepts. This can only happen through a process of Via Negativa, where you hack away a false concepts until you hit something that can’t be destroyed. It’s basically Jed McKenna’s process of Spiritual Autolysis.
The sheer variety of ideas and fields which Taleb pulls from to write this book really is incredible. One section he is talking about higher order mathemtatics, another section he is talking about ancient philosophy. Antifragile itself is the result of Antifragile behavior.
Why Does It Suck
Taleb is a bit too in love with nature and damning of modern times. He commits a very common fallacy I see a lot of people making where people exclude mankind and everything that mankind has produced as “unnatural”.
Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as natural and unnatural. If something exists, it’s supposed to exist. It couldn’t be any other way. Your laptop is not more or less natural than a tree or a river. While the natural, unnatural dichotomy is useful sometimes as a model, dogmatic belief in its actual existence causes Taleb to make dumb claims like that you shouldn’t wear sunscreen.
Mankind is not outside of nature, he is a fully integrated part of it. And whatever mankind produces is what nature intended.
Taleb also seems to believe very strongly in heroism. And while I can see the appeal when look at some of the damage done by modern age individualism, the solution is not to try and “go back”. The solution is to integrate and grow.
The Wrap Up
There is only one reason why you shouldn’t read this book, and that is if you want to read the rest of Taleb’s Incerto series first. Antifragile is actually the last book in the series, and some of these ideas might be very confusing if you haven’t read the previous books.
Beyond that, you have to read this book. Honestly I’ve only scratched the surface of how deep we could go in talking about the content in this book. But nothing I could write would be a substitute for hearing it first hand from Taleb. Read it, read it, read it. Then digest it, read some other books and eventually come back to it. Guaranteed you’ll get something new because it’s impossible to absorb it all one sitting. Taleb was not fucking around with this book.