Anti-Fragile

This is an interesting, contrarian take on most dimensions of life, and introduces a concept that does seem generally useful in many ways. That concept, anti-fragile, is beyond robust or resilient; it is gaining strength from stress, not breaking and not even simply not breaking under stress. Taleb has quite a chip on his shoulder, based on the language and attitude that shines through, but he does have a fascinating concept that is useful in life. I would recommend this book to anyone, though finishing it may not be necessary, given the last couple sections are more technical.

Taleb’s fame came from writing The Black Swan, a book about infrequent events that are outside the 95% or even 99% confidence intervals for risks. His point is that unlikely things happen, and that most of our risk management strategies only plan for normal activity, or activities that have happened in the past. He describes a range of fields to give examples — economics, certainly, but also weightlifting and personal finance and porcelain and shipping packages and others. One point he made about finances that I found particularly interesting was the idea that debt makes a person or entity more fragile. That is, in times of significant stress (lost job or recession), those with debt have a much harder time making it through than those without debt. He talked about how ecosystems are fairly anti-fragile; if a hurricane or tornado or volcano hits, unless it fully destroys everything, that environment tends to come back hardier and stronger than before.

The concept took me a little time to fully grasp, as I thought robust or resilient was accurate. Think about it this way: on a continuum, for a given object or economy, stress can hit the left, center, or right. On the right is fragile, and so it breaks. In the center is robust, and so the object does not break. On the left is anti-fragile, and so it gets stronger. An example when I think of this is a solar array; when the sun gets hotter, people shrivel up or hide, while a solar panel gets ‘stronger’ — that is, it benefits and gains from what is also a stressor. There is probably a technical argument as to why that isn’t the best example, but it makes sense to me.

Taleb spends a surprising portion of his language on tearing down the Russian-Harvard complex, or the fragilistas, or those who practice risk management. He really attacks a lot of them, crucifying some well-known leaders who made mistakes like Alan Greenspan, but also arguing against basic risk management techniques, which I find work most of the time for most scenarios — which is, of course, of value to most, just perhaps not all. My guess is that after The Black Swan, he wanted to join a world-class academic institution and was rejected, and that he’s using his current writing as a way to slander those he could not join. He also said that Aristotle got his lesson exactly backwards on one of his famous allegories, which makes me cringe. I have a hard time hearing the idea that thousands of years have passed, and that wisdom has passed down to today, but only now, by this one guy, is it exactly wrong. Just seems too self-serving.

Overall, it was a really good book that I am happy to have read. He does introduce some useful ideas and I’m happy to have them in my head and in my life. His attitude isn’t something I would teach my kids, and the practical application of anti-fragility is probably limited to only a couple of scenarios, but it is a useful way of thinking.