In a nutshell
Author Nassim Taleb introduces and defines what antifragile is, gives examples of antifragility, the problem with our current fragile system, and why we should all strive to become more antifragile.
This book, from the way it was written to the message it gives, is full of contrarianism, and this is a good thing.
Note that these are my synthesized notes, summarizing my personal takeaways from the book.
“The lion in the zoo might live longer, but is that really a desirable existence?”
Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
What is antifragile and what does it mean?
To define antifragile, Taleb starts with what it is not. Let’s do the same. I have to ask:
If fragility is what loses from shocks, volatility, and uncertainty then what is its opposite?
When looking for a word opposite of fragile, what usually comes to mind is robustness, or resilience. This is wrong. Fragility is defined by what breaks under pressure, resilience is just what does not break.
Robustness and resilience can withstand shocks but do not gain anything.
We need a word explaining things that do not just withstand pressure and stress, but likes it and benefits from it. The same way that the opposite of positive is negative, not neutral.
The antifragile not only withstands shock, volatility, and uncertainty, it gains from it.
The Hydra, the Phoenix, and Damocles: Why I want to be a serpent-headed monster
Each part of the Triad has an equivalent metaphor.
Damocles was a character used in one of Cicero’s allusions. According to the story, Damocles switched places with the king for a day, so he could taste what it was like to be surrounded by magnificence. Though surrounded by riches and wielding enormous power, there hangs a sword above the throne, held only by a single hair from a horse’s tail.
No matter how wealthy or powerful the king was, he was always hounded by the constant fear of losing it all. Damocles begged the king to switch places back. This is fragility.
The Phoenix is a mythological creature who has the ability to rise from its own ashes and return to its original state. This is a perfect example of resilience: to be able to rise over and over and return to its original state. However, this is not antifragile.
The Hydra is antifragile. When one of its serpentine heads are cut off, two grow back in its place. The only way to beat the hydra was to immediately cauterize the wound once the head is cut. The hydra can not only withstand having its head cut off, it welcomes it wholeheartedly. It knows that it can get even more powerful and deadly once its head is cut off.
Don’t be Damocles when you can be a phoenix. Don’t be a phoenix when you can be a hydra.
What does it mean to be fragile?
For the fragile, the higher the intensity of stress, the higher the harm. This effect is nonlinear.
Cars are fragile. If you drive one into a wall at a speed of 50 kph, the damaged incurred would be greater than if you drove it into the same wall ten times at 5kph.
To re-express that rule:
For the fragile, the cumulative effect of small shocks is less than the equivalent of one big shock. A combination of 10 5 kph shocks has a smaller damage than a single 50 kph shock.
Flight schedules are another example. Your flight never becomes 4 hours early, but you can definitely arrive 4 hours late. Anything unexpected can extend total flying time.
Why fragile systems don’t work
There are many reasons why current fragile systems don’t work. Iatrogenics tells us of the dangers of over intervention. In medical terms, it’s damage caused by the healer, either as a side effect of a drug, medical treatment, or a misdiagnosis.
A good medical example would be chemotherapy. Treating the tumor that is not life-threatening will kill you because chemotherapy is toxic.
Taleb does note though that iatrogenics is a cause for concern only when someone is not terminally sick. Otherwise, iatrogenics doesn’t matter. The key is whether or not the intervention is unnecessary or not.
In food product development, one must always consider this. If you do not need to put additives, why would you? What is unnecessary is harmful.
It’s a good idea to take what mother Nature does as rigorous until proven otherwise, and the reverse is true for what humans do. Whatever humans do should be considered flawed until proven otherwise. Nature’s fats turn out to be very healthy. Man-made ones? Not very.
We tend to stick our butts in places where we don’t need to, and ignore the places where it’s necessary. This not only applies to medicine but over a wide range of human systems.
That is, we tend to miss the forest for the trees. A lot.
Iatrogenics is compounded by the agency problem, or when a party’s interests do not align with those using their services (the principal).
The best way to mitigate excessive interventionism is to ration the supply of information. For Taleb, the more information you get, the less you know what’s going on, and the more iatrogenic you get. Science does not mean more data.
The teleological fallacy is falling for the false notion that you can predict the future. That events in the past makes sense in hindsight, or that events in the past were predicted to happen and you knew they were going to happen.
Teleology is explaining things from the past according to the possible purpose they serve instead of the actual cause behind it. It’s the tendency to explain the reason behind what happened as something that makes sense in hindsight, despite lack of evidence. This is not a first-principles way of thinking
No one can know the future perfectly, no one knows where we’re going, nothing is certain, and global stresses such as the Corona virus just amplify that.
Teaching Birds How to Fly
The smartest scholars can explain the mathematics of flight and the aerodynamics of how bird wings work, but birds do not need to know physics that in order to fly, they just do.
Green Lumber Fallacy
Another example is the story of green lumber. Here Taleb tells the story of a tradesman who traded green lumber, making loads of profit all while thinking that the lumber was painted green, not knowing it was naturally green.
Not knowing it was naturally green did not affect his effectiveness at trading it. The green lumber fallacy is when we assume some information is necessary when it is not.
Governments Should Spend on Non-teleological Tinkering, Not Research
There is no evidence that strategic plans work. Money should go to tinkerers instead of researchers.
When tinkering or doing trial and error, you have small failures. Once in a while, you find something significant. This kind of methodology will expose nasty attributes from the outside. It hides its qualities, not its defects.
Pure textbook knowledge, says Taleb, misses the hidden asymmetry of benefits. The result is the most important thing, not the event itself. The error in naive rationalism leads to overestimating the importance of academic knowledge in human affairs. Scholarship and organized education are not the same thing.
Why is it bad to be fragile?
The turkey problem
It is easy to get caught up in the turkey problem and become fragile as a result. The turkey, being well taken care of from birth, believes that it will continue to be well fed and taken care of, only to be slaughtered for Thanksgiving.
That is, it is easy to get used to something. Just because things have been going well gives no evidence that it will continue to become this way indefinitely, just like how there is no such thing as “job security” in an uncertain world.
(graviest?) thing to do is to mistake absence of harm for evidence of absence.
It is easy to be blinded by what we think we know.
The similarity between market trauma and earthquakes
The longer one goes without market trauma, the worse the damage when the commotion finally occurs. The same can be said for earthquakes.
The Lucretius problem or how our past can haunt us
named after a Latin poet and philosopher who states that “the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed”. This is the danger behind the quote “to see is to believe.”
Everything we know from the past is only what’s recorded. The problem is we do not take into account the things that were not recorded. It is hard to see the arrow from cause to consequence. This makes much of conventional analysis inapplicable to most cases.
Another example not in the book is survivorship bias, a logical error where we overlook things that are not visible. This makes us overly optimistic and leads to another false belief that correlation proves causation.
What does it mean to be antifragile?
Anything with more pros than cons from randomness or stress is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.
The fragile breaks under stress, the antifragile gets better from it. The same hammer that breaks ice forges steel. A simple test for antifragility: “If I have nothing to lose in this situation, then all I can do is to gain. Therefore, I am antifragile.”
Optionality is another way of saying freedom of choice. The more options you have, the more antifragile you are. This is because the higher the number of options, the greater freedom you have to respond to surprises. Financial independence gives a lot of optionality, but there are others.
Where I live, a college graduate has a lot more optionality than one without a degree. Some jobs, however, are more antifragile than others. Some fields do not have negative optionality.
An example of an antifragile job is an author. There is no opposite of someone buying your book, so authors have greater optionality because of reduced downside.
Basically, work and ideas in any domain or field are antifragile if you have a high percentage of people disliking you and your message and a low percentage of extremely devoted fans.
This is more desirable than having 100% of the people finding your mission lukewarmly commendable. Lukewarm is bad. Safe is bad. Casting too wide a net for your audience is bad.
Antifragile systems have fragile components. Failure is an important part of the feedback system to make the entire system more antifragile.
The antifragile is grounded in non-linearity. That is, for the antifragile, 2 is greater than 1+1, since shocks bring more benefits as their intensity increases until a certain threshold.
Another example is known intuitively by weight lifters — Lifting 50 kg once has more benefits than lifting 25 kg twice, and much more than lifting 1 kg weight fifty times.
Why do antifragile systems work?
Why do antifragile systems work? Antifragile systems work because of the extra capacity they can undertake under stress. This is called overcompensation.
Hormesis is a biological response to stress that stimulates stress resistance mechanisms. Mithridatization is one example of this. Exercise is another.
Making yourself immune to poison is simple.
You just have to poison yourself in small doses.
This is similar to how vaccines work. Exposing your body to a small amount of harm, but not big enough that you die, your body learns how to adapt to these stressors and is called hormesis.
Putting stress in the body in the form of exercise makes your body overcompensate and makes it stronger for the next time you exercise.
Exercising puts your body into a state of shock — your muscles get microtears during exercise. Exercise is breaking your body, but it’s not harmful enough to kill you.
Because of this outside stress, your body overcompensates for this shock, by building extra capacity to handle future shocks better. This extra capacity is at the core of antifragility, and why being antifragile is essential in critical situations
What wasn’t mentioned was that the level of stress needs to be under a certain threshold. Above it, and instead of building the capacity to deal with stress, your body gets harmed by it instead.
By overcompensating for small stresses, we prime ourselves to be able to handle bigger, more harmful stresses. Chasing after only what is pleasurable for us is irresponsible hedonism, and harms us in the long run.
Examples of the antifragile
Information is antifragile. Attempts to harm it actually benefits its spread, even more than attempts to promote it.
Reverse Philosopher’s stone: turning gold into mud
If you have favorable asymmetries aka positive convexity (not including options cause they’re special), you will do reasonably well (above average) when it comes to the unknown. The higher the uncertainty, the greater the possibility of optionality, the more you will outperform the mean.
How much you care about your reputation shows how fragile you are
A heuristic to determine who is fragile and who is antifragile: If you don’t care about how you dress or look, you’re antifragile at best and robust at worst.
People who need to wear suit and ties and worry about their reputation are fragile. At the other end of the spectrum, Taleb says that as a taxi driver, you have more freedom because your job is not dependent on your reputation.
The more we care about other people’s opinions, the more fragile we are. We constrain our own value making it dependent on other things which we cannot control.
How can I become antifragile? Shifting to antifragility
Add randomness and small stresses
Randomness and variation is good, the same way that adding harmless stressors can be beneficial.
Working in a place that is dead quiet actually blocks us from doing work, which is why working in a coffee shop makes us more productive than working at home alone in the quiet. Having static background noise makes it easier to detect radio signals.
Taleb argues that soccer moms hinder a child’s development. By eliminating trial and error, they eliminate growth and antifragility from their child’s life.
He also says that “with the right type of rigor, randomness, mess, and uncertainty make life worth living, compared to the fake, structured, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with an alarm clock and a preset schedule.”
Procrustes was a rogue smith who would capture travels and compel them to lie on his bed. He would stretch them on a rack if they were too short or chop them off if they were too long for the bed.
Taleb argues that we do similar harm when we destroy variations to fit into a model.
A donkey is equally hungry and thirsty. It found itself stuck between a bale of hay and a trough of water. As it is exactly between the two, it will die of starvation and thirst, unable to make a decision. A simple random nudge on either direction is enough to solve the problem.
Like Buridan’s donkey, introducing randomness helps make decision making rigorous, but when we try to reduce or destroy randomness or variation, we lose a beneficial stressor.
How to know if you’re alive
Simply put, if you like variations, you’re still alive. Food won’t taste good without hunger, success is meaningless without occasional failure, there is no joy without sadness, and an ethical life isn’t so when there are no personal risks involved.
“This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing— and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.”
Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
Our ancestors had no homework, no academic grades, no boss. All of life was just random stimuli and nothing, good or bad, ever felt like work. Dangerous, yes, but never boring.
While it is easy for us to understand the benefits of stress to health, we fail to carry it over to other domains of life. Stresses on your income can be good to keep you grounded. Little fights in your relationships can help it become stronger. Feeling the stress of being a beginner when learning something new activates neural activity. Random stressors within reason help species evolve.
Stress helps us grow.
Look for optionality and prioritize things according to the one with the highest optionality.
Search for payoffs that are open-ended, not closed.
Don’t invest in a business plan, invest in people. Invest in those who have the ability to change their career six or seven times.
Here’s a formula for antifragility, seen in Chapter 10 of the book:
“antifragility = gain > loss = upside > downside = asymmetry (unfavorable) = likes volatility”
If you make more when you are right and more than when you lose, you will benefit in the long run. You are only harmed when you repeatedly pay too much for an option.
Have fragile parts: the value of error
We need parts that break so we can have feedback to feed the entire system of what works and what doesn’t.
“Some jobs and professions are fragile – a mid-level bank employee with a mortgage, for example – while others are antifragile, like writers or artists.”
An entrepreneur’s fragility is the backbone of an economy’s antifragility.
A startup’s fragility is necessary for the economy as a whole to become antifragile. It is entrepreneurs’ high failure rate that makes it work. This gets Taleb’s respect, and he thinks we should treat failed entrepreneurs the same way we treat war heroes.
“Growth in society will not come from raising the average the “Asian” way, but from increasing the “tails”, that very small number of risk takers crazy enough to have ideas of their own, those endowed with a very rare ability called imagination, an even rarer quality called courage, and those who makes things happen.”
Be Wrong More Often
Errors are important and encouraged as long as they are made in isolation and learned from because they help the system improve overall.
It is better to trust those who have made mistakes than those who claim to be perfect. “He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has sinned only once.” Don’t trust those who claim to not make mistakes.
Those who are self aware know how much they need to know to become antifragile. The converse is true. When you think you know more than you actually do, you become fragile.
Be Promethean, not Epimethean
Prometheus and Epimethius were a pair of titan brothers. Prometheus means “fore-thinker” while Epimethius means “after-thinker”. The former gave humans fire which spurred human progress, the latter accepted Pandora’s jar with irreversible consequences. Optionality is Promethean.
Make sure you are barbelled
The barbell illustrates the idea of what it would look like to keep extremes separate and combining it with avoiding the middle. This does not mean it needs to be symmetric, just that the two extremes need to be separate and there should be nothing in the middle. This is also called a bimodal strategy.
Increasing antifragility first consists of decreasing downside by lowering exposure to negative [[Black Swan]]s. Playing it very safe in some area while taking a lot of small risks in another area is the optimal combination to take advantage of antifragility. Being very cautious retains resilience to negative Black Swans taking small risks leaves you open for positive Black Swans.
Antifragility is achieved with both aggression and paranoia. Protect yourself from extreme stress, reduce possible downsides, and let the upsides in the form of positive Black Swans do its thing.
The best race horses lose when they compete only with slower horses and win against stronger ones. Absence of a challenge degrades us.
Practical applications in life, regardless of field
Make sure you are barbelled, whatever that means for you.
Always aim for continuous improvement. Challenge yourself constantly and expose yourself to small stressors to increase your capacity.
Lindy Effect: How to Stop Aging
Non-perishables are items that to not have an organic expiry date. The perishable is usually an object while non-perishables are usually informational.
For the perishable, each passing day shortens its life. For the nonperishable, each passing day adds to their lifeline
If a book or idea has survived 100 years, it is safe to assume that it will survive another 100 years. That’s why Taleb recommends reading either the novel or the classic, never the ones in between.
This criteria of fragility and robustness can be applied to information handling. The fragile does not stand the test of time. A filtering heuristic is taking into account the age of books and scientific papers. The size of your filter will depend on your field and for which purpose, but having a filter is essential.
For Taleb, technology is the best when it is invisible. Technology should be boring. Its greatest benefit is when it displaces the unnatural, alienating, and preceding fragile technology.
Stay robust to how others treat you
People are cruel and unfair, especially with how they confer recognition. Avoid dependence on external recognition. This amplifies the need to focus on actions, not words. People are fickle.
In this way, Stoicism robustness, since its tenets are grounded in immunity from one’s external circumstances.
Bent Flyvbjerg says with firm evidence that the size per project packet or section is more important than the scale of the entire project. Favor small intermediate work packets over large ones.
There is antifragility in the stress of fasting. It makes food taste better, strengthens our mental fortitude (as in practicing poverty), and has health benefits.
Remember the pitfall of the treadmill effect: you need to make and do more and more to stay in the same place. Greed is antifragile, its victims are not.
Do not run a speed you cannot keep up with.
Via negativa: Less is more and usually better
The solution to many problems is not addition but subtraction. Too much clutter? don’t get organizers, declutter your stuff instead. Information overload? curate where you get information from and make your filter smaller.
Wanna make yourself more impactful? Use less words.
Data can only be effectively used to debunk a statement, not confirm it. This is because if we cannot express what something is directly, we can only say what it is not.
The best and most robust contribution to knowledge is removing what we think is wrong. Knowledge grows by more by elimination more than by addition. What is wrong cannot turn out to be right as easily as what is right can turn out to be wrong.
Productivity and Decision Making
Obvious and robust decisions require only a single reason. Invoking more than that you are trying to convince yourself to do something. Antifragility is reached by not being a sucker.
The cure to procrastination is easier to attain if, instead of forcing yourself to create systems to fix procrastination, you find a job where you do not have to procrastinate. What is desirable is motivating.
When making a decision, don’t ask for expert opinion, ask them what they would do if they were in your shoes. Or better yet, look at their track record. Their results speak for themselves.
Taleb follows Bergson’s razor: “A philosopher should be known for one single idea, not more.” If someone has a long bio, Taleb skips them.
Focus on the only important error
Once when he wrote a piece and gave it to the Washington Post, his style was so aggressively edited, but when he pulled it (due to frustration) and gave it to The Financial Times, they only made one edit: to correct a date. Because Washington Post over-edited that they missed the only important error.
Neomania is the obsession with the new just for the sake of it being new. Think about it. Flagship phones are released every 6 months. We fear missing out on every time something new comes out. This is a problem according to Taleb, because new things have not yet passed the strongest filter for fragility out there — time. What does not survive is fragile.
Remember: Suckers to try to win arguments, non-suckers try to win.
Don’t be a sucker.
Ethics of antifragility
Antifragility needs to be treated ethically. Causing others fragility in order to become antifragile yourself is unethical.
For Taleb, everyone who states his opinion should have their skin in the game in case of harm caused to others by relying on his opinion
Another element central to ancient Mediterranean ethics called Factum tacendo, crimen facias acrius or “He who does not stop a crime is an accomplice.”
The Stiglitz Syndrome and Cure
Stiglitz Syndrome is when influence is used as leverage to pontificate their opinions on other matters and they suffer nothing in case they were wrong.
Taleb hates this hypocrisy. You should walk the talk. His solution to the Stiglitz Syndrome is simple. Don’t ask people for their opinion, forecast, or recommendation. Instead, ask them what they have or don’t have, be it in their portfolio or elsewhere.
This reminds me of Talking to Strangers in that we are prone to become emotionally biased when talking to other people. The best way to make a decision is to stick with the facts.
Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has a simpler way of doing things: Don’t ask the doctor what you should do. Ask him what he would do if he were in your situation. There is a stark difference in what people think you should do and what they would do.
Word of mouth is a potent filter. According to Taleb, it is “the only filter”. Marketing beyond conveying information is insecurity.
Stoicism and antifragility
Taleb uses Stoic principles as a way to become more antifragile, especially when it comes to handling randomness.
An example is that success can make you more fragile because you have much more to lose than before. Practicing stoicism can alleviate this.
The stoic practice of exercising poverty, as suggested by Seneca, involves practicing what it would be like if you became poor. This will reduce your fragility from the fear of losing wealth. Comfort, after all, is the worst kind of slavery.
Who should read Antifragile
This book isn’t for everyone.
Antifragile isn’t your typical book. It doesn’t have a linear narrative that’s become common in the world of productivity books. Reading Antifragile can be just downright confusing at times. Like panning for gold, you have to sift through the silt and murkiness before getting to the most valuable parts.
Like weaving different threads together, it takes awhile before the ideas click in your head
For those torn between safe but fragile or dangerous but antifragile. antifragile is actually safer. Remember:
The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary
Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
Antifragile isn’t an easy read, nor is it for everyone. Only the brave can domesticate rational contrarianism and benefit from it.