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About Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a best-selling author who writes about complexity and randomness. The author recognizes a world where rare events dominate attitudes.
The Lebanon-born writer is a former Wall Street derivatives trader. He’s also a Wharton MBA and University of Paris Ph.D. graduate.
Still, Taleb feels that the insights produced by academia are far from reality. What’s more important, suggests the author, is an antifragile mindset.
As of 2022, 90% of US billionaires are self-made. They didn’t inherit their success—they worked for it and learned to find opportunities. In other words, they became antifragile, and you can too. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb examines success and overcoming obstacles so you can reach your ultimate goals.
As a society, we tend to view things like our health, safety, and the economy as strong and stable. But the truth is, they’re actually quite fragile. And when something goes wrong, it can have disastrous consequences.
StoryShot #1: An Example of Antifragility
Consider the Hydra of Greek mythology. It’s a serpent with several heads. The Hydra tormented ancient Greece.
Every time a warrior cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two grew back. Each time someone hurt the beast, it improved.
In other words, the Hydra was antifragile. This theme is consistent in the world.
Learning to Become Antifragile
In a less mythical example, evolution demonstrates antifragility traits. The parts of an antifragile system must display fragility.
The failures and successes of these parts serve as information. It informs the system what does and doesn’t work.
It helps to think of this process as a form of trial and error. The failures and accomplishments of each part provide context as to what succeeds and what fails. This kind of thinking can help you to create the best version of yourself.
What Does Fragility Have to Do With It?
Fragile things break under pressure. Alternatively, antifragile things benefit from shock and volatility.
Imagine shipping something made of glass. Most people will label the package “Handle with Care.”
The glass must remain in a stable environment so that it’s not harmed by shocks and stresses. In this way, the concept of fragility is straightforward.
StoryShot #2: Finding Strength in Trials
Stresses and shocks in life make antifragile systems stronger. They force the systems to add capacity.
In other words, overcompensation gives antifragile systems excess strength. The strength results in redundant resources that accumulate because of the stressors and shocks.
In life, we tend to think the efficient use of resources is what leads to success. With this in mind, this accumulation of resources may seem inefficient.
Yet, overcompensation and redundancy are what create antifragility. In this way, you can train your mind like an athlete.
Creating an Antifragile Mindset
Antifragility is dependent on the fragility of its fundamental parts. Stressors and shocks strengthen antifragile systems. They force the systems to create added capacity.
A tranquil environment leads to a fragile system. Conversely, utility creates antifragility.
StoryShot #3: The Drawback of Tranquility
Often, we strive to achieve a tranquil environment. However, this kind of environment is a fragile system. Volatility creates antifragility.
You can witness antifragility in natural and biological systems. However, it’s not present in man-made items.
Man-made goods can’t improve due to failures and unexpected stressors. In a best-case scenario, a man-made item can only prove robust.
For instance, the best washing machine in the world will wear down eventually. It can take a fair amount of abuse, but that abuse will provide no benefit. Ultimately, a lack of antifragility leads to its eventual demise.
Antifragility Is About More Than Complexity
Whether artificial or natural, complexity is essential for any antifragile system. Still, it’s not enough to sustain it.
An antifragile system must have volatility. This kind of system depends heavily on the fragility of its parts.
In some cases, these parts must die to strengthen the whole. Shocks and stressors determine which parts survive and which ones come to an end.
There are no shocks and stressors to place pressure on a system’s parts in a tranquil world. Eventually, this kind of world will lose its antifragility.
StoryShot #4: Timing Is Everything
You can take advantage of antifragility. Moreover, you don’t need to understand the opportunities presented by antifragility. You only need to know when you must seize them.
At one point, Nassim Nicholas Taleb worked in the volatile global currency market. It surprised him to learn the most successful traders knew the least about the markets.
They had no clue about complex economic theory or the national currencies they traded. They simply knew when to buy and sell them.
Leveraging Volatility for the Win
You too can take advantage of volatility and win at life. There’s no need for you to understand the principles of an antifragile system if you have options. In this context, an option is the opportunity to do something, but not an obligation.
Consider stock options. With a stock option, you can buy a stock at a particular time for a fixed price.
When the stock goes above a certain price, you’ll exercise your option. You’d make a profit on the discount. However, you wouldn’t exercise your option if it wasn’t profitable.
There’s no need for you to understand the complexities of what causes the price of your option to rise and fall. All you need to know is whether to use your option at a given point in time.
StoryShot #5: Chance Favors the Prepared
Becoming antifragile means managing risks. Risk management enables you to benefit from unpredictable events.
An unexpected event can happen in an instant. No one goes through life without periods of uncertainty and volatility.
If you want to become antifragile, you must accept this reality and try to tame uncertainty. You must stay away from the path most people take to avoid or eliminate volatility.
Preparing for Success in a Volatile World
You can achieve antifragility by following the barbell strategy. A barbell has weights on both ends but no weight in the middle. You must prepare for negative and positive extremes and ignore the middle road.
You’d begin by concentrating on the negative elements of your barbell. You must minimize your exposure to possibly disastrous risks.
Now, you can concentrate on the positive end of your barbell. In this case, you’d use the remaining 10% of your assets to take small risks in unpredictable and highly volatile areas.
StoryShot #6: Strength in Numbers
A large organization or system can more easily absorb an unexpected crisis. Suppose you needed to attend an important business event. In that case, you’d most likely book a flight as early as possible to get the lowest price.
Now, imagine it’s a day before the conference, and your flight gets canceled. You must attend the conference, so you have no choice but to book an expensive last-minute flight.
This unfortunate scenario is a “squeeze.” A squeeze is an instance where you have no choice but to do something—no matter what it costs.
The Squeeze and the Global Marketplace
Globalization has transformed the world’s economies into a single massive financial monstrosity. In doing so, it’s become vulnerable to gigantic squeezes.
Now, all entities—from your bank to your grocery store—are somehow connected. Your bank may trade stocks, and your grocer might buy fresh produce in another country.
Think about what would happen if a stock market crisis took place. A series of dominoes would fall.
Banks would get squeezed into reducing business funding. In turn, the businesses would have to lay off employees. Now, those employees might get squeezed into possibly losing their homes.
StoryShot #7: Antifragility and Institutions
Most of today’s professions are antifragile. However, they achieve this status at the expense of everyone else.
Consider the experts who incorrectly forecast that the 2008 financial crisis wouldn’t take place. Most of these experts still have their influential positions, and no one made them apologize for their oversight.
Financial experts work in a narrow field. All the experts in this field know and rely on each other.
As a result, no one in this field was eager to cast blame. Eventually, most people have forgotten about their mistakes.
The Quest for Tranquility
No one likes conflict, and it’s natural to want to eliminate volatility as much as possible. However, this mindset will eventually make society fragile.
Lawmakers see the economic boom and bust cycle as unpredictable and inefficient. As a result, they’ve developed complex theories about when and how to intervene in the economic cycle.
Their goal is to smooth out economic cycles. This ambition ties in with modern thinking. The lawmakers want to make society as tranquil and smooth as possible.
StoryShot #8: The Tranquil Road Doesn’t Lead To Success
Our desire to eliminate volatility from society will eventually make it fragile. Modern society has a “turkey problem.” Our perspective causes us to misunderstand the past as we try to predict the future.
Think of a happy, unconcerned turkey in October. If you were that turkey, you wouldn’t have much to worry about, considering the way things went over the last year.
Your owner fed you well every day and kept you healthy. You’d most likely predict that your owner loves you and things look good for the future. However, you’d have quite the shock in November come Thanksgiving.
StoryShot #9: The Dangers of Modern Thinking
Modern society has made a habit of taking lessons from the past. However, this potential view of our future is a narrow perspective.
Furthermore, the media is full of experts telling us what’s going to happen. Companies spend millions of dollars hiring risk managers and strategists to take advantage of these predictions.
Unfortunately, these forecasts suffer from the turkey problem. They predict the future based on a false narrative from the past. People who follow these predictions face the risk of suffering the consequences when things don’t work out as expected.
Fixing Our Thinking
Our society also tends to assume that the worst we’ve ever seen is the worst that can happen. In fact, people create fail-safes and contingency plans based on these worst-case scenarios. It never crosses people’s minds that something even worse could go wrong.
Consider the Fukushima nuclear reactor. Engineers built it with the ability to withstand the worst earthquake ever experienced.
The designers of the nuclear reactor had no idea an even bigger earthquake would occur in the future. As a result, an earthquake destroyed the Fukushima nuclear reactor in 2011.
Volatility Left Unchecked
The removal of volatility has an explosive effect. Our ceaseless quest for tranquility removes antifragility.
Without volatility, however, problems stay hidden. As such, they remain dormant—but nonetheless present. These problems continue to become more severe until they’ve reached massive proportions.
Think about a forest. A forest is always at risk of fire. A series of smaller fires decreases the risk of a large, devastating fire.
The small fires purge the forest of flammable materials. Still, they leave most of the trees in place.
Removing uncertainty from our systems isn’t as desirable as it may seem. In reality, we’re allowing flammable material to gather for a firestorm.
Final Summary and Review
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile is a book about how to thrive in an uncertain world. The book has three main ideas: first, that some things are Antifragile – they actually get stronger when challenged; second, that we are living in an increasingly Antifragile world; and third, that we need to learn to embrace Antifragility if we want to thrive in this new world.
Overall, Antifragile is a fascinating and thought-provoking read that will change how you think about the world. When we become antifragile, Taleb argues, we can actually turn uncertainty and volatility to our advantage.
We rate this book 4.1/5.
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