Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder‘ is more than just a book, it’s a modern day equivalent of Enchiridion of Epictetus. However, unlike the ancient stoic philosopher who had to count on his pupil Arrian for the compilation of his discourses, Taleb takes it upon himself and authors a highly engaging, thought-provoking, ‘unputdownable’ book.

An avant-garde essayist, Taleb is branded by those whom he often chastises as a present-day demagogue: someone who loves to malign the reputation of Nobel laureates, decimate the grand theories of Wall-Street financiers and stomp dispassionately on the credit often extended to universities for making the world a better place. The objects of his hatred whom he also designates as ‘offensive irritantsinclude Plato, Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, etc. Taleb contemptuously stigmatizes these inverse-heroes as ‘Fragilistas‘, for these gentlemen were guilty of first making dreadfully off-the-mark, rosy forecasts and then, culpable of revelling in the post hoc rationalizations portraying as if they always knew what was going on.

‘Antifragile’ possesses the trademark Taleb hubris and a touch of boisterousness along with the powerful, argumentative rigor. The linchpin of the book is a three-column table that Taleb aptly calls ‘The Central Triad‘.

The Central TriadTriad basically explains three types of exposures to random events: Fragile (bad), Robust (good) and Antifragile (best). Theoretically, we have always accepted ‘robust’ to be the exact opposite of ‘fragile’; however, Taleb declares that the inverse of ‘Fragile’ is ‘Antifragile’ not ‘Robust’. Imagine that you parcel a box of champagne glasses to your cousin who lives in Singapore. Generally, you would write ‘Fragile – Handle with Care’ on the side to alert the handlers about the tender material inside. However, if the glasses are made of fiberglass – a lightweight, extremely strong material – you may choose to write ‘Robust’ on the package. The best case scenario in both cases will have champagne glasses arrive at your cousin’s doorsteps in shipshape condition, whereas in the worst case scenario, the ‘fragile’ package may get badly wrecked and the ‘robust’ one due to its fiberglass material may survive but not without unsightly scratches.  Now imagine a package with ‘Antifragile – Please MISHANDLE’ written on the side. The strength of such a package, according to Taleb, lies in replacing every glass that is broken due to concussions during the transit with two new glasses, thus proving to be the exact opposite of the fragile package.

Mathematically, Fragility is a concave function and is the negative of Antifragility which is a convex function. To reiterate, fragility is the vulnerability to stressors (read shocks, disorder, and variability) that result in more harm than benefit from random events whereas Antifragility is the exact opposite and benefits from harmful stressors.

Antifragility of a system comes from the mortality of its individual components.

Taleb is particularly distrustful of large, complex systems such as centralized states and large banking institutions due to their highly interdependent nature and consequential cascading side-effects in case they go bust. According to Taleb, large entities are vulnerable to surprise events because of their tendency to sweep small risks under the rug, thus depriving their systems of antifragility. Those small risks tend to accumulate and implode at a later stage in a catastrophic fashion, causing domino effects as witnessed during the 2008 financial crisis.

Taleb’s mistrust of large corporations could be gauged from the fact that he prefers a mobster’s promise to a corporation’s. What irks Taleb the most, perhaps is the way the large corporations pass on the fragility (risks) to others, and in the process, make themselves antifragile. He views large corporations as giant vampire squids bent on taking our money as they sell us their vile products.

A great adherent of the Mother Nature, Taleb underlines how the nature evolves from one non-systemic (small, localized) error to another in contrast to a too-big-to-fail bank with a vicious tendency to amass systemic risks. Small fires (the localized) every now and then rid forests of the dangerous materials and never give them the chance to accumulate and cause a conflagration (the systemic, all-destroying great fire). The idea is that antifragility of a system comes from the mortality of its individual components.

Besotted with the ‘small-is-beautiful’, city-state model of Switzerland, Taleb explains that the country benefits from the chaos that underlies its system. Switzerland is an agglomeration of 26 small sovereign entities, called ‘cantons’. At a singular level, each canton has its own set of problems and is often at loggerheads with other states, resulting in a welter of confusion. But, at a collective level, the Swiss Confederation is an antifragile unit that produces maximum stability owing to the fact that all the petty issues are taken care of before they snowball into a big, intractable mess. Switzerland’s small size and limited scale of mess and disorder help, too. Essentially, the higher the variance in the system, the lesser prone the system is to negative Black Swan events (Black Swans are highly consequential events with incomputable probabilities). Taleb avers, “No stability without volatility.”

Mother Nature seemingly has had an influence on author’s diet, too. Just for the record, Taleb’s favorite beverages are the ones that have been around for at least a thousand years. So, don’t even think of handing the man canned orange juice; it’s a ‘noxious drink’ in Taleb’s book.  Levity apart, Taleb’s idiosyncrasy stems from ‘Lindy Effect‘ which essentially states that time is a great cleanser of opacity and can iron out asymmetries that plague our intelligence and critical faculties in the short term. Thus, according to the author, only ideas, technologies, books, fruits etc. that have withstood the test of time and have existed for centuries could be expected to go on for another long interval of time.

A noted cynic of big pharma’s ways, Taleb insists that we should avoid non-natural drugs or treatments unless we are severely ill and unless the potential benefits clearly outweigh the losses. Medical treatment benefits are convex to one’s condition. Let’s say that you are someone who checks into his doctor’s at the mildest symptom of a seasonal bout of flu. In that scenario, every ensuing treatment could increase the likelihood of more harm inflicted upon your health in the long term. In the medical domain, the unintended harm caused by a healer or a treatment is called Iatrogenesis. Taleb extends the concept of Iatrogenics to the fields beyond the realm of medicine. The world is teeming with experts who like to intervene at the slightest of indications and offer their mostly biased expertise. Taleb wants us to be extremely wary of such nonchalant, pseudo-experts as politicians, journalists, bankers and economists who are loaded with free advice and have nothing to lose in case their expertise backfires and leads to adverse consequences. Taleb aptly encapsulates this unscrupulous behavior in the phrase ‘no skin in the game‘.

Thou shalt not have antifragility at the expense of the fragility of others – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I love the idea of bricolage or trial-and-error approach and Taleb reinforced my confidence in this method of learning. A staunch disbeliever of structured learning, Taleb views schools as erudition-sucking contraptions! He explains how he decided to become a ‘barbell autodidact‘ (a self-taught person who learns by trial-and-error: someone who works 9-to-5 and simultaneously, invests in his hobbies in his free time) after feeling demotivated and defrauded by the linear strictures of school curriculum. Compared to the cut-and-dry pedagogy of schools, trial-and-error builds assessment into the learning. The more you fiddle with things, the more you learn and the more you master. Taleb notes that the antifragile way is to learn in a disorderly manner using trial and error.

One of the basic yet the most impressive ideas discussed in the book is that of learning by unlearning, also called ‘Via Negativa’ or subtractive knowledge. At the center of via negativa is the application of rigorous analysis that allows individuals to learn about various anomalies in a theory and subsequently, discard them. Taleb claims that you grow wiser by learning what is wrong than by what is right. Quite oddly, this potent anti-theory theory has been practically absent from the school curriculum and public discourse for ages. What makes this deficiency even more striking is that it’s not a newly minted paradigm. Ancient Indian philosopher Adi Shankara was the first to have advocated the analysis of negation, called ‘Neti, Neti‘ (neither this, nor that) in Hindu philosophy more than a millennium ago.

Poor TheatreIn modern times, there have been a few practitioners of subtractive knowledge. Jerzi Grotowoski – one of the most influential theatre figures of late twentieth century – followed a method called ‘negative road’ which let him remove redundant ingredients from his theatre. His stripped-down yet a more flawless concept of theatre came to be known as ‘Poor Theatre‘. Also illustrating via negativa are Karl Popper‘s falsifiability theory which states that any hypothesis must be inherently disprovable before it could be accepted as a scientific theory and Taleb’s own version of Popper’s theory that observation of one black swan can disprove the widespread inference that all swans are white. In short, method of negation or disconfirmation is more rigorous and invigorating than confirmation.

In Taleb’s words, every sentence in the book is a derivation or an interpretation of the idea of antifragility. Nobel-laureates-bashing and anti-theory theories aside, ‘Antifragile’ provides a well-thought-out framework to achieve antifragility in various walks of life: right from something as rudimentary as how to exercise to what to drink in the breakfast. And, if you wish to take cues from Taleb himself, then you have to brace up for some heavy sacrifices such as giving up on morning newspapers, avoiding fruits that don’t have Greek or Hebrew names, shunning journalists and other creatures of the same ilk, etc. All this may sound bizarre to you, but in the land of Nassim Taleb, this is the norm.