Antifragile: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 30th, 2012 by bobmorris

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Random House (2012)

How to build “a systematic and broad guide to nonpredictive decision making under uncertainty

Here is the context (in the Prologue) from which an excerpt serves as the title of this review: “By grasping the mechanisms of antifragility we can build a systematic and broad guide to nonpredictive decision making under uncertainty in business, politics, medicine, and life in general — anywhere the unknown preponderates, any situation in which there is randomness, unpredictability, opacity, or incomplete understanding of things.” With meticulous care that is among the defining characteristics of his thinking and writing, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains what antifragility is…and isn’t.

I wish it were possible to eavesdrop on a conversation between him and Joseph Schumpeter because both of them see great potential value in what most people fear or at least try to avoid: destruction, of course, that can in fact be creative but also randomness and uncertainty “which also means — critically — a love of errors, a certain class of errors.” Taleb insists — and I agree — that antifragility is a property that helps to explain why some natural and complex systems survive and others do not. Moreover, he adds, depriving any systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them.

Recall what Taleb has to say about Black Swans — unexpected major upheavals such as hurricanes — in a previous book: “Black Swans hijack our brains, making us feel we ‘sort of’ or ‘almost’ predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable.” Black Swans challenge us to respond effectively to them and — more often than not — we overreact with fear. “Because of this fear and thirst for order, some human systems, by disrupting the invisible and not so visible logic of things, tend to be exposed to harm from Black Swans and almost never get any benefit. You get pseudo order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness.” Taleb explains how and why to do that.

He also includes hundreds of examples of infragility and its impact in all domains of human experience. He does everything humanly possible to help his reader to develop a new mindset, one that appreciates, embraces, and then leverages uncertainty, randomness, probability, disorder, “and what to do in a world we don’t understand, a world with unseen elements and properties, the random and the complex; that is, decision making under opacity.”

These are among the passages that caught my eye and were especially interesting as well as informative:

o The Antidote to the Black Swan (Pages 6-17)
o Proto-Antifragility (36-38)
o How to Win a Horse Race (43-48)
o Antifragility by Layers (65-71)
o In Praise of Procrastination — The Fabian Kind (121-124)
o The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology(193-197)
o The Green Lumber Fallacy (207-211)
o The Industrial Revolution (226-229)
o Fat Tony versus Socrates (251-253)
o On the Importance of Attics (263-266)
o A Simple Rule to Detect the Fragile (268-271)
o Learning to Subtract (313-318)
o The Stiglitz Syndrome (388-391)
o The Professionals and the Collective (411-414)
o The Tyranny of the Collective (421-422)

Taleb views this book as the last in a series (a “triad”) during which he develops “one master idea, each time taken to its next step, [and now] the last step.” He allows his reader to accompany him during the completion of an intellectual journey that began with Fooled by Randomness and continued with The Black Swan. In this third volume, he explains how, “by grasping the mechanisms of antifragility, we can build a systematic and broad guide to nonpredictive decision making under uncertainty,” whenever and whatever the given circumstances may be.

I urge those who read my review to read and then re-read very carefully the book, of course, but also “Appendix: The Triad, or a Map of the World and Things Along the Three Properties.” They are FRAGILE, ROBUST, and ANTIFRAGILE. Previously, Taleb had explained why “the fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much.” He provides a brilliant briefing on Pages 23-27 that is invaluable to understanding the material that follows, best re-read several times by an antifragile mind that Nassim Nicholas Taleb helps his reader to develop.

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