Be forewarned – this was a long read, and will likely be a longer than usual ‘review/thoughts/rant’. This book, to me, was a challenge to get through – especially after just having read Silvers book on prediction The Signal and the Noise. Before I begin with my criticism of this book, I’ll lay out briefly how I feel about the content. I found that after having struggled to get through the introduction and early stage of the book, I agreed with a lot of what Taleb has to say – but perhaps not quite as strongly, and certainly not in the way he presents (mostly articulates) it.
To be antifragile is to be not only resilient to randomness, variance, volatility, unpredictability (and however many other ways you can say ‘things you weren’t expecting to happen’), but also to gain or benefit in the event of volatility. It took me a little while to wrap my head around the idea of being able to benefit from volatility, but Taleb makes good use of a couple figures when he argues that a person that is Antifragile can benefit from volatility only in systems that are non-linear –the more extreme or unlikely an event that occurs in a system, the more radical and extreme the response will be (picture a chart of an exponential response).
One example of this that is fresh in my mind (I think) that seemed to make sense would be if you were to essentially bet against the ‘economy’ (or bet that there would be a financial system collapse – through the magic of the stock market). If you were to have reason to expect that this is a wise bet to make (you see the 2008 mortgage derivative swap whatever thing coming), over time you’d be wrong for a little bit – but you’d would only be losing small amounts of money (at the low end of the exponential curve). When the extreme, unpredictable event (called a Black Swan in the book) happens, you cash out big-time. Another strong example of antifragility (or a lack thereof) is how a child that is allowed to play in the dirt, get cuts and bruises, expose itself to lots of sunlight and new bacteria (or germs or virii or whatever) while its immune system is in its highest rate of development – you could likely assume that it would be ‘stronger’ than a child raised in a sterile room, covered in sunscreen, and using sanitary wipes after touching anything. One of my favorite examples – that coincidentally relates to me due a recent change in my exercising – is how barefoot or minimalist running strengthens your feet by allowing them to adapt or react to terrain using all the muscles in your foot, instead of protecting them with over-cushioned running shoes. My feet are becoming antifragile.
Throughout the book, Taleb engages in vehement bashing of academia and academics, and while at some points it was pretty repetitive and tactless (often saying things like “evidence schmevidence”), I tend to agree with the argument he was presenting. You can only really learn so much in a lecture or a textbook, and to understand how the real world tends to actually function and operate, you have to jump in there – and this doesn’t require much more than a bit of initiative, let alone a Doctorate. Ranging from the ignorance of people that think they know what they’re talking about because they went to school for six years and wrote their thesis on this or that, to the absoloutely treacherous record of politicians and ‘economists’ predictions and models used to forecast how things are going to go (with no punishment for their complete inaccuracies) – there’s shocking lack of practical knowledge compared to pure academia that happens to run the world. I didn’t exactly enjoy how much Taleb talked about ancient philosophers (I’m sure mainly because I’m completely ignorant of this subject – and all the names just sound like they’re from God of War to me), but a few of the quotes and proverbs struck a chord with me. In regards to trying to attain a deeper understanding of things he says, “the sea gets deeper as you go farther into it”, or as I like to think “I know enough to know that I don’t know much” – something that I think many people should open up to.
Taleb argues that true knowledge and entrepreneurship is attained not fom high level academia – but from tinkering, or trial and error. I agree with this to a large extent, but not entirely. I would argue that university level education provides a sort of launch pad – and then the rest is about diving in and seeing what you can figure out. I can probably truthfully say that of the things I truly understand – I’ve only really gotten a grasp of them from troubleshooting them (taking out the broken bits of a computer until it turns back on), and learning from why I broke something in the first place. Reverse engineering is underappreciated. I rarely tend to make the same mistake more than once, and I feel confident that I can learn how to do just about anything – because I understand the true mechanisms behind understanding mechanisms.
So as I said – there’s a lot in this book that I agree with. It was hard to get through, however, because of an over-abundance of ancient philosophy and literature that I’m not well versed in, and it kind of reads (much like this post, I’m sure) like a mad-man’s manifesto because I don’t think it was edited (he mentions on multiple occasions that book editors are among the things he hates the most – editors shmeditors). While my talk of this book was not very brief, there was a lot in this book — I’m sure I missed half of it, and forgot a quarter — so you may want to read it yourself. That being said, there were lots of interesting blurbs and quotes that I liked, so I’ll end with a few of them.
– “Food would not have a taste if it weren’t for hunger; results are meaningless without effort, joy without sadness, convictions without uncertainty, and an ethical life isn’t so when stripped of personal risk” (in other words, volatility can be a good thing, working hard can be worth it, put your money where your mouth is or shut up, and people will fuck you over if they’re never held accountable).
– “We a suckers for the sophisticated” (A lot of people will buy into anything with a bit of math behind it – equip your bullshit detectors)
– In regards to minimalist running shoes… “In a way they are selling us the calloused feet of a hunter-gatherer that we can put on, use, and then remove upon returning to civilization.”
– In regards to big pharma and medications “the non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural” (Smoke weed errry day)
– “I am not here to live forever, as a sick animal”
– “We sacrifice ourselves in favor of our genes, trading our fragility for their survival. We age, but they stay young and get fitter and fitter outside us. Things break on a small scale all the time, in order to avoid large-scale generalized catastrophes.”