Are you antifragile? Or fragile?

I’ve recently been rebuilding how I see the world, thanks to a book called Antifragile. I highly recommend that you read it. Just stop reading my blog posts and anything else, just read Antifragile. No affiliate links here, just 100% unadulterated knowledge. Written by a man from the world of finance, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tackles how irrationally rational we’ve become, and how it’s led to a series of hugely catastrophic, but also hugely avoidable, events in modern times. Another good book along the veins of anti-technocracy is Voltaire’s Bastards, which I unfortunately haven’t finished because of the author’s writing style. Antifragile wants to introduce a new concept to the world, that until now has been understood intuitively, but never had a word for it, and that word is antifragile. What’s the opposite of fragile? Most people say robust, but that actually misses the point. Fragility is being harmed when subjected to randomness, robust is merely being less easily harmed by randomness. So what about benefiting from randomness? Therein lies the basis for his ideas.

Taleb covered a broad range of topics, but one thing that struck me was his point on our tendency to conflate the knowledge gained from doing and the knowledge gained from school, i.e. knowledge that is codifiable, explainable, academizable, rationalizable, bureaucratizable, provable, etc. His analogy was the Harvard professors who, after studying the aerodynamics and physics of wing flapping for birds, lectured some birds on how to fly, then proceeded to pat themselves on the back for giving them the gift of flight after seeing them successfully flying. Causality is often hidden from us, and even though we are aware of this basic fact – that correlation does not imply causation – many people in all sorts of professions still make this error. Now, the birds already knew how to fly, and just because they couldn’t explain to the Harvard professors how they did it doesn’t negate their knowledge. Just because the birds could never tell anyone their side of the story doesn’t mean that there was no story (another lesson here! absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).

Loosely related, I was actually thinking about this concept (plus another concept I had read about in a book about tennis mental game) while trying to teach someone how to do a 3 step. Instead of breaking down the sweep (arguably the most complicated part of the 3 step), what if I just showed them the beginning position and then the ending position? Whenever I ended up breaking down the sweep, it was really complicated to describe – keep your left hand down, right hand elevated, swing left leg from the front position so that you jump over it and let yourself come down into a position where both hands and feet are down in a kind of pseudo-pushup position. A mouthful for something that takes half a second to do. So I thought instead of codifying/explainifying/rationalizing it, I thought I’ll give them a couple clues, and just let them figure out the rest. Lo and behold, most of the kids figured out how to do the sweep without me overexplaining it. I used to think that I needed to be super detailed, but turns out not all knowledge can be academized for a university degree. The concept from the tennis book was similar in that the body knows how to do a lot more than we give it credit for, and it doesn’t need to learn from words. Seeing and doing is often much better for learning.

There are many other lessons to be learned in Antifragile, like how history reveals how much knowledge there is to learn from our ancestors, how time is the ultimate test of any idea, how nature has figured out more things correctly then humans have so far, how to ‘barbell’ your risk to optimize your outcomes, and how to avoid fragilizing your life.

I’ll leave you with a few examples to help you understand how antifragility works (a bit – it’s better that you read the book!). Switzerland has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, yet its people aren’t the smartest, most well educated in the world; they’re pretty average. Turns out university education doesn’t directly lead to economic wealth like we think it does (apparently there are stats to prove it). What helps the Swiss is their distributed form of government – the country is divided into cantons, who squabble but are able to deal directly with the real concerns and problems of their citizens. In contrast, most countries try to lead from the top down with a highly centralized government. What tends to end up happening is that if the central government makes a mistake, it affects everyone, but if a Swiss canton makes a mistake, it only affects that one area, and the other areas are able to learn from that mistake. In the human body, there are many individual cells that are constantly being destroyed – in other words they’re pretty fragile – but it’s so that the system as a whole is very antifragile. Some cells die so that other cells can survive. In a species, some of its members die so that the survivors thrive and continue. In medicine, we increase our exposure to more risk when we take drugs, surgery, or other interventions that have unknown side effects, with limited benefits. For example, a drug to help mothers during pregnancy feel better led to health problems for offspring. We fragilize ourselves when we’re healthy. But if we’re on the cusp of dying, then the payoff is very good for a life-saving surgery. The restaurant industry will likely never collapse simply because there are so many individual, small restaurants – each of them fragile so that the rest of them can survive.

I hope I didn’t butcher those examples, but Antifragile will definitely be one of those books I reread this year. I hope you read it too!

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