#26. A Summary of ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Diversity by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Random House; November 27, 2012)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis

PART I: AN INTRODUCTION TO ANTIFRAGILITY

1. Fragility, Robustness, and Antifragility

2. The Antifragility of Living Things (with a Focus on the Human Body)

3. The Antifragility of Evolution

4. The Complex and the Noncomplex

5. How Modernity is Fragilizing Complex Systems: An Introduction

PART II: THE RIGHT WAY AND THE WRONG WAY TO APPROACH ANTIFRAGILE SYSTEMS

6. The Body

  • a. How to Destroy a Body: Iatrogenics
  • b. How to Take Care of a Body

7. Technology

8. Business

9. Economics

10. Politics

  • a. Absence of Skin in the Game among Politicians and Civil Servants
  • b. General Recommendations to Improve Politics

11. Antifragility and Unpredictability: How to Live in an Unpredictable World

12. Conclusion: Why Nassim Nicholas Taleb Would Hate This Article

i. Introduction/Synopsis

The concept of fragility is very familiar to us. It applies to things that break when you strike or stretch them with a relatively small amount of force. Porcelain cups and pieces of thread are fragile. Things that do not break so easily when you apply force or stress to them we call strong or resilient, even robust. A cast-iron pan, for instance. However, there is a third category here that is often overlooked. It includes those things that actually get stronger or improve when they are met with a stressor (up to a point). Take weight-lifting. If you try to lift something too heavy, you’ll tear a muscle; but lifting more appropriate weights will strengthen your muscles over time. This property can be said to apply to living things generally, as in the famous aphorism ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Strangely, we don’t really have a word for this property, this opposite of fragility.

For author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, this is a major oversight, for when we look closely, it turns out that a lot of things (indeed the most important things) have, or are subject to, this property. Indeed, for Taleb, all that lives, and all the complex things that these living things create (like societies, economic systems, businesses etc.) have, or must confront this property in some way. This is important to know, because understanding this can help us understand how to design and approach these things (and profit from them), and failing to understand it can cause us to unwittingly harm or even destroy them (and be harmed by them). So Taleb has taken it upon himself to name and explore this curious property and its implications; and in his new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder Taleb reports on his findings.

As the title would suggest, what Taleb has found is that most complex systems not only gain from small stressors, but they are designed to gain more when these stressors are distributed irregularly, or randomly. This point is more difficult to accept because we tend to dislike disorder and randomness. Disorder can be frightening, because unpredictable, and is therefore not something that we readily welcome. So what we often do is attempt to remove the random and disorderly from our systems (and eliminate the shocks), and thus make them smooth. For example, we may try to take the boom and bust out of the economy, and instead aim for a gradual upward trend.

For Taleb, though, this is a big mistake, because while removing the small shocks in a complex system may create stability for a time, it actually upsets the system and makes it prone to major shocks in the long term. What’s more, unlike the small shocks (that refine and improve the system), the major shocks are usually damaging, and can even destroy the system. So removing the small shocks from a complex system doesn’t create stability; rather, it creates the illusion of stability. In the economy, for instance, you get a long period of stability followed by a major crash.

This phenomenon is not just confined to the economy. Indeed, Taleb maintains that it is the spirit of the age to believe that we can remove the disorder from any system (and eliminate the shocks), and render it orderly, smooth and predictable. We are almost always mistaken in this, and end up creating systems that are prone to major damage and even outright destruction (in Taleb’s language, we ‘fragilize’ these systems). We call the damaging and destructive episodes Black Swan events (Taleb himself coined the term). Better it would be by far, Taleb argues, to accept and even welcome a certain amount of disorder, randomness and jaggedness in our lives and systems, and put ourselves in a position to profit from the unpredictable, rather than eradicate it.

On this last point, Taleb maintains that it is indeed possible to profit from the unpredictable (without having to actually predict any specific thing—which is next to impossible in the realm of the complex anyway). We simply need to recognize what systems are fragile (and therefore prone to collapse), and what systems are antifragile (and therefore prone to grow stronger from stressors), and get out of the way of the former, and put our faith in the latter (thus antifragilizing ourselves in the process). This applies not only to large, overarching systems like corporations, economic systems and political societies, but our own bodies and minds.

Here is Nassim Nicholas Taleb introducing the concept of antifragility (and his new book):

What follows is a full executive summary of Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

PART I: AN INTRODUCTION TO ANTIFRAGILITY

1. Fragility, Robustness, and Antifragility

Consider a parcel full of glassware that you intend to ship half way around the world. You would write ‘Fragile’ on such a parcel (loc. 737). If, however, the parcel contained something that you weren’t really worried about breaking (say a led pipe), you wouldn’t bother writing anything on it. What’s the point? But what about a parcel that consists of an object that would benefit from the odd knock? As Taleb explains, “it’s contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma” (loc. 743). What would you write on such a parcel to encourage the handlers to mishandle it? You may write something like “‘please mishandle’ or ‘please handle carelessly’” (loc. 743). But if you had to come up with a single word to express this concept, you may find yourself at a loss. The fragile, we know, is what “would be at best unharmed, the robust would be at best and at worst unharmed,” but what would you call something that is “at worst unharmed” (loc. 746).

As Taleb points out, we don’t really have a word for this concept—this ‘reverse fragility’—for it is, for the most part, just “not part of our consciousness” (loc. 748). For Taleb, though, this is a significant oversight, for reverse fragility has a significant role to play in our lives. As the author explains, it is “part of our ancestral behavior, our biological apparatus, and a ubiquitous property of every system that has survived” (loc. 748). So Taleb has taken it upon himself to bring a name to this important concept: antifragile.

2. The Antifragility of Living Things (with a Focus on the Human Body)

The simplest and most straightforward example of an antifragile system is the body of a living organism. Take the human body; it benefits from stressors (to a point): “for instance, your bones will get denser when episodic stress is applied to them, a mechanism formalized under the name Wolff’s Law after an 1892 article by a German surgeon” (loc. 1144). This effect can be seen in people who regularly take part in certain kinds of physical activity—such as someone in a traditional society who is accustomed to carrying heavy objects or liquids in receptacles balanced atop their head (a practice called ‘head-loading) (loc. 1197, 1211). Of course, if you apply too much stress to a bone it will break (loc. 1144), so antifragile things may well have a breaking point; but the point is that an antifragile system will grow stronger from any stress that is beneath its breaking point (loc. 4807) (so long, of course, as it is given sufficient time to recover and strengthen between stressful episodes [loc. 1160, 1214-24]).

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18 thoughts on “#26. A Summary of ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

  1. Great summary. I wonder, though, just how well the concepts outlined in the book can be put into practice. Given Taleb’s skepticism about predictability, he seems to be making predictions about how well we can evaluate fragility and anti-fragility. Can applying his ideas really result in different results than what is already being done? Can we know with reliability what choices are low-risk/high-risk, where breaking points are, etc? I know he claims to implement these ideas in his own life, but I’d be interested to know if others have made a change in their decision-making processes based on his ideas with beneficial results? Or is this more of the same theory he claims to abhor?

    • Hiya. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You make many good points. As to the applicability of Taleb’s advice, I think there is an aspect of it that is quite easily applicable, and that’s the barbell: be very cautious, and make sure you’re protected from disaster (negative Black Swans) on the one hand (so be safe with the bulk of your resources), while leaving yourself open to benefit from unexpected discoveries (positive Black Swans) with the remainder of your resources (as opposed to keeping all of your resources in medium-risk assets). As to the choice-worthiness of this approach, I don’t know. It seems to make sense intuitively, and Taleb will insist that it works in practice, but I’m not sure whether this has ever been tested (or even could be tested) in a rigorous, scientific way. Taleb would argue that Black Swans just don’t happen very often, so scientific studies could (and often do) just miss them (Taleb has a catchy phrase for this: ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’).

      When it comes to assessing the fragility of systems, I think in some cases this is going to be simple, and in other cases much harder; and in those cases where it is hard, it’s going to rely on the analysis capability of the individual. So this aspect of Taleb’s advice will not always be easily applicable. Taleb would insist, though, that this is a matter of analyzing systems and not making any predictions about what specific events will happen in the future (for instance, by assessing that a porcelain cup is fragile, you’re not predicting that it will break, but that it would break if it ever met with a relatively small force–the property of fragility is inherent in the system, and so is arrived at by analysis and not prediction). And again, the same comments made above about the choice-worthiness of the approach apply here.

      Finally, it’s true that Taleb’s system is theoretical in nature (like you, this thought kept popping into my head every time Taleb denigrated theory in the book). I think what Taleb would say is this: there is a difference between coming up with theories and trying to apply them to the real world, and deriving theories from an analysis of practice. While the former are particularly dangerous, the latter are less so, so long as we treat them as rules of thumb. Here is the relevant quote from the book (keep in mind that Taleb considers theory to be a narrative): “All this does not mean that tinkering and trial and error are devoid of narrative: they are just not overly dependent on the narrative being true–the narrative is not epistemological but instrumental. For instance, religious stories might have no value as narratives, but they may get you to do something convex and antifragile you otherwise would not do, like mitigate risks… intellectuals tend to believe their own b***t (sic) and take their ideas too literally, and that is vastly dangerous” (loc. 3841).

      There it is, take it or leave it.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

      • Hi Aaron,
        great article! I like it!

        …Intuitively, I think that Taleb’s meaning of “non-theoretical” is linked to the understanding of “fundamental theories” and “empirical theories” in philosophy of science (e.g. Nancy Cartwright: How the Laws of Physics Lie.) Namely, there are theories which are mainly driven and motivated by abstract and analytical thinking (fundamental theories) and theories which are mainly based on observation and driven by application (empirical theories).

        By the way, have you ever heared Taleb talking about ethics? I am just wondering whether he has some ethical framework in mind… maybe you know?

        All the best for 2013!

        Leni

      • Hey Leni. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you liked the article. I think Taleb would fully agree with your parsing of theories into ‘fundamental’ and ‘empirical’. Some may scoff at this, thinking it a pseudo-distinction, but I believe there is something to it. I think Taleb would also want to say that we should treat any theory, no matter how derived, as an aide to action–rather than Golden Truth.

        When it comes to ethics, Taleb does address this in the book–near the end. As we might expect, Taleb couches ethics in terms of antifragility. Specifically, Taleb argues that the greatest moral breach of our age comes from the shifting of fragility from pundits and opinion-makers to average people (pundits’ misguided opinions and advice leading others to lose out). I use the example of Joseph Stiglitz (via Taleb) in the article. Ethics, for Taleb, has to do with having skin in the game: something to lose. If you are going to give your opinion and be listened to publicly you should have something to lose if you are wrong. If you don’t you have no worth as an opinion-maker and should be regarded as such by the public. Absence of skin in the game is, for Taleb, the great ethical problem of our age. Interesting idea. I don’t agree that ethics can be reduced to this, but I do agree with Taleb’s point here. Any specific reason why you’re after Taleb’s ethics, or just curiosity?

        Cheers,
        Aaron

  2. Hi Aaron,

    you very much for your kind and useful reply!

    I agree with you and do not think that ethics can be reduced to having “skin in the game” (for taking the responsibility for losses). Honestly, I even think that this is very dangerous!

    My specific reason why I am after Taleb’s ethics is that I am interested into ethics (e.g. see my latest post http://lenismediareview.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/reason-and-epathy-in-ethics-review/ – I can delete the link, if you want). More exactly, I am interested into the interference of ethics and rationality as basis for decision-making. For this I did some literature review on “belief versus knowledge”. Then I read “black swan” and was surprised by the overlap of the authors which Taleb quotes in his book and those which I read (e.g. C.S. Peirce, Wittgenstein, Hume, Husserl…).

    In brief, I like and share Taleb’s opinion which he describes in “black swan” completely. However, my question is: Why should I use Taleb’s point of view as basis for my decisions? Because it helps me to profit and harm others? Honestly, this is not satisfying. – or what do you think?

    If Taleb cannot provide a wise and an appealing empathetic framework for his ideas, then – from my perspecte – his findings are just as useless as those of the “idiot savants” and stupid people he is fighting against.

    Warm regards,
    yours
    Leni

    • Hi Leni. Just to make a point here. I believe Taleb would deny that it is ethical to profit at the harm of others. He may say it is permissible to follow your own interest so long as this does not directly (or intentionally) involve stepping on the toes of others, but this is something very different (think Adam Smith). He does explicitly say that sacrificing for the sake of the group is noble, so empathy–or transcending the self–does enter his ethical lexicon. To put this in the perspective of the tradition, I think we can say this: if Taleb were to go ethical camping, he would set up beside Nietzsche’s tent.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

      • Hi Aaron,
        thanks for your informative reply!
        Especially I liked the entertaining illustration “if Taleb were to go ethical camping, he would set up beside Nietzsche’s tent” – brilliant! Unbeatable!

        All the best,
        Leni

    • Thanks for your note Andre, I’m glad the article was a help to you. Good to know that the summary holds up in the eyes of someone who has actually read the book!

      Cheers,
      Aaron

  3. Thanks Aaron for the well organized summary of the book.
    I believe his book is empowering all of us to take responsibility for our own affairs and not rely too much on experts. In the process one builds an antifragile character and frame of mind.

    I have the experience of relying on so called smart advice from financial professional which turned to be very self serving and never again.

    One needs to be mindful always and apply any theories/advice on an experiencial basis to make that knowledge your own as 90% of what we know has come from conditioning and indoctrination of all forms. My guiding principle is “Rules are for fools _ but they are for the guidance if the wise

    Keep up the good work

    Raza

    • Thanks for the comment Raza, I’m glad you liked the article. I too believe that Taleb has much good (albeit unconventional) advice.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

  4. I read Black Swan and now Antifragile and both supported intuitive feelings I have had about the ‘experts”. I have lived by my guts and sensible ways and have done well. I really appreciated the summary since it was compact and a great review. I love Taleb’s ideas but his ego is hard to get past.
    With great appreciation……beth

    • Well put, Beth. Good to hear you’ve done well following your instincts (and not the ‘experts’). As for me, since reading Taleb I often find his sound advice echoing in my head (despite the sometimes objectionable ego that he puts into it).

      Cheers,
      Aaron

  5. Thank you for a brilliant summary. For years I have gritted my teeth and struggled to get thru Taleb’s books. His digressions and narcissistic asides drive me nuts. I discovered that listening to the audible version of his writings was (for me) far superior to reading because I could let my mind wander during the ‘asides’. You observation that Taleb would hate your review because it was too linear, a direct threat to his anti-fragility styled presentation was spot on, and something I had never considered. Namely that his digressions are a deliberate technique to inject tangential thoughts into his reader’s thinking. Now this is not enough to make his style tolerable for me, but it did bring a new appreciation I had not before considered.

    Great work, thanks again.

    • Hi Robert. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked the article. I too had trouble with Taleb’s style–though I do think his ideas are very interesting, and many of them have stuck with me over time–and so I was happy to put the book in a somewhat more readable format.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

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