Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder: Review

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s third book in his incerto series, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, brings forth many philosophical ideas that I have never considered. The thesis is that things can be antifragile by having the exact opposite properties of fragile things, such as humans and businesses.

Taleb illustrates the main idea of antifragility in his Google talk where he asks the audience what the opposite of fragile is, some answers are: Robust, stout, durable, solid, and resilient. A package might say “Fragile: handle with care,” the opposite of that is, “Antifragile: please mishandle”. Antifragile things need to be shaken up and handled roughly — unlike fragile things which need a steady state.

How to be Antifragile

The easiest and most obvious illustration of antifragility is mankind. If a man or woman was sitting on their couch for weeks at a time without movement, they’d eventually become very unhealthy and become closer to death than their neighbor who has been working out thirty minutes a day. By inducing the stress and mishandling of working out, your body becomes more powerful and gains from the disorder. Order and consistency would come from doing the same thing all the time every day, but there is no gain from that.

A more extreme example to drive the point could be if you go blind or get shot in the arm. The torture and disorder of enduring that pain will benefit because now you know what it feels like to get shot in the arm and other senses are heightened by losing one.

A similar metaphor in the text explains how disastrous events like plane crashes and the sinking of the Titanic ultimately benefit. So much was learned by the sinking of the Titanic that the chances of a similar tragedy occurring again have dropped dramatically. With every plane crash that takes place, new practices are formed because we learned what not to do.

Things that are Antifragile

They say if you want something done, give the task to a busy person. A busy person will already be on the roll of getting things done and taking action — they’re already antifragile by letting their disorder and constant productivity accomplish things. Being on the roll of checking off items on your todo list will only help you check more things off.

Taleb refers to this as overcompensation. If you’re watching a horse race where the leading stallion wins by a lap every time, the day a horse just a little better than that enters the race, the first one won’t stand a chance and will be defeated. By having the constant lack of competition the horse hasn’t gained at all and ultimately hurts its performance. However, if the two horses race more often, that overcompensation provided by the new horse will only drive the weaker horse to overcome their lack of speed and gain from it. The horse was fragile by having not having a better opponent. A better rival will always make for a better horse.

People that are Antifragile

Mother Teresa is known to many as one of the most impactful and charitable saints in modern times. Although there is a great debate on whether she was good or evil, for the intents and purposes of this analogy we’ll assume the former. By referring to Mother Teresa as the nicest person on earth is a very fragile way of thinking. Taleb explains that to tell how good a person is they have to be given the opportunity to be bad. If you’re surrounding yourself with good, constantly performing good, and never given the chance to do evil, you may be good but also quite fragile. On the contrary, if Mother Teresa was involved in illegal and satanist activities and then decided to be good she’d have a wider good to evil ratio but also be very antifragile.

I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time ~ N.N. Taleb

Although I’ve yet to pitch a business idea to a wealthy venture capitalist, I can imagine I’d be more of a risk than a competitor who pitched the same idea with a few failed businesses under their belt. Someone who makes many errors is more antifragile than the one who hasn’t made a single one. They’re stronger and wiser so long as they haven’t made the same error multiple times to fail all their businesses.

He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once ~ N.N. Taleb

According to Taleb, a truly fragile person is the futurist Ray Kurzweil, who, ironically, wrote the book I just did a review on. Kurzweil believes in singularity and that we can all live forever. These ideas sound great but the implementation is fragile. Fragility is giving into the temptation of popping a pill when you’re ill or taking antibiotics for a minor cold. One can never be antifragile if the body is never given a chance to heal itself.

A similar trait is in the ability to be hated. By being disliked and publicly attacked, there is clearly something that the person is doing correctly to generate this anger in the first place. Can you be considered a success if you are incapable of generating envy?

Software that is Antifragile

A great piece titled Procedia Computer Science explores an antifragile approach to software. A key ingredient to this is to be sure the software is adaptable and proactive. If a mobile development shop has made a basic app template for selling sneakers and plans to sell that same app to different shoe distributors, it’s quite fragile. The smallest change in business plan of the customer can break the deal immediately. If the development team has prepared for these changes in a way where they can easily flip a switch and turn their shoe selling app into a theatre ticket selling app, it’s much more antifragile. Antifragile software welcomes Black Swan events such as a client rebranding overnight and having their program adapt to that change in no-time.

Facebook’s software slogan, Move Fast and Break Things is an ultimate antifragile ideology. By breaking things, embracing errors and mistakes, and mishandling the product, the software becomes stronger as a result of that. If an app has never crashed nor failed in a crucial time, there’s no preparation for that inevitable Black Swan to, perhaps, wipe the entire database during a holiday weekend.

The developers must be antifragile as well. No programmer is going to learn by doing things correctly and by the book. Open mindedness is essential for any software engineer because failing will ultimately teach the wrong ways to do something — clearly this makes for a stronger developer.

Some might argue that a true antifragile program would require a lot of artificial intelligence. An app that knows when something is wrong and can fix itself in minutes is surely not fragile. However, for the software to understand when a Black Swan is occurring, it either must’ve been fragile at some point or the developers must’ve been antifragile enough to program the software accordingly. Antifragile software is certainly achievable, but the antifragile business that surrounds and sells the software will always be the key ingredient.

Feelings that are Antifragile

Painters like painting but authors like “having written.”

Procrastination is a fragile action, (or inaction). If you are writing a book, application, or manifesto, procrastinating on the task shows you are avoiding the failure it might include. Dodging the negative is as fragile as you can get. By embracing the potential failure or success makes you antifragile to it in the future.

A painter paints because they enjoy the activity and want to become more antifragile in their craft while a writer might write to gain notoriety, a much more selfish and fragile reason to do something. This will result in more antifragile paintings that are gawked at for years and fragile novels or essays that are forgotten about in weeks.

The Lindy Effect shows that a book that has been in print for forty years can be expected to be in print for another forty years. If the book survives another decade it can be expected to be in print for another fifty years. This is how things in motion stay in motion. If you have $300,000 in your bank account, you’ll forever be above the poverty line just by interest alone. The Phantom of the Opera can be expected to reign on Broadway for another decade since it has been the longest running musical for years and thrives off that success. Wealth will grow at a rate once it has passed a threshold just like art will once it stands the test of time. Taleb also refers to an author as antifragile in this tweet because of a very large increase in sales.

Never trust the words of a man who is not free.

T.E. Lawrence, nicknamed Lawrence of Arabia (titular character in one of my top three favorite movies next to the original King Kong and To Kill a Mockingbird) made a deal with the Arab desert tribes. The tribes eventually reneged on the agreement. Taleb believes the word of a mobster is worth more than that of a civil servant because they’re much less fragile. The honor of an individual is worth much more to that person than the honor of a nation to a servant.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

A fragile mindset revolves around the halo effect. It assumes the skills of one field would translate perfectly to another field. If you’re a great football quarterback you can run a business. If you’re a top programmer you’d make a great significant other. A flawed way of thinking, according to Taleb, relies on how good someone might be at talking or how confident they might be regarding their ego. In reality it’s perfectly possible someone with skills in one area applying those skills to another will be extremely fragile. An entrepreneur is not measured by the conversation they hold but the product they produce.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Antifragile has opened my eyes in many ways. Reading the book twice already has not made me any more antifragile than I already was, but has taught me how to embrace my antifragility and channel it correctly. I look forward to becoming less fragile as time goes on.


Originally published at nickcalabro.com.