Antifragile: How to Grow Invincible

antifragile book cover

In Antifragile (2012) Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses the fragility of systems, and explains how some systems are destroyed by shocks while others grow stronger.

3 Sentences Summary

  • When you’re antifragile you become stronger when attacked
  • Take upside risks while protecting your downsides (barbell strategy)
  • Options and collaboration heighten your antifragility

Summary

About The Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a former trader, philosopher and student of probabilities.
He is one of my favorite authors and he has also published “Skin In The Game“, “The Black Swan“, “Fooled by Randomness“.

Definition of Antifragile

Antifragile is not strong or robust, it’s the opposite of fragile, which means that the more you attack it, the stronger it gets.

When we can build antifragile systems, they will thrive in our uncertain and inherently risky world.

Book I: The Antifragile: An Introduction

Chapter 1: Between Damocles and Hydra

Nassim Taleb here repeats what “antifragile” means. Namely, antifragile benefits from shocks.

The author says that the increased complexity of our society also makes our society more fragile.
But it doesn’t have to be so.

Chapter 2: Overcompensation and Overreaction Everywhere

Post-traumatic growth is an example of antifragility.

Post-traumatic growth is the phenomenon by which human beings become better after traumatic accidents.

Similarly, when we bounce back from failures and grow out of frustrations and hardships, we also show antifragility.

Inventions, he says, born out of necessity. Not via planning and not even with education.
Highly decorated Harvard professors of entrepreneurship and innovation never innovated anything, and same goes for the highly expensive consultants.

Nassim Taleb says that humans tend to look at the past and fail to understand that the unexpected events of the present will likely surpass what happened in the past.
Our body, contrary to our behavior, does prepare better.

When you train for weights, for example, your body overshoots and over-prepares.

Chapter 3: The Cat and the Washing Machine

The natural and biological is usually antifragile.

The secret of life seems to be antifragility.

The author says we have a tendency to try to reduce normal swings of life. He says there’s a tendency to overmedicate and overdose with drugs such as prozac to smoothen out normal mood swings we experience.

Book II: Modernity And The Denial of Antifragility

Chapter 4: What Kills Me Makes Others Stronger

The antifragility of some comes at the expense of others.

The fragility of startups makes the whole economy resilient -what Schumpeter called creative destruction of capitalism-.
Nassim Taleb says that restaurant as a whole is a very strong category, but it comes at the expense of high competition, and also high failure rates, of each single one of them.

Disasters also serve a similar purpose, says the author.

The Titanic, for example, was a disaster, but by being a catalyst for change in the ship cruising industry, it made the system stronger.

The single parishes while the whole system gets stronger.

Some systems, like the aviation industry, is set to be antifragile by getting better after a crash, but the same cannot be said for the financial system, says the author.
In economy and finance, a big error causes a domino effect because all the nodes are connected and interlinked.

The goal of a system than should be to let single individuals or institutions fail without dragging anyone else down.
This is the opposite of what governments are doing by bailing out companies at the expense of the whole system, which ends up propping up the wealthy and damaging the poor.

The Definition of A Loser

The definition of a  loser is someone that is embarrassed by his mistakes and tries to explain them away instead of introspecting and becoming better with the new piece of information.

My note:
this is key indeed to become a better person, and what Nassim Taleb is talking about is typical of a fixed mindset (read more on Mindset).

Who made errors and learned from them is more reliable than those who never committed any error (read more on learning from mistakes in Sometimes You Win Sometimes You Lean). 

System antifragility feeds off individuals’ fragility

Chapter 5: The Souk and the Office Building

Professions such as artisans, prostitutes and taxi drivers are more robust to black swans and more antifragile than employees, even high earning employees.

The wage of an employee can easily go to zero, but an artisan with several customers usually weathers crisis much better.

The author also discusses how we human beings do not usually grasp what’s not concrete.
A baby crying is more important to us than a thousand dying somewhere else that simply do not seem real.
They are just a statistic.

Taleb also says we a have a thirst for the anecdote and the sensational.

Chapter 6: Tell Them I Love (Some) Randomness

Trying to over-control systems often leads to fragility.

Systems need a relief valve and need to be able to re-adjust freely.

So when we want to keep everything fixed and unmovable, any small movement will create panic and overreaction.

Similarly, moms who try to shield their children from all the negativity and possibly dangerous experiences of life got it all wrong.
Children need to those experiences to grow more antifragile, and the more they are shielded from them, the more fragile they will be when they will inevitably encounter them.

Chapter 7: Naive Intervention

Nassim Taleb says he is not against intervention in any way.

It’s just that he often sees too much, naive intervention.

He says that systems often are more antifragile than we think, and we should allow them to re-balance by themselves before jumping in.
He says a protocol would be needed to when to intervene and when to leave systems alone.

The author says we often intervene because we listen too much to the news, to the noise, rather than looking at the substance and at the long term repercussions.
And the shorter the time frame you observe an even, the higher the noise you will perceive.

The more data you get, the less you will understand

He says that “the elder had far more wisdom” and uses the example of Roman revering a general called “the deferrer” who always preferred to delay intervention.

My note:
I am always suspicious of sweeping generalization and arguments that can be boiled down to “before it was better/those guys knew better than us”. 

In some other instances though over-intervention happens because of greed, like surgeons who make more money by operating than non operating, and because people sometimes need to justify their presence. Doing nothing would feel like they have no character and their position is not needed… So they just do something.

Nassim Taleb compares the nervous overreaction of the over-intervention to the more needed calmness, and he uses a mobster as paragon.
He says to look at Salvatore Gravano and how he always looks calm and in control, video below (also check the Godfather’s way of dominance).

He says when a man like Salvatore, usually calm, gets angry, people heed it off.

Chapter 8: Prediction as a Child of Modernity

Nassim Taleb says it’s best to prepare with failure in mind than trying to predict how and when failure will happen and how to avoid it.

For example, the Swedish government focuses on fiscal responsibility so that a new crisis will cause a disaster there and the new nuclear plants after Fukushima are built with a future failure in mind.

That’s the best way to go.

Book III: A Nonpredictive View of The World

Chapter 9: Fat Tony and the Fragilistas

Nassim Taleb talks quite a bit about himself and his ideas here, it’s very theoretical and a bit of blabla.

He says it’s hard to make money by trying to predict the future, but you can make money betting that those predicting the future will get it wrong and face troubles. 

Chapter 10: Seneca’s Upside and Downside

Nassim Taleb dislikes the employee position because it makes you very dependent on someone -and on someone’s whims.

Chapter 11: Never Marry the Rockstar

Nassim Taleb here introduces the barbell strategy as a way of being antifragile.

The barbell strategy means covering your downsides while increasing your upsides. You play it very safe on one side so that you can take more risks on another side.
If the risky part plays out badly, you’re still OK. If a black swan event will make the risks pay off big, you profit handsomely.

I loved the examples of the barbell strategy. Of course finance had to be there, so in that case, it would be putting most of your money in safe investments and 10% in highly lucrative ones.
Take a boring job while you indulge your passion of literature and philosophy.

Women’s Dual Sex Strategy

Or, and here’s the chapter title, a barbell strategy is the one women sometimes seem to follow: marry the boring guy, the accountant, and if it happens sleep on the side with the exciting Rockstar.

This is a very popular concept in the manosphere, also referred to as “alpha fucks, beta bucks” (also read “The Rational Male“).

I love when Nassim Taleb says he’s not sure that’s good for the species and simply not just for fun because, while the evolutionary psychologists love a good narrative, he prefers evidence, and there’s no evidence to prove it’s good for the species.

My Note:
However, Taleb here fails to truly understand how evolution works. 
Evolution doesn’t always maximize for what’s good for the species. And he cannot simply say “they do it for fun”, because that’s not an explanation. Evolutionary psychology explains why people find pleasurable the behavior that they find pleasurable.

Also read: lovers VS providers.

barbell strategy nassim taleb

Book IV: Optionality, Technology and Antifragility

Chapter 12: Thale’s Sweet Grapes

Nassim Taleb says that options are a great way to make the system more resistant to shocks.

The more options you have, the more ways you have to respond to black swans and unforeseen events.

My note:
That’s true, but while that’s pretty obvious and everyone knows that, I’d like to stress that too many options is actually bad and can lead to choice paralysis and lots of wasted time and effort. Predictably Irrational explains it pretty well with scientific tests.

Chapter 13: Lecturing Birds on How to Fly

Nassim Taleb is both damn right and hilarious when he reflects upon our lack of imagination through the “invention” of carrying on luggage with wheels.

He says it took 6.000 years from the invention of the wheel and billions of hours of people slugging through airports and stations before someone thought about stripping two of them beneath a luggage to simplify everyone’s life.

Can you imagine, he says, how many supposedly super smart people, traveling to and from conventions of PhDs exerted an inordinate amount of sweat but never thought of a luggage with wheels?

The same invention came 30 years after the moon landing, which seemed such a great thing… But the moon landing did little to improve our lives, the wheeled luggage did.

Chapter 14: When Two Things Are not the “Same Thing”

Nassim Taleb says most people get it wrong with education and standards of living.

It’s not education which improves standards of living, it’s the other way around.

Education is not even strictly needed for a wealthy, antifragile society, like Switzerland shows us with its heavy focus on “on the job” training.

Theory should be differentiated from practice and, empirically speaking, your grandmother’s advice is superior to what you get in business school.
Also, to the economists’ chagrin, Nassim says that economics is not a science and economists should not be advising on policies.

Nassim Taleb says it’s not true the best idea survives.
It’s indeed not a competition of ideas, but a competition of human beings who happen to hold and defend those ideas. I don’t fully agree here, but one of my favorite quotes in the chapter:

An idea doesn’t survive because it’s better than the competition, but because the person saying it survived.

Chapter 15: History Written by the Losers

Nassim Taleb has a very interesting theory here.

He says that it’s not practical applications that follow the theory, but the other way around.
New great discoveries and breakthrough happen by trying things out, by tinkering around, and then theoretical knowledge plays catch up and explains it.

To use Nassim Taleb’s always interesting and colorful language, the theory serves to satisfy the intellectual bean counters.

Contrary to Peter Thiel’s advice in Zero to One, Nassim Taleb seems to slightly mock plans and business plans and takes the example of a few successful corporations which started doing something completely different than what they ended up being successful for.

That’s why you invest in people, not in business plans: the successful entrepreneurs must be able to change course.

The author then sums up a few rules:

  1. Look for optionality (many options)
  2. Open ended pay offs
  3. Invest in people, not business plans
  4. Apply the barbell principle (limit your downside)

Chapter 16: A Lesson in Disorder

In this chapter Nassim Taleb takes it again on education and soccer moms.

What we learn in class often really stays in class and is rarely translated into real life.

The examples the author uses in the book are really great and also hilarious, ranging from bigwigs who got it all wrong on oil prices skyrocketing after the Iraq invasion to the traders who would be considered smart when they could spell their street correctly who were very successful at what they were doing.

And of course, the cap it off the example of the gym rat at a major disadvantage against the street fighter or mafia hit man :).

Book V: The Nonlinear

Chapter 17: Fat Tony Debates Socrates

Nassim Taleb says that we often decide based on fragility and not on probability.

It’s very unlikely for example that aboard any given plane there will be a terrorist, but since the consequences would be devastating, then we put up with lengthy safety control just to eliminate any possible chance.

Chapter 18: On the Difference Between a Large Stone

Nassim Taleb talks about the nonlinear property.

For example, one crash at 100 km/h will wreck much more damage than 100 crashes at 1 km/h.

Your body is fragile to alcohol and five bottles of wine in one go is more damaging to your body than five bottles spread out over five days.

And the last glass of wine will be more damaging than the preceding one, which in turn was more damaging than the preceding one

Chapter 19: The Philosopher’s Stone and Its Inverse

Nassim Taleb here talks about the Pareto Law and says that more than 80/20 it’s more and more becoming a 99/1 across many realms.

He says that collaboration is also a tool to reach antifragility.
Similarly, as adding up units in nonlinear systems brings non-linear increments, also adding up people to a well functioning team adds up more than the sum of its parts.

From a psychological point of view I also particularly enjoyed the author’s point of view on “giving many reasons” for anything. He says that robust, strong decisions, require just one single reason.

When people try to cram too many reasons why it’s usually because they are putting up smoke screens.

Read more on collaboration strategies here:

Life Strategy: The Enlightened Collaborator

Book 6: Via Negativa

Chapter 20: Time and Fragility

Nassim Taleb says that what’s most likely to stick in the future is what has already been around for long.

When asked how the future house will look like, for example, a shelf full of books is a good guess because a shelf full of books has been around for centuries.

A chair is another safe bet.
Wine and forks… Huge safe bets.

The same goes to papers and books.
A new paper is “dangerous” because it hasn’t stood the test of times and is not proven. A recent book, same. A book who has been popular for a decade instead is likely to stay popular for another ten.

And you can also rest your mind if you hate religion: rational or irrational, it’s been around thousands of years, so it’s likely to stick around for a while (with good peace of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion :).

He also says the imperial system makes more sense than the metrical one because it’s based on reality.
A meter doesn’t match anything, but a foot does. A pound what you can imagine holding in your hands.

My note:
when Taleb mentions a stone makes sense because it weighs as a stone and a pound makes because it’s what you can hold in your hands I had to double check he wasn’t joking.
This part made little sense to me: stones go from tons to grams so, no, it’s not true that it’s more intuitive. If anything, it’s more likely to sidetrack people.

Chapter 21: Medicine, Convexity, and Opacity

Nassim Taleb comes back to some concepts of antifragility here.

Doctors tend to over-intervene even when there’s no need to and we tend to try to make life too comfortable when comfort only make us more fragile.

The episode of Nassim Taleb in the emergency room arguing with the doctor if he had any evidence a ice pack on the nose was going to help in any way was hilarious.

Chapter 22: To Live Long, but Not Too Long

This chapter was very chatty, philosophical and reflecting on the author’s life.

It made me smile when Taleb says a big improvement in his life came from removing offensive irritants such as TV, air conditioning, long commutes and.. Newspapers since just reading of Friedman and Paul Krugman would lead to unnecessary bouts of anger :).

Book VII: The Ethics of Fragility and Antifragility

Chapter 23: Skin in The Game: Antifragility at the Expense of Others

Skin in the game is a big thread for Antifragile.

Skin in the game means people who take part in a system should also lose out if that system goes bust. And that’s not what it’s happening today.

For example, the Roman had the chief architects and constructors stand beneath the bridge they had just erected.

Or the leaders of the ancient times used to put their own life on the line as a consequence of their decision.
Roman emperors marched with their legions and as a rule of thumb the people with the biggest downside had the most respect and had the highest positions in society (the “bastardization” of leadership is something Simon Sinek discusses in Leaders Eat Last). 

Today instead overpaid bankers can bankrupt a bank, or the whole system, and walk away with big bonuses.

That’s akin to transfer fragility from one party to the other, so that one party becomes antifragile at the expense of other innocent players and bystanders.

Chapter 24: Fitting Ethics to a Profession

In this chapter, Nassim Taleb talks about the hedonic treadmill many of us are slaves of.

The hedonic treadmill is the tendency we have of wanting more and more material stuff even when we don’t need them.
It’s often driven by seeing the people around us possessing those same things.

antifragile book cover

Practical Applications

  • Comfort is weakening of the will

Push your limits and do make experiences to become antifragile.

  • Build your Ego with antifragility in mind

It’s funny that the biggest takeaway from this book, for me, was contained in a little more than a line. It’s when Taleb talks about his definition of losers: people who make excuses when wrong instead of learning and moving on.

That’s because their ego is not antifragile. And that’s the most important step you can take to make your “system” antifragile.

Read here “the antifragile ego“.

CONS

  • Does Not Fully Understand Evolutionary Psychology?

Taleb often criticizes evolutionary psychology, yet here he seems not to understand it.

He says that “there is no proof that it’s good for the species”, but no good evolutionary psychologist ever said evolution always moves towards what’s good for the species. Especially sexual selection doesn’t.
That’s not how selection works.

I agree with him that sometimes people like to make a nice narrative out of something that might be random.
But that’s not evolutionary psychology, that’s just idiots who like to make up stuff.

He cannot deny a claim just by saying “they do it because it’s pleasurable”, because the question becomes “why do people find a certian behavior pleasurable”, and that’s what evolutionary psychology explains.

  • Some Find Taleb Arrogant

You could find Taleb funny, entertaining, plainly honest… Or offensive.

I do not find offensive, however, I can also understand if one were to label Taleb of being a bit arrogant.
There are a lot of personal attacks, including with swear words, in antifragile.

The author also says about the financial industry that wasn’t listening to him so he “took their money”, which sounds a bit vindictive.

Also of course he’s human, so while he attacked some people for not understanding anything, he also got some major prediction and analysis plainly wrong.

  • “Before was better”

There’s a feeling that Nassim Taleb always hints that “before it was better”.

I find it similar to Simon Sinek (except in Start with Why) at times and while it can sell or help you become popular I don’t find it particularly great.

  • Long and Disjointed

Was this a book about antifragility or was antifragility simply one of the many many random topics?

Don’t get me wrong, most of it was interesting and some parts even illuminating, but I didn’t see a strong common thread joining it all together to deliver a single, potent message.

And it’s ironic Taleb himself says a philosopher should be remembered for one thing only :).

  • Nebulous and Complex

At times the book is not simple, which is OK, but I feel like there could have been easy ways to actually MAKE IT simple.

And any time you can simplify something but don’t, that’s hubris or lack of communication skills.

Review

“Antifragile” is longish, and not super simple.

It has many different concepts and some extremely interesting points of view.

Nassim Taleb is also an eclectic, entertaining and at times beautifully sarcastic writer (in Antifragile he coined “IAND”, standing for: International Association of Name Droppers).

He makes fun of “professor of innovations” -who never innovated anything-, economists and even a bit of himself.
I particularly loved the line he used when he left the financial industry and thought it was over but then “they pulled him back in” (that’s a line from the Godfather, a move Taleb seems to like a lot).

I also admire Taleb for his knowledge and his classical history references. Alongside numbers he quotes Latin, then goes into French writers only to go back old Mediterranean civilizations, Greek philosophers and Roman customs.
And then again back to analyze the present reality and the future. All in one.

I wish he had used more psychology to his concept of antifragility -I have done that with the antifragile ego-, but overall I enjoyed Antifragile.

Get the Book on Amazon

Processing...