Book review: Antifragile

Absolutely loved the book and its main messages. It’s deep, ambitious, and very thought provoking. It was an immense pleasure to read.

Things that jumped out of me, in no particular order:

  • Term “Antifragile”. As defined by the author, antifragile is something that benefits from random events, somebody that gets stronger when stress is applied to it. This is a step above “robust” where robust most often means ability to deal with stress. Love it as a concept. Netflix’s Chaos Monkey seems to be something that you could define as a tool of antifragility. By randomly killing cloud instances, it helped Netflix build a more resilient architecture that now survives all kinds of cloud service failures. It actually gains from AWS going out as the rest of the services scramble, they stand strong and get positive press, admiration, tech fans that want to work there, etc. Evolution is another example. Individual participants (a human, animal) dies and disappears but the concept of genome continues to survive and actually gets stronger as individual members experience stressors that take out the weak and let the strong survive.
  • Barbell strategy, a way to build antifragility. There are many ways to explain this strategy, but it boils down to playing majority of the time safe, and be very aggressive otherwise. NO MIDDLE GAME. Playing safe you are not exposing yourself to destructive events that could take you out, so to speak. At the same time, if you truly pick a smart but aggressive investment or activity, since it’s loss magnitude is small, even if all of it disappears — that’s just a small percentage lost. But if you hit “gold”, you benefit greatly. The key is finding an activity/investment that has such a great upside and whose downside is small. Seems obvious at first, but I think in real life we play mostly in the middle. Very little on the safe side, very little on the risky side and fat column in the middle. This thought is really nagging at me and making me reconsider many of my own activities and actions.
  • Optionality, another way to build antifragility. When you have little or no options, you are limited in your actions and when you have no options, a catastrophic event can wipe you out. You don’t get better when Black Swans hit, you either suffer greatly, or survive. Options can enhance you ability to benefit from the Black Swan.
  • Via Negativa. Another way to increase antifragility, as well as a way to look at life. Don’t try to add, but work hard to remove. When looking at a design of the systems, adding functionality adds complexity, which adds fragility. Simplify, remove it, and remove some more. A noble goal in any profession and in life. It’s something that is really hard to do as adding can be tempting and short-term gratifying. Also, rarely did anybody receives an award for not doing something. Bigger/complicated systems seem to hide failures underneath the surface and it eventually all comes out in a large (Black Swan) event that has catastrophic repercussions. Large governments, top-down as opposed to bottom-up, are inflexible, fragile, and susceptible to large crises. Think of how much infrastructure and layers of bureaucracy that exist within large governments and corporations. When you get an inside look, the picture is not pretty. According to the author, such setups are just a matter of time before they get hit with a Black Swan event that can wipe them out. At the very least many people suffer.
  • Lindy effect. The longer the technology is around, the longer it will survive. Another way to spin it, don’t trust something that is new because by the mere fact that it is new, it has a really high probability not sticking around.
  • Skin in the game. A large topic but it boils down to an idea that don’t listen/rely on somebody who is not impacted by whatever they are saying or asking you to do. A doctor that suggests you a procedure which he himself would never under go (e.g. risky back surgery), an investment advice from somebody that does not use it themselves. These appear to be obvious but are not obvious in real life. There are a ton of forecasters and prediction people that get things wrong all the time, their false forecasts or news being used in real life with negative consequences. Yet the forecaster suffers no consequences. That’s the reality of the modern world. We are too large, too big, we seek out commentators on anything and everything and then follow them without asking if that person has anything in it or just spewing nonsense for profit and moving on.

In general, the book praises the life of stoicism, small size, and simplicity, suggesting the reader looks at Mother Nature, the most antifragile thing that we know of, for clues on how to live and advance.

I love this book so much that I will buy a print copy to refer to from time to time.

As a side note, I found it fascinating to see how many people absolutely deplore the author and this book. I can see how the ideas can be unsettling, and the author’s style is rather rude. I actually like it, no sugar coating and straight to the point. If you are offended by it, move on. The message is simply not for you.