Risk and uncertainty, Working practices

Antifragile book review: Useful but painful

Photo by Clicksmith ShutterI recently finished reading Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, so here my thoughts on it, as its message is strongly related to a lot of what I write about on this blog.

In short, it’s a book with useful ideas and a very practical perspective on the world (organisations, economics, daily life), but it suffers—severely—from the writing being taken over by the author’s arrogance, which means the narrative is meandering (as if he hasn’t considered the reader’s perspective) and the text makes plain his conceitedness. But let’s start with the good, and move on to the problems after.

Good: The message

The purpose of the book is one I find useful. It is to explain the concept of being “antifragile” and to set out some practical examples and strategies to achieve that. Here, “antifragile” means actually gaining from random events, rather than either being irreparably damanged by them (i.e. fragile, like a wine glass) or simply resisting them (i.e. robust, like a football). But Taleb isn’t talking about objects, he’s talking about complex entities such as economies, nations, personal lives, businesses, and so on.

An example of antifragility is an economy which welcomes entrepreneurship. By allowing many businesses to explore growth opportunities some will flourish, boost the economy, and push our lives forward. The advent of social media is one outcome of this. Counter to this, Taleb rails against top-down economic and financial engineering (practised by the same governments which support entrepreneurship) because, he says, the system is too complex to manage that way… and the result is banking collapses, economic crises, and so on.

The author brings a few useful tools to bear to help us understand how we might achieve antifragility. Optionality is one of them. This is the concept of having an option which on the one hand is a relatively low cost, but which on the other hand could provide an unlimited upside. A financial option is one example, but there are others in our daily lives, too. Here is one of his examples: If you live in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City then you are protected against steep rent rises, but you always have the option to move to much grander place if prices move in the other direction.

Photo by Patrick FellerClosely related to this is what he calls the “barbell strategy”—the idea of protecting yourself from easy destruction (fragility) while introducing opportunities for significant advantages.

He also discusses the agency problem and its inverse: having skin in the game. The agency problem is where someone offering advice benefits differently from you. A current example would be a tax lawyer advising a client on reducing their tax bill—it’s in the lawyer’s interest for that arrangement to be more, not less, complex. The antidote is having skin in the game—where the advisor is at risk equally with the advised.

All this stuff is good. It presents not just the problem and the ideal, but also suggests how to achieve that ideal. There are also some handy probability charts in the appendix to help visualise some of this. Readers of this blog will recognise ideas relating to uncertainty and strategies to deal with that.

Unfortunately, in order to find the good we also have to sift a lot—an awful lot—of…

The bad: Structure and conceitedness

The problem with the book is its style. It revolves around the author, not the reader.

On the one hand is its meandering nature. It’s broken into seven “books” with chapters in each. But the narrative wanders all over the place, taking in historical references, fictional tales, and indulgent vignettes telling of the author’s wonderful life and his illustrious friends. We flow from one to another other to another and back again with nary a signpost. At several points I found I’d forgotten the point of the current “book”, and what distinguished it from the last one, and I had to either flick back to recap or (more often) skip forward until I found something I could re-engage with.

Much more challenging, though, is the continued presence of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, front and centre, throughout, parading his wealthy lifestyle, joyous disregard for authority and famous friends. We are told early on he lifts weights and “has the appearance of a bodyguard”. We are told that at age thirteen he was reading up to sixty hours a week, covering Chekhov, Proust, Dostoyevsky and others. We are told not just that his London to New York flight is about seven hours, but rather

about seven hours, the equivalent of a short book plus a brief polite chat with a neighbor and a meal with port wine, stilton cheese, and crackers.

Photo by Karen CoxThe inclusion of that detail makes me like the author less, not more. I am quite sure that—as John Horgan says in his Scientific American review of the book—Taleb is every inch the educated flâneur he claims to be. It would be wrong to call him pretentious. But I am not happy to spend time on the page sharing that life with him.

The troublesome: Argument details

To a lesser extent there are also problems with the way Taleb constructs his narrative. Though none of this fatally undermines his case it certainly weakens it.

One example I’ve noted is his reference in the early chapters to nature, or Mother Nature, as if it were a sentient being. He says “nature wants” to survive, or that Mother Nature “is the best expert at rare events”. This rankled me. It’s not just that nature cannot “want” anything, it’s more that decision-making (wanting or not wanting) and the consequent definition of success (whether the want is fulfilled) has to migrate away from nature (to the perception of the reader, perhaps?) and therefore the details of the argument need to change.

He is not above the odd ad hominem attack, either. Of one opponent he says

like most technomaniacs I know [he] looks sickly and pear-shaped and has an undefined transition between his jaw and his neck.

It’s a careless and unnecessary digression. It’s compounded by the fact that his complaint about this person is that they accused him of acting “old” for loving historical things, and Taleb is arguing that it doesn’t make sense to accuse someone of becoming like the things they love. Well, on the one hand the accusation could be interpreted as saying that Taleb is acting like an old person, not acting like the historical things themselves. And on the other hand it’s no more of an error than claiming that nature is sufficiently sentient to want something.

University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life SciencesTaleb also argues at length—great, enormous, painful length—against much of academia and the medical establishment. His argument is that academics claim their research advances culture and the economy, but the clear evidence is that it is business people and “tinkerers” who do the real advancing. Flight (the Wright brothers) and vaccinations (Edward Jenner) are just two examples of advances that happened outside the university laboratory. It contributes to his argument that top-down planning fails where bottom-up experimentation succeeds.

Without doubt this is a fair argument, but as constructed it has problems. First, I doubt that there is such a widespread belief in academia that it is the source of so much more advancement than non-academic workplaces. Second, I doubt the belief is so widespread that it warrants such a significant, seemingly endless, diatribe, page after page after page. Third, I would expect most people in both academia and business to recognise and value a symbiotic relationship between the two domains, each helping the other.

Overall his attack here is over-long, laboured and insufficiently balanced. Again: it’s not fatally undermined, but it disengages the reader fosters distrust of the author.

Summary

Antifragile has some useful ideas and practical—albeit very broad—tools to achieve the author’s ideal. The very concept of antifragility also strikes me as original. But it’s a long, meandering read, with the author placing himself at the centre where he should be thinking more about the reader. And at 500 pages, when it could be reduced to 100, whether (or how carefully) you want to read it depends very much on how valuable you think its message is to you.

Port and cheese photo by Clicksmith Shutter

Barbell photo by Patrick Feller

Books photo by Karen Cox

Lecture photo by University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences

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