Things That Gain From Disorder

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb made his name in 2007 by coining the term ‘Black Swan’ events. The idea of a black swan was unthinkable in the West (where all swans are white) until such animals were discovered following European landings in Australia in the 18th century. For Taleb, Black Swan events are rare and essentially unpredictable, for example, revolutions, hurricanes, wars and business downturns. Yet many people imagine that ‘experts’ can predict the future using all kinds of clever tools. In his book The Black Swan, Taleb argued that this is wishful thinking, that in a complex world events will happen that no one can foresee. The best we can hope for is to react flexibly and be able to adapt successfully to them.

In this book, Antifragile (2012), Taleb identifies three postures that characterise an approach to living: ‘fragile’, ‘robust’ and ‘antifragile’. Fragile people and approaches collapse when situations change. For example, the French monarchy in 1789 was fragile. Robust people use their strength and immobility to resist change. Sometimes they succeed. But when they don’t, they are destroyed. The antifragile approach is to learn and adapt and improve when things don’t go your way. Indeed it is a constant process of optimisation based on an alert and non-arrogant view of life. One of the interesting lines of thought Taleb draws on is the similarity between real humility and simply being clear-eyed and willing to learn, transparent to what life throws at you.

One can illustrate the differences in approach by describing underground travel in London and Tokyo. On a London Tube, people do not crowd together to make one amorphous blob of humanity. It is possible to be ‘robust’ here and match your strength against the movement of others. Being ‘fragile’ would simply mean being nudged a little by the moving train. But in Tokyo such an approach would knock you off your feet. You have to go with the weight of the crowd – whilst simultaneously micro-manoeuvring to get to the safest spot near the door you want to exit. This is the antifragile approach.

But Taleb goes further and announces that disorder, randomness, stress is what makes us thrive and grow

Taleb is downright rude about economists who try to scry the future using a normal distribution curve and the premise that the past will largely resemble the future. Such thinking is always wrong about wars and economic crashes. Worse, it encourages a fragile or robust way of thinking – that we already know enough and do not need to be on our toes, constantly adapting and learning from our environment.

Taleb is fond of invoking the concept of ‘skin in the game’. By this he means that when you have a personal stake in something that you stand to lose, it results in more cautious and generally more sensible behaviour. It is much easier to send an army off to war if your son is not going to be on the front line. The centralised nature of the modern world means that many decision-makers are insulated from the disastrous results of their decisions. They can therefore continue with a fragile, non-adaptive approach since they are never called to account. This has resulted in the promotion of theory-based ideas that are widely accepted but don’t really work. Even the notion of thriving on risk and uncertainty is discredited in favour of trying to control and ‘solve’ problems that may in fact be insoluble in our current lifespan.

Though Taleb is an opinionated and rather salty writer, he is full of verve and fresh thinking. He has the courage to take on academia and provide better and more workable descriptions of what happens in the real world. If nothing else, his notion of being ‘antifragile’ encourages an optimistic, non-victim approach to life than can only be beneficial.

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