Summary of Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

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  • Post last modified:August 18, 2022
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Short summary: 3 min

Long summary: 31 min

Book reading time: 10h59

Score: 9/10

Book published in: 2012

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Takeaway

  • There are three types of things: fragile, robust, and antifragile.
  • Fragile things weaken when subject to volatility.
  • Robust things can handle volatility.
  • Antifragile things become stronger when subject to volatility.
  • All systems have a minimum volume of volatility. It’s normal and it should be tolerated.
  • When you suppress the volatility in a system, you let the pressure accumulate until the system explodes.

What Antifragile Talks About

Antifragile is a book written by Nassim Taleb. It explains that we can sort anything into three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. Antifragile things benefit from randomness and become stronger when attacked. The book observes this phenomenon of antifragility in life and society and explains how to become antifragile.

Antifragile is the fourth book of The Incerto, a series composed of:

The book discusses the notion of fragility and antifragility.

The author explains that this book enabled him to come back to the roots of his job – figuring out a way to profit from catastrophes, these famous Black Swans – and that it should be considered the magnum opus of his work.

I would certainly agree, since all of his ideas, namely, randomness, fragility, Black Swans, antifragility, asymmetry, the Lindy effect, and skin in the game end up in the book.

It’s not an easy book, but it is worth it.

It will teach you to stop predicting and focus on the robustness or antifragility of systems instead.

You will see that it’s much easier to predict the collapse of a fragile structure than it is to predict what will happen when. Furthermore, it will teach you that suffering is good as it ultimately makes you stronger.

Find below the long-form summary of Antifragile.

Taleb wrote a short summary of the book in the prologue but you can always read another one here.

Finally, you can buy the book here.

9/10 (some parts were a bit too long, others were unnecessarily complicated).

NB: Please skim through The Black Swan or Fooled by Randomness before reading Antifragile, as Taleb directly builds on them.


Table of Content


Summary of Antifragile Written by Nassim Taleb

Prologue

You don’t want to suffer from uncertainty. You want to use it so that it propels you and makes you stronger.

Becoming stronger from shocks is called antifragility. Things that have gotten stronger with time are all antifragile: culture, ideas, political systems….

The antifragile loves randomness, meaning it loves errors. It enables us to play with things we don’t understand, to build things (we are much better at building than we are at understanding.)

By understanding the properties of antifragility, we can build a guide to nonpredictive decision-making under uncertainty. It’s easier to estimate whether something is fragile than it is to predict what will kill it and when. Risk isn’t measurable. Antifragility or robustness, is.

Antifragility is the answer to the Black Swan problem. We will see how to go from fragility to antifragility.

The difference is simple. Antifragility has more upside than downside, and fragility has the opposite.

If randomness and volatility are making an antifragile system stronger, then calm, predictability, and routine make it weaker.

By suppressing randomness, we fragilize antifragile systems (culture, the economy, education, politics).

Eg: the human body dies if not put under stress.

This is the tragedy of modernity. Those that want to help us the most, weaken us the most (and inversely).

The biggest fragilizer of antifragile systems is the absence of skin in the game.

Some manage to get the upside of a situation by shifting risk and downside onto other people. They are often hidden under the complexity of systems.

In the past, leaders took risks and accepted the downside, which is why they were leaders. Today, it’s the opposite.

Those at the top (bureaucrats, bankers, Davos members, and academics) get the upside while shifting the risk onto those at the bottom.

No one with so little downside ever exercised so much power.

This is unfair. You should never get antifragility at the expense of someone else.

If you want to live happily in our society, you need to become antifragile so that in the event of a Black Swan, you can survive (and thrive).

This is important since our multi-complex globalized system has increased complexity and randomness, making Black Swans ever harder to predict.

Robust Is Not Robust Enough

Nature destroys what doesn’t work and aggressively replaces it with something else.

Being “robust”, therefore, isn’t good enough.

You don’t want to suffer from Black Swan events, but profit from them.

Logically, the things that dominate the world today are antifragile.

Since it’s not possible to predict risk, we will focus on fragility.

For the same reason, we do not want to interfere with things we don’t understand, like society.

Unfortunately, society is built by people who do the exact opposite: the fragilistas.

As a result, society ends up being a complex system where you need to engage in things for which the benefits are small and visible and the downside, potentially big and invisible.

  • The medical fragilista who gives you medicine while your body is capable to regenerate.
  • The policy fragilista who tries to micro-manage the economy and blows it up.
  • The psychiatric fragilista who medicates children with too much energy.

We didn’t get where we are today thanks to them.

Where Simple Is More Sophisticated

A complex system doesn’t have to be complicated.

An intervention often leads to more problems than solutions.

Less is more, and often more effective.

Ethics have been replaced by law in modern society, but the law can be bent with a good lawyer. The book is therefore about ethics.

First thing: if you see a fraud and don’t say it, you are a fraud yourself.

You can’t be nice to the arrogant or arrogant to the nice.

Appendix

Things can be categorized in three different ways, thanks to the Triad: Fragile, Robust, Antifragile.

Fragile VS robust VS antifragile.
Fragile VS robust VS antifragile.

Always think in which category the things you are reading about here are.

Eg: Not making any mistakes is fragile, on the left, and loving to make mistakes is on the right, antifragile.

In our case, fragile and antifragile are relative terms, they’re not absolute. Your body is antifragile up to a certain point.


Book I: The Antifragile: An Introduction

Chapter 1: Between Damocles and Hydra

Something antifragile gets stronger with disorder. It is the opposite of fragile.

Antifragile VS fragile
Antifragile VS fragile

Antifragility exists in many domains. The human body, for example, fortifies when it is deprived of food. By the same token, we can assume that it weakens when it is overly fed.

-> small doses of something “bad” can have a good effect.

This principle, (the antifragility principle) not only exists in medicine, but everywhere else. Unfortunately, humans are domain dependent: they only recognize principles in their own domains (eg: medicine) and can’t apply them to others (eg: economics).


Chapter 2: Overcompensation and Overreaction Everywhere

Antifragility can be somewhat compared to post-traumatic growth, the opposite of post-traumatic disorder.

This is how innovations work.

  1. Have a (serious) problem
  2. Find a solution

-> the energy released due to a setback creates the innovation.

This principle also exists in reverse. Not enough problems create danger by making us weak.

Eg: autopilot makes the plane “safer”, hence the pilots pay less attention, hence it increases the number of accidents.

Stressors, by stressing out, trigger a reaction to strengthen the body which overcompensates by getting stronger than it needs to respond to the stressors.

This principle is called overcompensation, and it is present everywhere.

Eg: If you train at the gym, your muscles will create a little bit more muscles than you need to lift. The body overcompensates.

image 58
The phenomenon of overcompensation.

Overcompensation is a form of redundancy. Redundancy is everywhere in nature. You have two kidneys and two lungs, two eyes, two ears, two arms, etc. Nature likes to reinsure itself. Redundancy is some sort of buffer in case something bad happens.

This is why innovation happens. Nature creates more energy than you need to get out of the situation -> hence innovation. Nature anticipates.

image 59
Innovation, in green.

The author subsequently explained he got a gym trainer that only focused on lifting more than he did the previous time, and that it worked fantastically great for him.

Overcompensation also means that the more barriers you put in the legs of your opponent, the stronger your opponent will become.

This is why riots are antifragile. The more violent the police is, the more violent the riot will be.

Information is also antifragile. The less you want people to know, the more they will want to.

Fire Feeds on Obstacles.

Conclusion: those whom we have benefitted the most aren’t those who helped us, but those who harmed us.


Chapter 3: The Cat and the Washing Machine

Everything that lives is antifragile to a certain point. Everything that is inert, isn’t since it breaks at some point.

In the case of living things, failure to self-repair comes from maladjustment – too few stressors, or not enough time for recovery.

Maladujstement, when you think about it, is a mismatch between the nature of the living thing, and the randomness of the environment.

Things created by humans (the economy, tech, businesses) are also antifragile, but are widely considered fragile because we don’t understand well how they work, because they’re complex.

Complex systems are systems with interdependencies, where the withdrawal of a unit creates a series of consequences beyond the unit. A noncomplex system is a system where any change is predictable.

image 60
Complicated noncomplex VS complicated complex

Complex isn’t complicated. A computer may be “complicated”, but it’s not complex.

When we deprive these complex systems of stressors, they become fragile. Bones, for example, become fragile when not used, which speeds up aging.

Stressors make antifragile systems stronger. Unfortunately, society is moving towards more and more comfort, which means that ironically, it’s becoming more and more fragile.

This process is called touristification. It’s taking the randomness and risk out of a process to make it a well-oiled predictable machine. Think of it as the electronic calendar: everything is scheduled, no space for surprises.

Humans don’t like that. We’re wired for randomness. Constant planning is not made for us.

In fact, our body is made to expand a huge volume of energy in a short period, then rest.

Consider running for your life chased by a tiger VS running on the treadmill.

Today’s stress is no longer “run then rest”. It’s “mild but constant”.

image 61
Today’s effort VS before.

Chapter 4: What Kills Me Makes Others Stronger

In a system, the sacrifice of some units is often necessary for the well-being of the whole.

It’s the fact that restaurants are fragile, compete with each other, and go bankrupt that makes the whole restaurant network resilient. If each restaurant was robust, the whole network would be weak – and the food would be disgusting.

This is why we need to die. We pass on genes slightly different to our kids that make the whole human race antifragile.

Similarly, when entire species die, it leaves space for other species much better suited to thrive in the new environment. It’s evolution working. Extinction is part of the game and helps the entire system.

image 62
Errors make antifragile systems stronger by purging the fragile from the system.

This principle is shown by the impact that errors have. Errors make the antifragile stronger, but break the fragile.

-> fragile needs to be predictive.

The errors in antifragile systems are needed. When investigating with trial and error, every mistake is finding a way that doesn’t work, hence bringing you closer to the solution.

The error is registered by the system. The sacrifice of the unit made the system stronger.

Eg: The Titanic. Had the Titanic not sunk, we would have kept on building bigger boats, and the catastrophe then would have been even more dramatic. The Titanic saved other, bigger boats, from sinking.

image 54
By sinking, the Titanic helped avoid another, bigger catastrophe.

Likewise, every plane crash brings us closer to perfect safety. The plane system is antifragile. Other planes don’t crash when one crashes.

The banking system however, is fragile. More banks are likelier to crash if one crashes too.

-> the banking system should be like the plane network.

As we said, the sacrifice of units makes the system stronger.

In an antifragile system like the economy, where units (companies) don’t want to die, these units prevent the system from getting stronger. There is therefore conflict.

In the past, the sacrifice of the weakest units to strengthen the system was perfectly accepted.

There is even an emotional switch in us that leads us to voluntarily sacrifice for the sake of the group.

The end of this idea only happened after the Enlightenment, where the individual prevailed over the group.

This is why we should celebrate entrepreneurs. They take the risk to fail and be destroyed so that the entire society can benefit from their success…or mistakes!