Antifragile: Prologue

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

Dear readers, today is a great day. As promised, we begin our reading of one of our favorite books: Antifragile.

And doing so, we come back to the original inspiration of this blog. Let’s remember that it was in a terrace in front of the Mediterranean see in Barcelona, while discussing passionately about The Black Swan and the imminent publication on Antifragile paperback that we decided to create El Pla Subtil.

Today we begin with the prologue. Taleb makes in it a full disclosure of the fundamental ideas of his book and also lays out the moral backbone that any scientific work should have.

We are introduced to the concept of antifragility and learn to distinguish it from robustness. We are presented with the problem of the growing fragility of our world and the antidote to it. Namely, giving up the vane effort to assess probabilities to black swan like events, which we cannot measure, and instead try the reduce fragility/increase antifragility in our systems which we can do.

Together with it we receive two ethical declarations: No one should talk about what he doesn’t practice and absolute truth is the only decent way forward for the scientist.

We have to read no more than this prologue to see that this book is not like our previous lecture, The Checklist Manifiesto. Here we have tension from the very first paragraph and each line of the book is able to create a line of discussion.

Let’s enjoy it.

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4 thoughts on “Antifragile: Prologue

  1. Indeed there are plenty of things to consider, analyze and discuss. This is a very rich text.
    I remember, about a year ago, before planning to read Antifragile, Both Carlos and I checked some reviews, and we were very surprised to find a big deal of reviewers stating that the book was not worth reading it. One of the most common objection was that the main concept of “antifragile” wasn’t useful at all, and that biology has been using “robustness” for decades, which is far better term to study the stuff that Taleb was interested in.
    Fortunately, we didn’t give much credit to the reviews and read the book anyway, and the very prologue makes it clear the difference between robustness and antifragility:

    Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. (p. 29)

    So simple and yet so powerful. It is difficult to visualize directly the many implications this concept has:

    This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet. (p. 29)

    In a sense, Antifragile starts where The Black Swan ended. How can we live in a world that is no longer predictable? Taleb’s answer is to take non-predictive decisions based on whether the objects, people and processes we are interested in are fragile or antifragile and move from the fragile to the antifragile.

    • I clearly remember back when I was trying to decide if I would read Antifragile. The reviews were brutal against it. Take for example,

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/nov/21/antifragile-how-to-live-nassim-nicholas-taleb-review

      And I have to admit (with shame) that I was almost convinced by them and didn’t want to read the book.

      In fact, I have searched and found an email that I sent to David:

      I am suspicious of the ability of Mr. Taleb of creating new things of the quality of “Fooled by Randomness” or “The Black Swan”. (…) Anyway, probably I will end up eventually reading the book but right now I am not in the mood.

      (By the way, it is so good to have written documents so that you can limit the amount of historical reconstruction that you can do).

      But we met in that terrace in Barcelona, we began to talk about the great moments we had had reading Taleb’s previous books and, what the hell, we not only decided to buy and read it but also to create a blog to celebrate it.

      Good decision.

  2. Another important issue that the prologue presents is that this is not a theoretical book, but a practical one; a book to teach us how to live. In a sense, Antifragile starts where The Black Swan ended. How can we live in a world that is no longer predictable? Taleb’s answer is to take non-predictive decisions based on whether the objects, people and processes we are interested in are fragile or antifragile and move from the fragile to the antifragile.

    Paradoxically, this strategy makes stressors and volatility extremely important. When politicians, doctors or economists try to remove as much randomness and stressors as possible -with the best intentions, for sure- what we get is very fragile systems that will end up in collapse. We have moved from antifragility to fragility.

    • I think this is precisely the most important point of the book: forget about predicting the future and instead check the fragility of our current systems and try to improve them. When somebody asks me what is this book about I mention this idea.

      Paradoxically, this point is independent of the concept of antifragility. Even if there were no such thing, there would make still sense to decrease the fragility of the systems and make them as much robust as possible.

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