Do not imagine that you have understood the concept of “antifragility” right away, merely because the neologism might readily bring to mind the famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who formerly explored unpredictability in refreshingly unpredictable fashion in The Black Swan, demolishes — or at least fruitfully unpacks — that stale rubric in just one of the myriad pithy, ideationally rich, hand grenade-style mini-chapters that constitute his new book, which is a bathyscaphe-deep descent into an unexplored sea of contrarian wisdom. He has so many more insights into this concept that Nietzsche vaguely adumbrated, and so much more utilitarian advice derived therefrom, that Antifragile‘s 400-plus pages are barely enough to contain all his passionate exegesis.
Before making his detailed plunge, Taleb offers a Prologue that dances tantalizingly around the concept of antifragility in nimble and evocative fashion. He outlines a spectrum of behavior/response that extends across all natural phenomena. The Triad: fragile to robust to antifragile; breakable to resilient to actually thriving upon assaults of disorder and contrariness (stressors). This core quality is deemed essential to and characteristic of all living things. Antifragility, Taleb avers, is fully one half of existence — the flip side to desirable but impossible stability and safety and predictability — but has generally gone unlabeled and uncodified till now. His book aims to be the bible of antifragility, and he succeeds, in a charming, lucid fashion that will enrapture readers at many levels of engagement. (The technically proficient will find appendices of hard-edged methodology.) Additionally, the Prologue shares with us Taleb’s Stoic yet engaged philosophy of research and living, indispensable and inseparable parts of his thesis.
The tome is organized into seven books, the broad focus of each generously allowing for some rambling discourse around the main subject areas. To continue the dance metaphor — for Taleb’s method is very much one of intimate waltzing of ideas around a bounded thought-space — we find the author moving between several types of partners. First he offers a rich stream of vignettes, from both history and contemporary life, involving both himself and friends and acquaintances, as well as imaginary archetypes (Fat Tony, Nero). These tales are always brilliantly employed to illuminate various aspects of antifragility, such as when the classical scholar Thales earned a small fortune by canny observation and parlaying of uncertainty, or what Taleb encountered when he himself was a professional exploiter of exchange rates. Taleb deploys a novelist’s wit and keen eye during these recountings that makes for easy yet enlightening reading.
When not hewing to the concrete and tactile, Taleb shows an allied, parallel flair for philosophical, at times almost spiritual disquisition. (This “barbell” or bimodal tactic is one of the tools he advocates.) At times he sounds like a prophet or Zen master, and in fact I kept flashing on the heady “crazy wisdom” teachings of the Tibetan sage Chogyam Trungpa during Taleb’s sermons — sermons that often border on healthy rants against the sorry state of civilization. “My definition of modernity is humans’ large-scale domination of the environment, the systematic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors…. Modernity is a Procrustean bed…” Taleb’s epigram-rich text will have readers scribbling quotes in their notebooks, or highlighting passages. “Just as great geniuses invent their predecessors, practical innovations create their theoretical ancestry.” “Note that globalization has had the effect of making contagions planetary — as if the entire world became a huge room with narrow exists and people rushing to the same doors, with accelerated harm.”
Besides directing our attention to certain unsung heroes of antifragility, Taleb is not scared to point fingers at villains — “fragilistas” — such as economist Alan Greenspan, commentator Thomas Friedman, and futurist Takatoshi Kato, deeming them misguided humbugs. He truly believes that his insights and advice could have many positive impacts in the lives of individuals, communities, institutions, and nations. This insistence on putting one’s airy theorizing to a practical test, of having “skin in the game,” rare for any such Big Think book, is truly refreshing and challenging. Taleb might be profitably aligned with such pragmatically grounded folks as Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand rather than more blue-sky, hand-waving, seeking-to-impress-with-their-brilliance types such as Malcolm Gladwell.
There is hardly a single area of human endeavor that remains unimplicated in Taleb’s thesis about riding the gnarly edge of chaos and improving our lives by eliminating false desires for stability and certainty. Parenting, medicine, finance, technology, education, urban planning, warfare, environmentalism, Darwinian evolution, domesticity, politics, art, literature, transportation, recreation…. His remit is all human activity, and the ways we attempt unwisely to pervert natural flows. Like Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,Taleb is a man holding a live wire connected to a heretofore untapped cosmic dynamo, shooting sparks out his eyes and fingertips while trying to power our Tinkertoy inventions with the holy current.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.