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Incerto #4

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

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Antifragile  is a standalone book in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s landmark Incerto series, an investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand. The other books in the series are  Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, Skin in the Game,  and  The Bed of Procrustes .

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the bestselling author of The Black Swan and one of the foremost thinkers of our time, reveals how to thrive in an uncertain world.

Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil. What Taleb has identified and calls “antifragile” is that category of things that not only gain from chaos but need it in order to survive and flourish. 

In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. In Antifragile, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary, and proposes that things be built in an antifragile manner. The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.

Furthermore, the antifragile is immune to prediction errors and protected from adverse events. Why is the city-state better than the nation-state, why is debt bad for you, and why is what we call “efficient” not efficient at all? Why do government responses and social policies protect the strong and hurt the weak? Why should you write your resignation letter before even starting on the job? How did the sinking of the Titanic save lives? The book spans innovation by trial and error, life decisions, politics, urban planning, war, personal finance, economic systems, and medicine. And throughout, in addition to the street wisdom of Fat Tony of Brooklyn, the voices and recipes of ancient wisdom, from Roman, Greek, Semitic, and medieval sources, are loud and clear.

Antifragile is a blueprint for living in a Black Swan world.

Erudite, witty, and iconoclastic, Taleb’s message is revolutionary: The antifragile, and only the antifragile, will make it.

Praise for Antifragile

“Ambitious and thought-provoking . . . highly entertaining.” — The Economist

“A bold book explaining how and why we should embrace uncertainty, randomness, and error . . . It may just change our lives.” — Newsweek

519 pages, Paperback

First published November 27, 2012

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About the author

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

79 books12k followers
Nassim Nicholas Taleb spent 21 years as a risk taker (quantitative trader) before becoming a flaneur and researcher in philosophical, mathematical and (mostly) practical problems with probability. 

Taleb is the author of a multivolume essay, the Incerto (The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, Antifragile, and Skin in the Game) an investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision making when we don’t understand the world, expressed in the form of a personal essay with autobiographical sections, stories, parables, and philosophical, historical, and scientic discussions in nonover lapping volumes that can be accessed in any order.

In addition to his trader life, Taleb has also written, as a backup of the Incerto, more than 50 scholarly papers in statistical physics, statistics, philosophy, ethics, economics, international affairs, and quantitative finance, all around the notion of risk and probability.

Taleb is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering (only a quarter time position). His current focus is on the properties of systems that can handle disorder ("antifragile").

Taleb believes that prizes, honorary degrees, awards, and ceremonialism debase knowledge by turning it into a spectator sport.

See Wikipedia for more details.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,987 reviews
Profile Image for Val Delane.
16 reviews67 followers
July 10, 2016
Taleb seems constitutionally angry, dismissive, and contrarian--sometimes to the point of being an asshole. However, one cannot deny his talent of conveying crucially important concepts in a clear and entertaining fashion. I would rather have every one of my biases and heuristics kicked around so I will reconsider where they came from--and whether to keep them--than be coddled and comforted.

Perhaps the best heuristic reminders I received from this book: 1/ Invest (trust) in people, not plans. 2/ Favor broad diversification so as to reduce negative exposure to any given event. 3/ Look for optionality; rank things according to optionality, preferably with open-ended payoffs. 4/ Options that benefit from volatility, disruption, and entropy are the best--but keep your "skin in the game;" never transfer your fragility to someone else. 5/ Eschew intervention unless it is completely obvious that lack of intervention in a given critical case is much more dangerous. 6/ If you generate more than one* reason to do something, you're trying to convince yourself; this is a strong sign to wait or even reject the plan; that said, if you have a single excellent reason, go for it and don't be afraid of failure. 7/ You learn more from failure ("subtractive knowledge") than success anyway.

(* My personal threshold is three reasons.)

Favorite quote from this book: "The worst problem of modernity lies in the malignant transfer of fragility and antifragility from one party to the other, with one getting the benefits, the other (unwittingly) getting the harm, with such transfer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal."

My own aphorisms inspired by this book: 1/ To add is folly; to abstain, wise; subtract, divine. 2/ All models have at least one too many degrees of freedom, and all models have at least one wrong premise. Therefore, every model can be optimized to a single-variable function that doesn't work.
Profile Image for Andrew Shaffer.
Author 44 books1,350 followers
October 31, 2012
The author goes to extreme lengths to make up new words or turn common sense wisdom on its head. "Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors.... Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile." Really? The word "adaptable" wouldn't suffice? "Antifragile" is not the last word he makes up, either. Instead of writing the word "brave," for instance, he substitutes "nonmeek." In the future, I would suggest the author try using a thesaurus, or as he probably calls it, an "antidictionary."

Elsewhere, the author launches into lengthy diatribes against academia, which he "tried" but found university life filled with "petty obsessions, envy, and icy-cold hatreds." He says that business, in contrast, "brings out the best in people...[and makes people] forgiving, honest, loving, and trusting." It was at this point, on page 17, that I contemplated throwing the book against the wall (for the first, but not last time). I ultimately never threw it, because at nearly 500 pages, I was worried about damaging my apartment's drywall.
153 reviews55 followers
January 28, 2013
"Antifragile" is a book that is difficult to summarize. I'll try to mention a few major ideas. If they come out confusing, it's my fault - read the book :)

Unlike many books of this genre, which spend 200 pages padding a 5 page idea, Antifragile is a fractal of a book, taking it's central ideas and examining and applying them in myriad ways. In that way, it as rich on page 400 as it is on page 2.

Taleb is an independent thinker who is almost impossible to categorize. In fact he revels in question some of the most basic assumptions of modern life. There are times I find him pompous and nearly conceited, and times when you realize that in going after the people and ideas that he does that he needs a very thick skin a quite a bit of confidence. He backs up views with layers of research and technical material. When I find him at his best though, is when he takes an idea that you've taken for granted and finds a dozen ways to show you why it's farcical.

If you've ever seen him on television or on video, do not take that persona as the one in this book. Although he defends his style, I've found his public appearances on the whole pretty awful. I saw him on Fareed Zakaria's show the other day, and even though I was 3/4 through his book, I could still barely understand his points. Taleb though, would say that's by design - that by having to work for understanding, his viewers are forced to stay for cognitively engaged - I don't buy it. He is a much better author than he is a speaker, and he probably likes it that way.

"Antifragile" is about fragility and it's converse, antifragility. In fragile systems the benefits are small and visible, and the the side effects are potentially severe and invisible.

Taleb illustrates the basics of fragile/antifragile with the example of package to be shipped. If you were to pack glasses in the box, even carefully, you would still know that the box would not respond well to disturbances like being dropped or mishandled. Glasses are fragile. If you were to pack a steel cube in the box, you would have no such problem. Drop it or whatever, the cube is "robust", not changed by disturbances. However, imagine if there was an item you put in the box that was improved by disturbances, that was made stronger or more capable by being mishandled. That is the true opposite of fragile, or as Taleb refers to this property - antifragile.

What are real life examples of antifragility? Evolution for one, functions better when being put under stress. Entrepreneurial ventures too, are made better by an uncertain environment, because they are organizations designed to learn and change from stresses. Sometimes, a system is antifragile, even though it's components aren't; organisms might die because of stress, but the entire ecosystem is made stronger over the long run.

A key point he makes is that in our rush to help, fix, or support system - in short, *do something*, we often make systems more fragile in the long run. One of his primary examples is medicine. In our efforts to make relatively small improvements to peoples lives through intervention, our health in the long run becomes more fragile, subject to the long term effects of drugs and therapies, and by the lifestyles that continue to enable.

His point is that you bet on the most tested system, and the most tested system we know of is Mother Nature and evolution. Anything we do needs to be judged against systems that had millions of years of stresses. This is not to say that modern medicine is a bad thing, because when it is helpful, it is *very* helpful, but when it it used for relatively minor improvements, the risks outweigh the rewards.

Because of this, he is a strong advocate of intervention by subtraction. Instead of finding better cures for diabetes, modify diets to remove sugary foods. Indeed, stopping smoking has been one of the most successful medical interventions of the last 40 years. He introduced me to the term iatrogrenic - making things worse by doing something.

The essence of the Black Swan - the event that is so rare that it's never been observed (or maybe maybe never occurred) before, is the fallacy that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. These are not the same thing. However, we often treat them as synonymous, until something totally unforseen happens. And that's part of the point. Unforseen events are not failures of prediction - they are simply unforseeable. We need to ready our systems that we cannot anticipate - that is, built systems that are at least robust, and that are hopefully antifragile.

Finally, he feels that the major cause of fragility in modern life is lack of "skin in the game" when one set of people become antifragile and transfer the fragility to another set of people. Some examples include managers of large corporations who do well no matter how their company does or the effect it has on the general economy. Writers and pundits who push views but have are in no way affected no matter if they are right or wrong. Politicians who enact complex policies but who are in no way affected by them, and who in fact use this complexity to become highly compensated once they leave office.

This last point should especially be taken to heart. Keep an eye out for who is saying and doing things, and how much stake they personally have in whether they are correct. If the answer is zero, or even worse, they are betting against themselves, then they are not to be taken seriously.

Overall, this was a book that made me re-evaluate who sets of assumptions I've made about how the world works, which for me is the ultimate test of any book of this type. It's not an easy read, and there is material in there to challenge almost any reader (philosophy, mathematics, business, economics to name a few), but it is well worth the trip.
48 reviews10 followers
May 1, 2013
Taleb has some great ideas. Unfortunately, he also has what he calls "FU money," which allows him to do what he wants without suffering fools. Which, for Taleb, includes pretty much anyone, including editors, whose help he could use.

When are two similar ideas not really the same? Taleb takes the human immune response and the muscle hypertrophy response to resistance training as examples of the same thing--systems responding to stress by getting better able to handle the stress. And they do have that in common. But they are different--and very specialized--systemic responses. What do they have in common? What can we learn from them, apart from the fact that solving problems is good?

Taleb later argues that avoiding stress is bad--that it prevents the organism from developing the ability to manage the stress that will eventually return in a stronger form. But it's not clear how the good system designed to deal with stress differ from the bad ones. If exposure to small stresses is good because it allows you to overcome the stress, why is overcoming the stress bad? The famously complex immune system, with its unfortunate side effects (allergies, auto-immune disease) looks a lot like the sort of overengineered over-protective solution with unintended consequences Taleb later mocks.

Moving on from the organism, Taleb's next example is evolution. He does acknowledge that the organism and the species have very different views on what is good. The species is antifragile, and it thrives, often, when particular organisms do not. Selection pressures kill individuals, but they strengthen the group, argues Taleb. But selection pressures also wipe out species. And genera. And orders. And so on. And they'll wipe out all of life, possibly. Meanwhile, they do create conditions that result in the magic of evolution, but the awards go to the survivors, those most successful at avoiding or handling stress, not those who subject themselves to the most stress. There is no "Nature" that "likes" stress (one of Taleb's more troublesome figures of speech).

I don't have time to pick apart every example and argument he makes, nor would it be possible, as each one reappears several times in a vague skein of association that prevents the clear development of any single idea. Here is where we most feel the absence of the editor. Didn't he already say that? Didn't he define that term before? No? Could this book be boiled down by about 70%?

I do have to mention the use of math. He often suggests that the reader skip a section (would that I had) as it is more "technical." But there was no difference that I could see between the "technical" and "non-technical" parts: both were vague and repetitive. There's even a "technical" appendix, which I turned to quite avidly, hoping for more concrete development of Taleb's ideas. But no. All I found was a brilliant exhibit of how to detect math BS: if an author provides an equation that includes variables that are not defined anywhere in the text, then the equation is meaningless and the author is blowing smoke.

In the economic world, Taleb is a bit more persuasive. The law of unintended consequences is well-known, and it's no surprise that efforts to protect this market or that industry are usually lobbyist-hatched schemes to assist those least in need of assistance. Where firms are able to succeed in spite of challenges, they have often grown strong enough to challenge firms grown in the hothouse environment of closed markets. If Taleb had written about this, it might have been as good a book as The Black Swan. But, with his FU money and his goal of becoming a philosopher, he must have decided that was too pedestrian.
Profile Image for Alfredo.
70 reviews27 followers
January 30, 2013
This book has been such a disappointment...

It started absolutely great and has an idea (antifragility) that is worthy and notable and interesting. Wait, let me back up from the beginning: I could not finish this book.

When I read non fiction I tend to stick to certain rules:

1) I want to learn from the books I read. I tend not to read Mathematics, for example, except in formal context, since normally when I read Math being exposed to the general public I noticed how poorly they are really explaining the concepts.

2) I don't read books if I agree with the conclusion. For example, since I am an atheist, I seldom read books on the subject of why we should be atheists, I enjoy the rest of Richard Dawkins works.

3) I refused to be bored. Despite the previous points I do not read books on astrology, for example, because I am certain they will not convince me of their truth (I won't learn from them), but even more certain I will find them utterly and completely boring.

This book started as an amazing jewel. A book where I was reaching for the, thankfully virtual, dictionary almost in every page. When I read the page, almost at the beginning of the book, that said:

"Now we aim--after some work--to connect in the reader's mind, with a single thread, elements seemingly far apart, such as Cato the Elder, Nietzsche, Thales of Miletus, the potency of the system of city-states, the sustainability of artisans, the process of discovery, the onesidedness of opacity, financial derivatives, antibiotic resistance, bottom-up systems, Socrates' invitation to overrationalize, how to lecture birds, obsessive love, Darwinian evolution, the mathematical concept of Jensen's inequality, optionality and option theory, the idea of ancestral heuristics, the works of Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, Wittgenstein's antirationalism, the fraudulent theories of the economics establishment, tinkering and bricolage, terrorism exacerbated by death of its members, an apologia for artisanal societies, the ethical flaws of the middle class, Paleo-style workouts (and nutrition), the idea of medical iatrogenics, the glorious notion of the magnificent (megalopsychon), my obsession with the idea of convexity (and my phobia of concavity), the late-2000s banking and economic crisis, the misunderstanding of redundancy, the difference between tourist and flâneur, etc. All in one single--and, I am certain, simple--thread."

I thought I was in for the biggest treat in reading since Wittgenstein.

Alas, though the book starts in a wonderful way and the idea of antifragility is an amazing idea, at some point you realize something is happening. At first, the author criticizes pseudo scientificism, then stars swearing for Baal. That is followed by an exposition of the trivial truth that there are options outside finance that are poorly priced, as if that was a hidden, previously unknown idea. And finally, around the middle of the book, he dismisses science all together. He claims, and, unfortunately, fails to prove, that science does not produce most of the technological (and others? Not clear) innovations through history. He does this through the simple method of claiming we got it backwards, then claiming that in some cases some people claim we got it backwards, then admitting that there may be a few cases where we got it right, but that those are not important. All this starts with some academicians giving birds lectures on how to fly... Before you continue reading this review, may I remind you again that I could not finish this book? It became boring. Furthermore, if you agree with the author, I should point out that I am, of course, a sworn enemy of what he exposes, having a PhD in mathematics and all. Never lectured birds though, just taught some calculus and functional analysis to non flying human beings.

Case in point. He claims Euclid results aren't used in Architecture. Then admits that the Pythagorean Theorem is used somewhat in architecture. Who has claim Euclid was central to architecture is not clear... But this represents an ignorance of what Euclid did. He was formalizing previous knowledge. This knowledge was not all original, though some was. To say that people knew some of the things Euclid did before he wrote his books, through trial and error is trivial. Before Pythagoras, the Chinese and the Babylonians knew examples of Pythagorean Triangles, the Chinese may even have known the theorem. What we appreciate from Pythagoras is the proof, which Euclid wrote, not claiming it was being written for the first time. To claim that the pythagorean theorem or trigonometry wasn't used in architecture or engineering before the renaissance is just mere blindness. Go ahead, attempt to build a tunnel or measure a distance or calculating how many stones you need for that door, without anything in the books of Euclid. I'll wait. Yes, people didn't cite or knew Euclid, but they were using the results, not referencing scientific literature.

To say that academic research is not based on trial and error is not just a mistake. but not having and inkling of what is involved in any type of academic research, at least in the hard sciences. Academic research, even in mathematics, consist of nothing but trial and error! Yes, afterwards we write the papers as if we knew everything all along, but that is not the practice of science, but its result.

To then say that academic research has not contributed to innovations in technology and to try to claim that "drop outs' have innovated more is confusing the business of technology with technology itself, is ignoring what cryptography is, and how it developed, is ignoring the irony of the applicability of Hardy's mathematical results, is ignoring the history of the World Wide Web, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, NASA, HP, and a million others. It's, simply, claiming as true what you wanted to be true, without examining it honestly. To use the internet as an example of academic research not contributing in technology is to deny a reality that I lived.

At the end, this book is dishonest and boring. Yes, it may have something to be learned from it, but it is an injustice to try to pass crummy thinking as if it was part of a great idea.
Profile Image for Dmitri.
9 reviews10 followers
April 24, 2013
What a frustrating book.

10% of it was brilliant and original ideas - I was very glad to learn about antifragility and optionality as it relates to life and business.

Unfortunately, the other 90% of it was spent whining (I can't describe it any other way) and moralizing, of the most weaksauce variety. Ugh.

Still worth reading, if you're patient, or if you can skim heavily through his "modern society sucks, the Romans were awesome!" diatribes.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,822 reviews284 followers
April 14, 2023
I've been reading this book, Antifragile, for almost four weeks. I call it reading. I've turned all the pages. I've read all the words. That's reading, right?

Or is it?

I started off pretty well, somehow managing to get my brain around the whole idea of antifragile, a word the author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, admits he made up. There is no real word in English that properly names this idea. Everyone understands the idea of fragile, something that is destroyed when stressed. But the opposite of fragile is more than just something that survives difficulties. Antifragility, Taleb tells us, is the idea of a phenomenon that goes beyond mere resilience; antifragility is the idea of something that actually improves with difficulties and uncertainty.

Taleb gives us lots of great examples of things that are antifragile: "...evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance...even our own existence as a species on this planet."

I'm high-five-ing him, right and left...love this idea of antifragile, Taleb.

That was the Prologue, however. Round about the second or third page of Chapter 1, I find that I'm reading along, with no idea what Mr. Taleb is explaining. He tries, he really does, and now and then I read a paragraph and think I'm back on the highway. The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology, for example. (How well do I know that department, the people who lecture to birds about proper techniques for flying, observe and write reports about the birds' flying abilities, and then seek funding to ensure that the lectures will continue!) But, soon I'm back driving in the dark again.

I don't know if I really read this book. Can I add it to my 2013 Book Log? Does it count? Please don't ask me to summarize it or outline it or (heaven forbid!) don't test me on it.

But if I didn't really read it, why did I like it so much? And why can't I stop thinking about it?

Maybe what I did when I read Antifragile was antireading. Maybe antireading is the kind of reading where you turn the pages and read the words, but understand only a smidgen of what's there, and then you think about it for weeks, and come back to the book again and again, and maybe try to reread it, and it tweaks your map about this life, even through you really didn't understand much of what you read to begin with.

Maybe antireading is the best kind of reading of all.
Profile Image for James Johnson.
518 reviews8 followers
August 30, 2013
The author somehow is able to pull off sounding like an arrogant prick and simultaneously like an insecure whiner. The rare examples when the author wrote something that was true or significant do not offset the hundred of pages of unsubstantiated assertions and purely fabricated nonsense.
Profile Image for Mario Tomic.
159 reviews309 followers
May 17, 2015
This is one of the most important books I've ever read, it opened my eyes to entire new mindset and gave me a new framework for understanding the world. I know some of you reading this book will find the cocky tone of the author unbearable but just keep plowing through, the ideas shared inside are based on a very powerful logic that's hard to argue against. If I had to pick the 2 big ideas of the book I would say they are:
1. Design your life around anti-fragility (allow the stress of life to strengthen you) rather than breaking (being fragile) or being robust (denying change, not improving). Example: If you pick a glass jar off the floor and drop it, it will break if you drop from enough height, it's fragile. If you pick up a rubber ball off the floor and drop it, it will bounce instead of breaking, it's robust and will be unchanged. The third category most people don't know about is being anti fragile. If you jump off the floor and land again, your legs are becoming stronger. Stress with proper dosage is therefor good for the body and will improve you over time.
2. The world is mostly non-linear. Example: There's a height from which you can drop that glass jar and it won't break but just go a bit height than that it will break. Those 2 outcomes are entirely different. So only a small difference can have a large impact on the outcome. Avoid situations with limited upside and very large non-linear downside which are as the author says "sucker’s bets" and instead seek situations which have limited downside and very large non-linear upside.
One thing about this book is that it's not easy to digest, it took me longer than usual to read it because of the complexity of ideas presented inside and my suggestion is don't rush it. Think about how this applies in your life and the world around you. Bottom-line: finish whatever book you are currently reading (assuming you like it) and then read Antifragile next, you will not regret it.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,536 followers
August 3, 2013
I had previously read Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable; I enjoyed it, and this book is definitely better. Taleb has a very non-traditional style of writing--often conversational, historical, philosophical, and scientific--all at the same time.

Taleb's basic thesis is that people and institutions are either fragile, robust, or antifragile. A fragile person is one who thinks he can predict the future--and when things go very sour, he is sorely hurt, usually in a financial way. A robust person is one who has set himself up so that he is neutral to downturn episodes. An antifragile person knows that he cannot predict the future, especially outliers and catastrophic downturns. So, he has situated himself so that in normal times he may lose a little, but when a downturn occurs, he stands to gain--a lot.

Taleb writes,
In short, the fragilista (medical, economic, social planning) is one who makes you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.

He writes a lot about the policy fragilista "... who mistakes the economy for a washing machine that continuously needs fixing (by him) and blows it up ..." and "... financial fragilista who makes people use risk models that destroy the banking system (then uses them again." And the fragile financial people will claim that all is right with the world. Then, after a financial disaster they will try to rewrite history, claiming that they predicted the disaster, and tried to avert it.

Taleb is very outspoken in his opinions. When he published The Black Swan he was the recipient of many attacks. With this book, he should be the recipient of many more, stronger attacks. He is definitely against academics who do not have any "skin in the game", and comes out heavily in favor of small businesses; he believes that "...small commerce is door to tolerance".

Taleb is extremely critical of fragile institutions. He considers the Office of Management and Budget to be a bunch of scam artists, who are arrogant to believe they can predict the future.

Taleb is against much of the scientific basic research as practiced by academics. He uses a metaphor of academics using arcane jargon and mathematics, lecturing birds on how to fly. Then the birds actually fly, so the academics take credit for successfully teaching them, and get government grants. Of course the metaphor sounds silly, but replace "birds" with "men", and you get the picture. Taleb mentions the Yiddish saying, "If the student is smart, the teacher takes the credit." Furthermore, Taleb criticizes academics who use statistics to prove a hypothesis. He accuses them of "cherry picking" with statistics. Sciences that do not use statistics for proofs (like physics) are not so prone to this approach.

It is obvious, too, that Taleb had a lot of fun writing this book. For example, he proposed a rather simple financial concept that the experts considered to be too trivial to be true. So he writes,
According to the wonderful principle that one should use people's stupidity to have fun, I invited my friend Raphael Douady to collaborate in expressing this simple idea using the most opaque mathematical derivations, with incomprehensible theorems that would take half a day (for a professional) to understand.
Then the experts started to agree with him!

Taleb is a moralist, and has lots of ethical lessons to give. For example, he writes that one of the purposes of religion is to protect us from scientism. He hates futurists like Ray Kurzweill, who he calls the "anti-me". He also detests people who greedily use invisible "optionality" to get ahead at the expense of others. I won't explain optionality here, other than to say that it is the use of asymmetry that only has an upside (for oneself) and no downside (except perhaps for others). He also hates journalists who help to instigate violence and wars, with no negative consequences when the outcomes are horrific.

The two appendices are quite unique for a book like this. The first appendix uses graphs to portray all of the interesting concepts that he introduced throughout the book. The second appendix uses some rather technical mathematics to illustrate his ideas. At a few places in the book, especially with the philosophical topics, the writing becomes a bit tedious and sometimes strays off-topic. But overall, this is a marvelous book that is both entertaining and profound.

Profile Image for Matt.
139 reviews5 followers
June 27, 2015
I sat on this review for a long time, because this book bothered me. I really disliked both the author and his work. The writing is punchy, blustery, privileged, and utterly without charm. Taleb barely dips his toe into each topic before asserting that he has proven another point. Antifragile is very weak on evidence.

You have to worry about an author that thinks he can vocalize an argument through Tony Soprano that defeats Socrates(!!!). Further, he is on Al-Ghazali's side, a Spanish Muslim who is the chief evil responsible for Islam falling from its tolerant golden age into its present dark age. Big time warning bells!!!

No serious proof or consideration of counterexamples enters into a discussion of the superiority of city-states over today's political arrangements. Taleb argues that war is more prevalent today for a couple of pages and considers the argument won (something Steven Pinker argues against for 832 pages in Better Angels of our Nature). He says that there were no dental cavities in the past; Jared Diamond says that primitive man often died because of dental issues. Taleb calls the Code of Hammurabi "more advanced" (381). Really? A code of laws that calls for the innocent son of a builder to be killed for the builder's shortcomings is more advanced?

He argues that, in the medical world, the "iatrogenics of the last century" is a detriment, acting as if is he unaware of the vast improvements in real-world medical results (vaccines, pregnancy-related care, life expectancy...). The quacks that Taleb loves so well have accomplished none of this.

When Taleb thinks he is making an argument he is usually making a weak excuse instead of a legitimate point. Often his arguments take the form of insults (he often calls his opponents "nerds", he uses "businessmen" is a bad word, he uses negative physical characteristics to describe opponents - he likes to suggest that they are fat slobs).

I would not recommend this to anyone. Don't read it.
Profile Image for Annie.
827 reviews835 followers
October 1, 2016
Antifagile points out the value of systems that gain from disorder, chaos, or volatility. For example, a fragile state is catching a disease, a neutral state is avoiding exposure to anyone infected with the disease, and antifragile state is being vaccinated (where a small dosage produces immunity to the disease). There are many examples in the book, like lack of physical exertion, walking, and jogging. The rigorous activity of jogging increases health benefits, whereas no stressors to the body make it fragile.

After the point is made, the rest of the book is filled with a lot ranting about others being wrong and the author being right. I stopped reading the book after halfway through.
Profile Image for Will Ansbacher.
306 reviews86 followers
January 31, 2018
I sometimes receive emails from demented would-be Nobel prizewinners with titles like “the Fallacy of Einsteinian Hadronic Universes” that academics have apparently conspired to have suppressed. They’re incomprehensible of course, and I don’t read them. But I did read Antifragile. All of it, including the appendix.

Oh, god, where to begin? This is one big ol’ mess of a book. It would be mildly entertaining as an autobiography, and bears a resemblance to Monty Python in places, but it isn’t supposed to be either of those.

Reading between the lines (rather easy because he is disarmingly frank about his emotions and reactions) Mr Taleb was clearly outraged and humiliated by a rejection from a prestigious Ivy-League university, (probably Harvard), as the book drips with contempt for academics in general, and the economic fraternity in particular. With good reason perhaps – economics is not called The Dismal Science for nothing. Despite that, he is now an international celebrity. But I don’t know why -this is the most demented, scatter-brained mixture of blindingly-obvious platitudes, mis-applied analogies, extended references to the Greek and Roman Classics, and homespun truths that I have ever waded through.

Yes, I read the whole thing because I still believe there are some grains of truth here. In fact, I have a lot of sympathy with many of his views – the financial sector (where previously he worked as a derivatives trader) IS a self-serving, bombastic, bloated time bomb of greed. That seems to have been a shock to the young Taleb. He was a naive graduate in the mathematical theory of Derivatives trading (I think) when he first discovered that colossal fortunes were being made by the pit traders who knew nothing about theory or even the products they were trading. (His friend Fat Tony, who appears throughout the book, was one of those traders). From this initial shock he formulated the idea that the theories themselves were crap, but there must be something systematic you could extract from the underlying variances (ie, uncertainties).

So, “Antifragile” is NOT a theory -- he thinks they’re all crap, (except physics theories – yay, physics! ) let’s just say it’s a mantra or shibboleth -- that you don’t need to know anything to profit from randomness; indeed knowledge itself is inhibiting. But wait, there’s more! In addition to this non-theory, he actually does have a theory that all economists ignore “non-linear” effects that lie at the heart of his Antifragile mantra. Got that? No, nor did I.
But he does go on (and on) about non-linear responses, and the “graphs” don’t help. Oh, god, the graphs – they could be anything. Didn’t anyone tell him that the axes at least need labels? It all reminds me of Monty Python’s manic economists: “this graph represents 56% of the population, while this graph represents 73% of the population!”

Had he stopped there it would have been a well-meaning but rather incomprehensible rant against conventional economics. But he went on to apply his grand idea to everything else.

So the message of this book, if I can condense its 500+ pages, is this: “The World’s a Crazy Place, but someone has to profit. Be one of those people (the AntiFragile)”. That takes about, oh, the first ten pages. The rest is basically one long and repetitive rant against the opposing camp.

For in this bipolar world of his, the fragile – the boring and controlling “fragilistas” - are cowed by uncertainty, grasp at the illusion of stability and are generally hostile to the exciting, life-giving antifragile opportunists. The fragile include the dastardly “Soviet-Harvard” system (I did not make that up) that locked him out of academia, and is mentioned more than a few times. They are also suckers that the antifragile can and should take for a ride (this does seem to be a bit too revealing on Taleb’s part).

But, though long and rambling, it is not actually a dull book. For in many places it is unintentionally hilarious. I rolled my eyes many times, and J. did say that she had never heard me laugh out loud at anything connected with economics or politics before – e.g., there is what one could call the Parable of the Women who Marry Economists but have the Love-child of Rock Stars. This was to illustrate the concept that you should be heavily invested in safety but have the audacity to gamble on a long shot that could make you fabulously rich. Provided you did not care about being rich. At least I think that was the message.

He is also not a mean person. In fact, he does have his heart in the right place as far as recognizing that certain people need a helping hand in life. But the boundary between legitimate help and smothering control is razor-thin and never defined, and woe betide you if you cross it, you fragilista! I’m talking to you, economist/town planner/big pharma/scientist/academic/soccer mom! Soccer moms?? Yes, you are guilty of “touristification” of your young charges.

Taleb loves bathetic lists and invented words like this. I am not sure if they are supposed to be an attempt at humour, but they tend to reveal more about Mr T than anything else.
There is a delightful table of various grand human enterprises – science, medicine, education, literature, town planning and so on – and the ills that result from excessive control by the fragilista. My favourite is “literature”, for which the controlling evil is ... “copy editors trying to change your text."

Antifragile covers everything - Wisdom of the Ancients, Traditional Ways of Knowing and Grandmothers figure prominently. (These are Grandmothers from the Old Country, not those who were Soccer Moms some 20 years ago, obviously!). So does Fat Tony who at one point has a verbal sparring match with Socrates. (spoiler alert – Fat Tony wins, of course, and that is pure Monty Python).
There are also rather too many comparisons showing the Mafia in an uncomfortably favourable light. One such passage contrasts the neurotic persona (typical fragilista) with one who is quietly confident and in control: the antifragile example he uses is a Mafia thug who has just eliminated some 18 of his opponents.

OK, joking aside, it is very easy to mock this bloated book. But the message in AF is profoundly disturbing. As Taleb points out, our complex interconnected society is very definitely fragile, while what he is advocating is only an individual opportunistic response. But it was just this unregulated trading in products that were either not understood (by his venerated Fat Tony) or intentionally misrepresented (by Goldman-Sachs) that was the direct cause of the recent financial chaos and collapse. And Taleb himself recognizes that the financial institutions that he loathes so much were, by his definition, superbly antifragile in the sense that they were handsomely bailed out by the suckers – taxpayers like Mr T. So that makes us all, um, “fragile”. Oops.

So in short, this book would be a rather sick prescription for the future if it actually made any sense, and it is a bit depressing that so many seem to have been taken in by Antifragile.
Profile Image for Janet Eshenroder.
610 reviews5 followers
February 12, 2013
I really tried to finish this e-book (I might not have picked it if I had realized it was so long and would be so hard to stomach). I hate to give an opinion on any book until I've finished and given it every possible chance of redeeming itself. I struggled through more than a third of the 500+ pages before calling it quits. It is just not worth wasting the time.
The author has such a pompous view of himself that the first quarter of the book left me positively nauseated. I tried to put personal feelings aside, giving the benefit of the doubt (perhaps he was "challenging" my old mindsets), and focusing on the ideas. I read on because of so many positive reviews.

For a while the book did get better. There was less of the author talking about himself as brilliant and misunderstood (or resented) and more about his actual ideas. There were some good ideas, though I found little that has not been put forth before, using other terms of definition. Perhaps some of these concepts aren't common knowledge, but neither is it the first time anybody had an insight on these points.

He liked keeping most systems simple and unregulated. No big business or big government. He usually railed on government regulations, though he believed in "staunch intervention in some areas, such as ecology or to limit the economic distortions and moral hazards caused by large corporations." Since no one can even out the ups and downs of life, his advice to individuals was a "dumbbell approach" of balancing stability with risks, rather than trying for safety in the middle. Anticipate the worst and build in redundant or independent systems,quit relying on past history and "tweaking" the established system if you want true safety in a changing and unpredictable world. No problem with many of his points, but they are not radically new.I find it annoying that the author makes up his own words to identify concepts already adequately defined elsewhere.

Reading this book was like being stuck on vacation with a know-it-all conspiracy theorist who never lets up. The nicest way another reviewer put it was that he was like Crazy Uncle Fred who's decided he sees the answer to the big problem but people in general are too stupid to see and acknowledge true genius when they meet it in person. There you are, stuck at the table, unable to politely slip away.

The author rambles, he rants, he sees no reason to let an editor review his work (it needed a good editor). There are good ideas that could have been covered using far less "ink."

I'd suggest reading the reviews and gleaning the few interesting ideas presented, rather than buying the book and struggling through 500+ pages.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
April 11, 2018
What hilariously self-important hypocrisy! I should give it 5 stars though just because it's nice to read a book that makes your blood boil and that helps you crystalize your world view.

Let me say up front that I wholeheartedly agree with the nugget of his thesis, which is basically (though he would claim it's much more original than this): what doesn't kill you makes your stronger. Basically, we need to embrace certain kinds of shocks and risks and that developing anti-fragility is key. I also wholeheartedly agree with his whole section on medicine and and drug interventions.

But the nuggets of useful advice are delivered in a shit sandwich of anti-intellectualism, cockiness and so much snark. He hates "fragilistas" and basically all academics, especially economists. And don't get me wrong--academics are super petty and often wrong. But then he goes on to make his case by citing a ton of academic research and studies (some done by him and co-authors). So it's not academics he hates--it's anyone who disagrees with him.

Then there's the absurd self-regard. The part where I laughed out loud was not when he said he could bench press 330 and looked like a bodyguard, it's when he imagines a dialogue with socrates and he totally stumps him! Oh and no one understands Seneca the way Taleb does. Also, he and he alone (and I guess his fat Jersey trader buddies) all predicted the financial crisis. H

He hates every body except "real men" who are business bros. He definitely hates soccer moms. In fact, I think this can best be lumped in with all the other screeds against "feminization" and if you read "academic" as "girly men," this book just sounds like a schoolyard taunt and a chest thumping screed that we stop being sissies and go back to the world where we were all real men. And you knew he'd be all about cross fit and paleo, right?

It's too bad because I really did like his other books Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.
Profile Image for Douglas Wilson.
Author 284 books3,527 followers
December 1, 2017
I really enjoyed Taleb’s book The Black Swan, and picked up his Antifragile shortly after it came out. I started it, and was enjoying it, but stalled out for some reason. I don’t remember. It was dark. They were big. His book found itself in my lamentably large and scattered collection of partly read books. But somewhere in my mind was the thought of finishing it, which I just did a short time ago. Really glad I did.

There are places here and there where you have to tolerate some dogmatic bombast from Taleb—he is the kind of guy, as the saying goes, who is “sometimes wrong, but never in doubt”—but the central thesis of this book is pure gold.

Some might want to dismiss his central thesis as a glib attempt to prove that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Taleb knows this, but so did your grandmother. The real point of the book has to do with what toughness actually looks like, how it behaves, how it configures itself before the going gets tough—in short, how does it anticipate the inevitable tough times? And this is where Taleb’s point gets really interesting and is entirely counterintuitive.

Institutions, corporations, management systems, biological organisms can be fragile, robust, or antifragile. According to Taleb, fragile systems require predictability. They want the environment to be placid, and they want as much protection as possible from external stressors. Robust systems do okay when they are in trouble; they are resilient. But antifragile systems are complicated, and they positively thrive in the midst of chaos. Chaos is the soil in which they grow and flourish.

In peaceful times, a fragile system can give out the appearance of stability, but this is just a mask for the fragility. And because it is easy to be foolish, many people strive for just that appearance. Not many people know that the house built on sand had a five-star rating.

“Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (Matt. 7:24–27).

That’s your fragile system, right there.

Two historical examples of fragile systems that did not appear to be at all fragile were the Soviet Union prior to its collapse, and medieval Christendom prior to the Reformation. When subsequent events overtook them—the kind of rare but extreme happening that Taleb calls a Black Swan—their fragility was exposed.

Fragile systems are cowardly, and function in a CYA mode much of the time. Because the world is filled with risk, the way that fragile systems manage this is by trying to outsource the risk. But the best way to cultivate an antifragile system is not through recklessness, but by means of a carefully thought-through “skin in the game” approach.

A lot of pastors could benefit from gleaning the principles found in this book. They want to build a peaceful church that is free of controversy, and so instead they build a fragile one that is entirely vulnerable to controversy. In the name of fighting off infections, they put their immune system under a ban. The elders issue a chin-stroking statement that antibodies are the troublers of the body.

In case anybody is still curious about it, the applications for the Reformed evangelical network in North America are numerous. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard pastors insisting on fragility as though it were one of the fruits of the Spirit. They demand cultivation of fragility as though it were a cardinal virtue. And because this is how the world works, what they have insisted upon they have certainly gotten. Fragility is our middle name.

“And he gave them their request; But sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15).
Profile Image for Jeffrey (Akiva) Savett.
586 reviews29 followers
March 12, 2019
In the conclusion of this book, Taleb reports that a friend of his asked him to explain his core argument while standing on one foot. Obviously an allusion to the famous story in which a gentile promises to convert if Rabbi Hillel can explain Judaism while standing on one foot, Taleb offers, "the best way to verify if you are alive is to check whether you like variations."

I'll admit at the beginning of this review: there were sections of this book I had to skip. More on why in a bit.

Taleb's thesis is that modernity is the attempt of human beings to turn the random into the predictable and stable, and that this attempt ironically causes MORE randomness and disorder. Taleb demonstrates that in evolution, economics, philosophy, ethics, politics and elsewhere, the "Antifragile," things which BENEFIT and get STRONGER due to stressors are the rule, not the exception. He believes that modernity, and our attempts to make our lives predictable and orderly only bring FRAGILITY, which either gets WEAKER with stressors or at best, barely survives stressors intact.

This seems very compelling. Given my personal medical history as a Crohn's sufferer who has undergone five surgeries, the prospect that all of this suffering is actually making me STRONGER and more resilient rather than broken and weaker is inspiring. Taleb doesn't pretend that this theory is novel; indeed, much of his evidence is derived from ancient and classical wisdom and cultures. He notes that the maxim "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," isn't NEW, just that it's almost completely ignored by policy makers, economists, parents who try to protect their children from all harm, and his previous colleagues in risk management positions.

HOWEVER, and this is a big however, I find Taleb's tone and style incredibly off-putting. It's clear that he has an axe to grind with Ivy League educated leaders and policy makers. He even coins a particularly destructive pattern of fragile thought "Harvard/Soviet" something or other. In constantly trying to position himself as an Everyman speaking in the voice "Fat Tony" from Brooklyn, Taleb fails at every turn to NOT sound like an arrogant, long winded, elitist. Anyone whose short bio on the back flap describes him as "a flaneur meditating in cafes," is going to have trouble connecting with the reader. Don't be ashamed, I had to look up "flaneur" as well. It's someone who spends his or her time WALKING in a meditative and philosophical manner in the spirit of Montaigne. Wow. Another reviewer, who actually LIKED the book, described Taleb as an asshole. Unlike her, I find his personal "ass-holier-than-thou-ness" inseparable from his argument.

So Taleb is QUITE in love with the sound of his own voice and his verbosity, intentionally obscure chapter titles, and inability to maintain a straightforward argument free of bombast is the reason I found it impossible to read this book from cover to cover.

Perhaps the problem is as simple as this: Taleb's central thesis about antifragility is written on the cover. It's interesting. It's a compelling idea. And really, Taleb could have devoted 35 concentrated pages advising us how to better embrace random events and stressors (Black Swans he calls them in his previous book) at work, in raising our children, and with regard to our own health. That would have been a five star endeavor and could have appeared as a lengthy New Yorker feature. But the room that a book length work gives Taleb to stretch out his legs is to his detriment. He is in dire need of editor unafraid to be called "too stupid to understand" to rein in his oversized ego and overwrought style.

I am left interested and disappointed. Not a pleasant feeling after devoting so much time and concentration following Taleb's circuitous verbal "flaneur-ing."
Profile Image for Herve.
93 reviews207 followers
January 22, 2013
Here’s probably one of the toughest review I ever had to write and I am not sure it is a good one, even if the topic I am addressing is great and important. But it’s been a challenge to summarize what I learnt: Nicholas Nassim Taleb gives in this follow-up to the Black Swan a very interesting analysis of how the world can be less exposed to Black Swans, not by becoming more robust only, but by becoming antifragile, i.e. by benefiting from random events. His views include tensions between the individual and the groups, how distributed systems are more robust than centralized ones, how small unites are less fragile than big ones. This does not mean Taleb is against orgamizations, governments or laws as too little intervention induces totally messy situations. It is about putting the cursor at the right level. Switzerland represents for Taleb a good illustration of good state organizations with little central government, a lot of local responsibility. He has similar analogies for the work place, where he explains that an independent worker, who knows well his market, is less fragile to crises than big corporations and their employees. One way to make systems less fragile is to put some noise, some randomness which will stabilize them. This is well-known in science and also in social science. Just remember Athens was randomly nominating some of its leaders to avoid excess!
Now let me quote the author. These are notes only but for serious reviews, visit the author’s website, fooledbyrandomness. First Taleb is, as usual, unfair but maybe less than in the Black Swan. Here is an example: “Academics (particularly in social science) seem to distrust each other, […] not to mention a level of envy I have almost never seen in business… My experience is that money and transactions purify relations; ideas and abstract matters like “recognition” and “credit” warp them, creating an atmosphere of perpetual rivalry. I grew to find people greedy for credentials nauseating, repulsive, and untrustworthy.” [Page 17] Taleb is right about envy and rivalry but wrong in saying it is worse in academia; I think it is universal! In politics for example. But when money is available, maybe rivalry counts less than where there is little.
Now a topic close to my activity: “This message from the ancients is vastly deeper than it seems. It contradicts modern methods and ideas of innovation and progress on many levels, as we tend to think that innovation comes from bureaucratic funding, through central planning, or by putting people through a Harvard Business School class by one Highly Decorated Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (who never innovated anything) or hiring a consultant (who never innovated anything). This is a fallacy – note for now the disproportionate contribution of uneducated technicians and entrepreneurs to various technological leaps, from the Industrial Revolution to the emergence of Silicon Valley, and you will see what I mean.” [Page 42] [Extreme and unfair again, even if not fully wrong!]
“The antifragility of some comes necessarily at the expense of the fragility of others. In a system, the sacrifices of some units – fragile units, that is, or people – are often necessary for the well-being of other units or the whole. The fragility of every start-up is necessary for the economy to be antifragile, and that’s what makes, among other things, entrepreneurship work: the fragility of the individual entrepreneurs and their necessarily high failure rate”. [Page 65] What surprised me later is that Taleb shows that this is true of restaurants (not many succeed) as much as of high-tech start-ups. So it is not only about the uncertainty of new markets, but about uncertainty above all.
Mathematics of convexity
I have to admit Taleb is not easy to read. Not because it is complex (sometimes his ideas are pure common sense), but because it is dense with different even if consistent ideas. The book is divided in 25 chapters, but also in 7 books. In fact, Taleb insists on it, he might have written 7 different books! Even his mathematics is simple. His definition of convexity is a little strange though I found it interested (I teach convex optimization, and you might not know, it was the topic of my PhD!).
Jensen inequality is interesting [Pages 342, 227 – Jensen was an amateur mathematician!]– the convex transformation of a mean is less or equal than the mean after convex transformation. Again individual (concave, we die) vs. collective (convex, antifragile, benefits from individual failures). So risk taking is good for collectivity if with insurance mechanisms. Risk taking + insurance vs. speculation with no value added. An example of a short and deep idea: “Decision making is based on payoffs, not knowledge”. [Page 337]
“Simply, small probabilities are convex to errors of computation. One needs a parameter, called standard deviation, but uncertainty about standard deviation has the effect of making the small probabilities rise. Smaller and smaller probabilities require more precision in computation. In fact small probabilities are incomputable, even if one has the right model – which we of course don’t.” [Taleb fails to mention Poincare yet he quoted him in the Black Swan, but whatever.]
A visible tension between individual and collective interests
Quotes again: “What the economy, as a collective, wants [business school graduates] to do is not to survive, rather to take a lot, a lot of imprudent risks themselves and be blinded by the odds. Their respective industries improve from failure to failure. Natural and nature-like systems want some overconfidence on the part of the individual economic agents, i.e., the overestimation of their chances of success and underestimation of the risks of failure in their business, provided their failure does not impact others. In other words, they want local, but not global overconfidence”. […] In other words, some class of rash, even suicidal, risk taking is healthy for the economy – under the conditions that not all people take the same risks and that these risks remain small and localized. Now, by disrupting the model, as we will see, with bailouts, governments typically favor a certain class of firms that are large enough to require being saved in order to avoid contagion to other businesses. This is the opposite of healthy risk taking; it is transferring fragility from the collective to the unfit. […] Nietzsche’s famous expression “what does not kill me makes me stronger” can be easily implemented as meaning Mithridatization or Hormesis but it may also mean “what did not kill me did not make me stronger, but it spared me because I am stronger than others; but it killed others and the average population is now stronger because the weak are gone”. […] This visible tension between individual and collective interests is new in history. […] Some of the ideas about fitness and selection are not very comfortable to this author, which makes the writing of some sections rather painful – I detest the ruthlessness of selection, the inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature. I detest the notion of improvement thanks to harm to others. As a humanist, I stand against the antifragility of systems at the expense of individuals, for if you follow the reasoning, this makes us humans individually irrelevant. ” [Pages 75-77]
A National Entrepreneur Day
“Compare the entrepreneurs to the bean-counting managers of companies who climb the ladder of hierarchy with hardly ever any real downside. Their cohort is rarely at risk. My dream – the solution – is that we would have a National Entrepreneur Day, with the following message: Most of you will fail, disrespected, impoverished, but we are grateful for the risks you are taking and the sacrifices you are making for the sake of the economic growth of the planet and pulling others out of poverty. You are the source of our antifragility. Our nation thanks you.” [Page 80]
Local distributed systems, randomness and modernity
“You never have a restaurant crisis. Why? Because it is composed of a lot of independent and competing small units that do not individually threaten the system and make it jump from one state to another. Randomness is distributed rather than concentrated.” [Page 98]
“Adding a certain number of randomly selected politicians to the process can improve the functioning of the parliamentary system.” [Page 104]
“Modernity is the humans’ large-scale domination of the environment, the systematic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors. We are going into a phase of modernity marked by the lobbyist, the very, very limited liability corporation, the MBA, sucker problems, secularization, the tax man, fear of the boss…” [Page 108]
“Iatrogenics means literally “caused by the healer”. Medical error still currently kills between three times (as accepted by doctors) and ten times as many people as car accidents in the United States, it is generally accepted that harm from doctors – not including risks from hospitals germs – accounts for more deaths than any single cancer. Iatrogenics is compounded by the “agency problem” which emerges when one party (the agent) has personal interested that are divorced from those of the one using his services (the principal). An agency problem is present with the stockbroker and medical doctor whose ultimate interest is their own checking account, not your financial and medical health.” [Pages 111-112]
Theories and intervention.
“Theories are super-fragile outside physics. The very designation “theory” is even upsetting. In social science, we should call these constructs “chimeras” rather than theories. [Now you understand why Taleb has many enemies.] A main source of the economic crisis started in 2007 in the Iatrogenics of the attempt by […] Alan Greenspan to iron out the “boom-bust” cycle which caused risks to go hide under the carpet. The most depressing part of the Greenspan story is that the fellow was a libertarian and seemingly convinced of the idea of leaving systems to their own devices; people can fool themselves endlessly. […] The argument is not against the notion of intervention; in fact I showed above that I am equally worried about under-intervention when it is truly necessary. […] We have a tendency to underestimate the role of randomness in human affairs. We need to avoid being blinded to the natural antifragility of systems, their ability to take care of themselves and fight our tendency to harm and fragilize them by not giving them a chance to do so. […] Alas, it has been hard for me to fit these ideas about fragility within the current US political discourse. The democratic side of the US spectrum favors hyper-intervention, unconditional regulation and large government, while the Republican side loves large corporations, unconditional deregulation and militarism, both are the same to me here. Let me simplify my take on intervention. To me it is mostly about having a systematic protocol to determine when to intervene and when to leave systems alone. And we may need to intervene to control the iatrogenics of modernity – particularly the large-scale harm to the environment and the concentration of potential (though not yet manifested) damage, the kind of thing we only notice when it is too late. The ideas advanced here are not political, but risk-management based. I do not have a political affiliation or allegiance to a specific party; rather, I am introducing the idea of harm and fragility into the vocabulary so we can formulate appropriate policies to ensure we don’t end up blowing up the planet and ourselves.” [Pages 116-118]
“To conclude, the best way to mitigate interventionism is to ration the supply of information. The more data you get, the less you know.” [Page 128]
“Political and economic “tail” events are unpredictable and their probabilities are not scientifically measurable.” [Page 133]
The barbell strategy and optionality
“The Barbell strategy is a way to achieve anti-fragility, by decreasing downside rather than increasing upside, by lowering exposure to negative Black Swans. So just as Stoicism is the domestication, not the elimination, of emotions, so is the barbell a domestication, not the elimination, of uncertainty.” [Page 159] “It is a combination of two extremes, one safe and one speculative, deemed more robust than a monomodal strategy. In biological systems, the equivalent of marrying an accountant and having an occasional fling with a rock star; for a writer, getting a stable sinecure and writing without the pressures of the market. Even trial and error are a form of barbell.” [Glossary page 428]
“The strength of the computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs was precisely in distrusting market research and focus groups – those based on asking people what they want – and following his own imagination, his modus was that people don’t know what they want until you provide them with it.” [Page 171]
“America’s asset is simply risk taking and the use of optionality, the remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again and repeating failure. In modern Japan, by contrast, shame comes, with failure, which causes people to hide risks under the rug, financial or nuclear.”
“Nature does a California-style “fail early” – it has an option and uses it. Nature understands optionality effects better than humans. […] The idea is voiced by Steve Jobs in a famous speech: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” He probably meant “Be crazy but retain the rationality of choosing the upper bound when you see it.” Any trial and error can be seen as the expression of an option, so long as one is capable of identifying a favorable result and exploiting it.” [Page 181]
“Option is a substitute for knowledge- actually I don’t understand what sterile knowledge is, since it is necessarily vague and sterile. So I make the bold speculation that many things we think are derived by skill come largely from options, but well-used options, much like Thales’s situation [who had an option with olive presses – pages 173-174] rather than from what we claim to be understanding.” [Page 186]
Taleb is skeptical with experts, with anyone believing in a linear model academia -> applied science ->practice (“lecturing birds how to fly”); he believes in tinkering, heuristics, apprenticeship, and makes again many enemies for free! He claims the jet engine, financial derivatives, architecture, medicine were first developed by practitioners and then theorized by scientists, not invented or discovered by them.
Tinkering vs. research
“There has to be a form of funding that works. By some vicious turn of events, governments have gotten huge payoffs from research, but not as intended – just consider the Internet. It is just that functionaries are too teleological in the way they look for things and so are large corporations. Most large companies, such as Big Pharma, are their own enemies. Consider blue sky research, whereby grants and funding are given to people, not projects, and spread in small amounts across many researchers. It’s been reported that in California, venture capitalists tend to back entrepreneurs, not ideas. Decisions are largely a matter of opinion, strengthened with who you know. Why? Because innovations drift, and one needs flâneur-like abilities to keep capturing the opportunities that arise. The significant venture capital decisions were made without real business plans. So if there was any analysis, it had to be of a backup, confirmatory nature. Visibly the money should go to the tinkerers, the aggressive tinkerers who you trust will milk the option.” [Page 229]
“Despite the commercial success of several companies and the stunning growth in revenues for the industry as a whole, most biotechnology firms earn no profit.” [Page 237] [Optionality again]
“(i) Look for optionality; in fact, rank things according to optionality, (ii) preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended, payoffs; (iii) do not invest in business plans but in people, so look for someone capable of changing six or seven times over his career, or more (an idea that is part of the modus operandi of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen); one gets immunity from the backfit narratives of the business plan by investing in people. Make sure you are barbelled, whatever that means in your business.” [Page 238]
“I did here just debunk the lecturing-Birds-How-to-Fly epiphenomenon and the “linear model”, suing simple mathematical properties of optionality. There Is no empirical evidence to support the statement that organized research in the sense it is currently marketed leads to great things promised by universities. [Cf also Peter Thiel lamentations about the promise of technologies] Education is an institution that has been growing without external stressors; eventually the thing will collapse.” [A conclusion to book IV, page 261]
Why is fragility non linear?
“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).”
Via negativa
“We may not need a name for or even an ability to express anything. We may just say something about what it is not. Michelangelo was asked by the pope about the secret of his genius, particularly how he carved the statue of David. His answer was: It’s simple, I just remove everything that is not David.” [Page 302-304]
[…] “Charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice. Yet in practice, it is the negative that’s used by the pros. One cannot really tell if a successful person has skills, or if a person with skills will succeed – but we can pretty much predict the negative, that a person totally devoid of skills will eventually fail.”
[…] “The greatest – most robust – contribution to knowledge consist in removing what we think is wrong. We know a lot more what is wrong than what is right. Negative knowledge is more robust to error than positive knowledge. […] Since one small observation can disprove a statement, while millions can hardly confirm it [The Black Swan!], disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation. […] Let us say that, in general, failure (and disconfirmation) are more informative than success and confirmation.”
[Funnily, I remember the main critics against my book were the lack of [positive] proposal in the end. I should have said there we many about what not to do!]
“Finally, consider this modernized version in a saying from Steve Jobs: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” [Page 302-304]
Less is more
“Simpler methods for forecasting and inference can work much, much better than complicated ones. “Fast and frugal” heuristics make good decisions despite limited time. First extreme effects: there are domains in which the rare event (good or bad) plays a disproportionate share and we tend to be blind to it. Just worry about Black Swan exposures and life is easy. There may not be an easily identifiable cause for a large share of the problems, but often there is an easy solution, sometimes with the naked eye rather than the use of the complicated analyses. Yet people want more data to solve problems.” [Page 305-306]
... more on my blog...
Profile Image for Andy.
1,373 reviews465 followers
August 8, 2019
Reading this audiobook is like being stuck on a long flight next to an intelligent but cranky old man who won't stop talking for 12 hours about random factoids and pet peeves that he tells you are all connected somehow by some grand concept except he never dives deep enough on any part of his stream of consciousness discourse to really clarify what the radical paradigm shifting theory is because as far as you can tell it sounds a lot like what people in psychology have been calling resilience/coping/parenting/eustress and whatnot for a long time so maybe he's coined a new word more than a new concept and he does get many facts right that most writers get wrong all the time (like life expectancy) and he calls BS on people who deserve it (like Tom Friedman) so overall it's better than the average non-fiction best-seller but not my favorite thing.
Profile Image for Yuri Krupenin.
94 reviews313 followers
January 5, 2020
Талеб — третью книгу насилующий небольшой набор (довольно разумных, здесь без возражений) тезисов путающийся в собственной логике шарлатан. Для улучшения опыта рекомендую выпивать каждый раз, когда он использует для подкрепления очередного своего наблюдения умозаключения, опирающиеся на ранее описанные им же типичные логические ошибки. Hard mode: почитать хотя бы, скажем, Голдакра про фармакологию перед тем, как взяться за соответствующую главу Antifragile, чтобы примерно оценить, насклько Талеб охотно рассуждает о вещах, о которых не имеет даже поверхностного представления (будут и другие возможности).

Как шарлатан Талеб, впрочем, хорош: мало кто способен �� таким напором внушать клиенту чувство собственной исключительной сообразительности и незамутнённости. С нужной интонацией нашептанное на ухо "мы-то с тобой, читатель, не такие" — мощнейший инструмент, каждому хочется видеть насквозь некомпетентность учёных и экономистов. Талеб не отказывает себе и в удовольствии перечислить, кажется, все случаи, когда он (вероятней всего, по случайности) оказывался в чём-то прав, а эксперты в области — не слишком. Интересней было бы однажды ознакомиться со списком обратных ситуаций, но такое вряд ли хорошо продается.
Profile Image for Mark Galassi.
61 reviews6 followers
April 27, 2014
I could not point to a worse book that I have read.

The author is disorganized and throws a bunch of random factoids together with an unconvincing unifying theme. The lack of clarity in thinking is reminiscent of the kind of pseudo-intellectual numerology or fact-correlating that you find in works of fiction, but it is made even worse by the fact that the author seems to have a long list of axes to grind, and fills the book with petty name calling. Why is he so obsessed with the "soviet-harvard complex"?

I have the impression that good reviews of this book must come from people who felt they were supposed to "get it", but I think there is nothing to "get" in the book, starting from the introduction of a new word "antifragile", an awkward word to describe as a single phenomenon something that remains unconvincing.

As a saving grace: the author clearly has a vast culture, and a few factoids were cute when taken individually, like his pointing out that Homer used similes to describe the color of the sea because Greek at his time did not have a word for "blue". Still, I would prefer to slog through a bulleted list of factoids than to read them in his "I'm grinding an axe" framework. Reading random Wikipedia pages would be a better use of time.

For people who know Italian, here is a fantasy of how to treat people who write such poor and pretentious works -- a film critic is forced to listen to someone reading his critique:

1,329 reviews30 followers
June 13, 2013
pretty interesting basic idea that some things are not just robust/resilient/non-fragile (able to stay the same or bounce back after being subjected to stress) but actually "antifragile" or improved from their encounters with stress or disorder. An obvious example is the stress/recovery/supercompensation cycle with strenuous exercise, such that you come back from the challenge improved. He applies it much more broadly -- medicine, economic system, evolution, etc. Highly erudite writer. Makes some good points about unintended consequences, difficulties of top-down intervention/control when the system is highly complex and reacts in nonlinear, hard-to-predict fashion, etc.

So why only one star? B/c the book was so annoying I was unable to finish it. The persona of the author was more prominent than in the average blog or diary, and not in an agreeable way. His self-image as a contrarian, rebel, willing to say what no one else will, physically tough compared to wimpy academics, etc. is pushed constantly. Almost read like a Saturday Night Live parody -- the Man Who Was Right about Everything stuck in a World of Cowardly, Physically Inferior Fools.
101 reviews15 followers
April 16, 2017
It’s not what you said it's how you said it!
تقریبا همه با مفهوم شکنندگی آشنا هستن. چیزهایی که از هرج و مرج صدمه می بینن؛ شکستنی هستن. مثل شیشه. چیزهای دیگه ای هم هستن که هرج و مرج و اتفاقات تصادفی تاثیری روی اونها نداره. مثل یک تکه سنگ. یک عده ای هم هستن که از این اتفاقات سود می برن از این شرایط بهره مند می شن. مثلا وقتی شما آبله مرغون می گیرین، بعدش بدنتون قوی تر می شه. البته این اتفاقات و تصادفات تا یک حدی مفیدن. ممکنه سرطان بگیری و بمیری! این نکته مهمه: تا یک حدی.
زمان عامل قدرتمند و بی رحمیه. هیچ چیز در گذر زمان یک جور نمی مونه. کوچیک ترین خطاها یا اشکالات باعث شکنندگی سیستم می شن. در نتیجه، برای دوام آوردن در بلند مدت باید سیستم طوری باشه که این نوسانات تصادفی و اتفاقات غیرقابل پیش بینی نه تنها اون رو از بین نبره، بلکه در بلندمدت باعث پیشرفت اش بشه. باید سیستمی باشه که بتونه خودش رو بازسازی، نوسازی و تقویت کنه و از شکست های قبلی درس بگیره. به این حالت می‌گیم پادشکنندگی. فرآیند تکامل طبیعت نمونه اعلای پادشکنندگیه.
سیستم های پیچیده (از چیزهای طبیعی مثل بدن ما یا اکوسیستم دریاها گرفته تا خط تولید کارخونه و سیستم حمل و نقل و اقتصاد و موارد دیگه) دارای تعاملات و وابستگی های متقابل زیادی هستن که خیلی وقت ها حتا قابل شناسایی نیستن و در نتیجه تحت تاثیر بعضی از کنش ها، واکنش هایی می دن که برای ما قابل پیش بینی نیستن و معمولا هم این واکنش ها خطی نیست و به صورت تصاعدی یا غیرقابل پیش بینی عمل می کنه.
طبیعت برای جلوگیری از شکنندگی از فراوانی و زیاده روی استفاده می کنه. یعنی ایجاد ظرفیت بیش از حد نیاز. این ظرفیت بیش از نیاز در صورت وقوع رویدادهای تصادفی جلوی شکنندگی مثل یک ذخیره احتیاطی یا ضربه گیر عمل می کنه. در مقابل ما به دنبال کارایی و بهره وری هستیم. یعنی استفاده از حداکثر ظرفیت و منابع و هدر ند��دن هیچ چیز. در نتیجه سیستم های پیچیده ما شکننده میشن.
گاهی برای اینکه یک سیستم پادشکننده بشه نیازه که بخش های از این سیستم شکننده باشه. مثلا پرسه تکامل توی طبیعت نشون می ده که خیلی از اعضای یک گونه به روش های مختلف قربانی می شن اما در نهایت داده هایی که از مواجهه با شرایط ناملایم به دست میاد از طریق ژنتیک به نسل بعد منتقل می شه و این گونه مقاوم تر میشه. نمونه هایی هم توی جوامع ما هست که همین حالت رو داره. مثل سود جامعه از وجود کارآفرین ها که نرخ شکست خوردن بالایی دارن.
ایزوله کردن سیستم ها در برابر نوسانات و اتفاقات مختلف باعث می شه تا اونها شکننده بشن. همچنین دخالت های نا به جا و متعدد، اعتماد بیش از حد به هوش و توانایی های خودمون، و ... شکنندگی سیستم رو به دنبال داره.
داشتن آپشن مفیده و باعث پادشکنندگی می شه. ترجیحا آپشنی با احتمال ضرر صفر یا ناچیز اما احتمال سود زیاد و نامحدود. البته ممکنه شرایطی پیش بیاد که بتونی یک آپشن داشته باشی با سود خوب اما به نحوی که ضرر احتمالی این آپشن به افراد دیگه تحمیل بشه! که نویسنده به این حالت می گه گناه کبیره پادشکنندگی! خوبی آپشن به اینه که نیازی به هوش یا اطلاعات یا شانس یا .. نداره.
تاثیر زمان روی اطلاعات و تکنولوژی ها و خوراکی ها و ... هم به طرز جالبی بررسی شده. می گه قدیمی ها خوبن چون از آزمون نهایی که آزمون زمانه، جوون سالم به در بردن.
در کنار این مباحث انتقادهایی هم به کسانی که از ورود نوسانات به سیستم های بزرگی مثل اقتصاد و ... جلوگیری می کنن، یا کسانی که دخالت های بیجا توی سیستم ها می کنن یا به هزینه دیگران برای خودشون آپشن هایی رو دست و پا می کنن یا امثال اون که بهشون می گه شارلاطان، وارد کرده. با زبونی که برای اونها آزاردهنده و نامحترمانه است! البته بذله گویی و کلام نافذ از رو نمی شه نادیده گرفت. بخونین. خوبه.
My hat’s off to you, professor

12 reviews8 followers
July 8, 2015
A truly dreadful text.

The author is an extremely poor writer, both in command of language (see "non-sissy risk") and in general structure. He is also rather egomaniacal.

The claims made are either commonsensical (see other reviews) or simply wrong. Take the argument that the consolidation of the banking sector caused the recent financial crisis. The Canadian and Australian banking sectors are extremely concentrated in a handful of firms, yet both countries did not endure systemic banking crises (and haven't for quite some time).

Avoid this book at all costs.
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews7,022 followers
December 14, 2022
Taleb picks a new idea to challenge (after randomness and risk): Resilience. Taleb argues that some things are not just resilient but actually thrive in chaos and disorder. He calls these things "antifragile" and says they're a crucial part of the natural and man-made world. Taleb's main idea is that randomness and uncertainty can actually be good for us. He gives a lot of examples, but check out "The Coddling of the American Mind" to see how the idea is catching on and being applied by other thinkers.

How to be Anti-fragile? With his ongoing infatuation with the gym, he gives us: the "barbell strategy". It is about combining extreme positions or strategies to get the best of both worlds. For example, a barbell investment strategy might involve holding a lot of safe, low-risk investments and a small amount of high-risk, high-reward investments. This way, you can benefit from the upside potential of the high-risk investments without being too exposed to the downside risks.

"Antifragile" joins the ranks of unconventional and counter-intuitive (easy to do) yet important (not so easy) books out there. Read it if you can.
Profile Image for Moeen Sahraei.
29 reviews26 followers
October 26, 2020
Greatest book ever written in this subject, very practical in real life. Nassim Taleb is one of the greatest sage of the current era
Profile Image for Michael O'Brien.
307 reviews82 followers
January 9, 2019
Another thought-provoking book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the succession of his prior books, "Fooled by Randomness" and "The Black Swan", where, well before the 2008 Great Recession, his analysis of the limitations of statistical methods predicted such an event. Such events occur, ones with low predicted probability but high consequence, largely because of a misplaced confidence in the reliability of estimates and forecasts on complex systems with multiple variables --- in which a small variation on the prediction of any one of them can result in profoundly different, unexpected outcomes.

From Taleb's previous works, we learn of the fallibility and limitations in our ability to predict and, therefore, anticipate the rare, extreme event. "Antifragile" attempts to build on this. In this, Taleb is moderately successful. I was thinking, before I read this, that Taleb might point out ways in which we can eliminate fragility in a system, and, better yet, create a system or situation where one can actually gain from volatility --- becoming "antifragile". But "Antifragile" doesn't really do this in my opinion. What it does better is helping one identify situations that are "fragile" --- ones that produce only modest gains, but, with volatility or chaos, can has disastrous outcomes.

For example, Taleb points out the agency problem -- one such as in major corporations or in large governments --- where the manager is not the true owner so he follows a cosmetically sound strategy, but in a hidden way benefits him and makes him antifragile at the expense (fragility) of the true owners or society. Limited liability corporations and big bureaucracies do not come off well in Taleb's analysis --- he shows that organizations with the agency problem do not flourish long term in comparison with others such privately held companies and entrepreneurs. The degree of "skin in the game" of those taking the risks are a good way to assess the level of fragility or antifragility of a system --- and such as entrepreneurs, because they are all in on the risks they take, are, therefore, more likely to respond better to volatility than these others.

Another original term in this book that Taleb coins is "neomania" --- that tendency in human nature to embrace the new for its own sake --- often without sufficient regard for the added complexity to systems that may be added. And, as Taleb shows throughout his work, as complexity increases, so do the variables, each with its own added unknown level of uncertainties. As I read this, I reflected on the replacement in most vehicles of mechanical windows with power windows --- the mechanical window reliable and cheap to repair if it fails. On the other hand, the power window, in return for a modest convenience and novelty, being very expensive to repair when it inevitably fails to work.

Another interesting concept Taleb discusses is the "green lumber fallacy" --- mistaking the source of important or even necessary knowledge for another less visible from the outside, less tractable one. Taleb uses as an illustration a well-known, highly successful trader on green lumber on the commodity exchange who flourished for decades --- yet thought through his career that he was trading lumber painted green instead of green timber --- yet whose use of heuristics and trial and error knowledge gained by experience made him brilliant in trading, notwithstanding his lack of knowledge about the actual commodity in which he traded.

So, in reading this book, no, I did not actually learn how to implement antifragility --- which in many cases is not possible, but I did learn from reading this book how better to recognize situations in which antifragility exists and ones vulnerable to fragility. Very thought-provoking --- especially where America's future is concerned. One major indicator of fragility --- high indebtedness!

12 reviews10 followers
April 24, 2013
I just can't continue this book. This guy is SO full of himself. Not to mention that he keeps contradicting himself, based on whatever he feels like
2 reviews3 followers
August 12, 2013
What a self-centered jerk with an overly simplistic premise. Paraphrased 'Do those things which, regardless of outcome, make you better able to handle change.'

I just saved you from listening to his blathering and bragging.
Profile Image for Shane Parrish.
Author 4 books35.1k followers
March 30, 2020
"Indeed, our bodies discover probabilities in a very sophisticated manner and assess risks much better than our intellects do. To take one example, risk management professionals look in the past for information on the so-called worst-case scenario and use it to estimate future risks—this method is called “stress testing.” They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time."
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