Book Review: “Antifragile”, By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s best work, and an essential read. Find out why.

The Author

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an ex-Wall Streeter, now a scholar and essayist focusing on probability and systems. His work has been well-received in some quarters, but fiercely debated in others. Taleb is known for his very particular style, including aggressive dismissal and attack of people and institutions he deems fraudulent.

For this reason, I highly recommend his Twitter feed, for contrarian insights and entertainment value. I’ve previously reviewed Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan.

The Book

Antifragile explores a characteristic so underexplored that Taleb had to coin a term for it. That characteristic is “antifragility”, which refers to things that gain from volatility (or disorder).

Anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is anti-fragile; the reverse is fragile.

Taleb contends that we’re building an increasingly fragile world, through globalization and greater interconnectedness. Think of the 2007/2008 financial crisis, in which a sudden shock terrorized financial markets the world over.

Top-down planning and governance increases fragility. Bottom-up growth makes things antifragile.

Think of nature, for example. In nature, selection creates conditions that are naturally antifragile. If there is a sudden shock, selection pressures ensure that only the organisms fittest for that environment will survive. Nature is antifragile.

Now think of our airport scheduling systems. We’ve hyper-optimized takeoff and landing scheduling so much that a single delay on one flight can throw the whole system into disarray. What is a 20-minute delay on one flight becomes a 3-hour delay on a later flight. The system suffers from disorder, so it’s fragile. And yet the system designers thought they were doing so much good with their optimizations.

Antifragility and fragility aren’t the only two options. They exist on a spectrum, with robustness in the middle:

Fragility – Robustness – Antifragility

Things that are robust resist shocks, and stay the same. Things that are antifragile become better when shocks happen.

Not everything can become fully antifragile, but we can move along the spectrum to protect against the effects of fragility. And there are some major exposures to fragile systems across the world. Think of the increasingly interconnected food system. Do you know where your food comes from? Industrial food conglomerates are all linked, and a shock at one could devastate the whole supply chain. This applies to GMOs, too. While they have obvious benefits, they are not tested across millennia. Existing food items have survived for thousands of years, and multiple shocks. What if there is a sudden flaw in a widespread GMO we did not account for? If we’d based our entire food system around that GMO crop, we’d be left with nothing.

Small forest fires now and then protect the whole forest. If you aggressively fight every single fire, you leave piles of very flammable material all over the place. Eventually, you’ll get an inferno that burns through all of it and goes out of control.

I’ve shared a couple examples here, and Taleb has dozens more. This is a long book, and the idea is fleshed out fully. It’s astonishing how little this idea has been explored in general, so the treatment is deserved. Antifragility is a lot more far-reaching than you’d first expect.

For the fragile, the cumulative effect of small shocks is smaller than the single effect of an equivalent single large shock.

For the antifragile, shocks bring more benefits (equivalently, less harm) as their intensity increases (up to a point).

The Verdict

If you don’t own this book, buy it now. It’s rare to find an idea that’s truly original, and rarer still to find one explored with the kind of treatment Taleb gives to antifragility.

This is the type of book that can entirely change how you think. I can’t give higher praise.

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