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Anti-Fragile Book: Why We Should Eat Like Cavemen, Embrace Religion, and Hate Bankers

Nassim Taleb’s newest book, Anti-Fragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, continues the former financial trader and philosopher-economist’s championing of randomness. Taleb coins a new term, “anti-fragile,” to describe systems that not only can survive stress, and volatility, but also gain from them, that require them to survive.

Taleb writes, “Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil.”

A system that gains from disorder is anti-fragile. Every error only serves to make it stronger. This is the type he advocates for in the modern world in everything from fiscal and government policy, to physical health, business policy, and educational pursuits. Conversely, in a fragile system, like U.S. Banks, any error weakens or even destroys the whole.

Known primarily for his previous bestselling book, The Black Swan The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Taleb introduced another new concept to social science. “A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.” Examples of black swans are 9/11 or the 2008 financial market crash. They are rare, highly impactful, and unlikely to occur again. The flaw of traditional punditry, according to Taleb, is to believe that they will occur again, and can be predicted and planned around.

Taleb’s newest work is an extension of this theory. It is a guide for how to identify which systems are fragile, vs. anti-fragile, in order to thrive in a black swan world. The concept of anti-fragility urges readers to think counter-intuitively in order to realistically understand our world. Taleb believes it is human nature to assume there is order where there is chaos, and insist on creating narratives out of obvious randomness.

This idea that we can smooth everything out, and eliminate risk, or what Taleb refers to as “the soccer mom problem” and “touristification” is not only hubris, it’s stupidity. The book is an evisceration of our own self-deceptions using statistical interpretations, mathematics, historical, and even biological examples.

In his worldview, great success is only achieved by heuristic trial-and-error, not stability. At the Brooklyn launch of his book on Wednesday, Taleb declared that, “The only anti-fragile systems now are Silicon Valley and the New York restaurant industry.” Both entities are extremely innovative, and prone to high levels of failure and reward. The ability for individual disasters to benefit the overall quality of the collective qualifies them as anti-fragile. 

Taleb is a notorious jerk, and the event Q&A proved to be no exception. Audience members who were taken to task for asking stupid questions can at least flatter themselves to be in the company of everyone and everything from Nobel prize winning journalists, academics, heads of state, artists, and bankers, to um, oranges. His scorn is abundant. But so is his insight.

His ire for journalists is particularly strong. The Independent explains that Taleb believes, “All belong to the sort of ‘phony profession’ whose cheap, false talk about imaginary futures makes mischief but brings no downside to themselves.” Since your correspondents are members of the irresponsible mischief making corps, we spoke instead with Taleb’s former student and teaching assistant Asim Samiuddin, who Taleb called his “best student ever.”  

According to Samiuddin, as an agile online publication, the anti-fragile concept applies beautifully to PolicyMic. As a small start-up, PM can afford to take risks. If we publish a story that does well, it can only help the site to thrive. If we publish one that does not, it simply fails to gain notice. Accordingly, our system is the ideal. It is anti-fragile.

Since the theory of anti-fragility flatters our worldview and career choices, here’s a list of five ways we can live according to the principals of anti-fragility:

1. Build cities that won’t just withstand super storms, but gain from them.

Taleb told the audience, “The anti-fragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the anti-fragile gets better and better.”

A system that is anti-fragile never lets an error go to waste. From every mistake, the system gains — akin to the somewhat morbid idea that with every plane crash, the next flight is safer. Plans to surround New York City with marshland and oyster beds, would not only protect against, but also benefit from flooding.

2. Let banks fail and abandon economic stabilization practices.

In a fragile system, every error makes the system weaker. This is how Taleb views our current economy. The author believes that a false sense of individualism is a holdover error of the Enlightenment. Taleb calls for a Libertarian solution based on the very non-Libertarian idea that if society is a collective, people and companies should fail and sacrifice for the improvement of others.

Instead of trying to regulate the economy against a crash, we should create one that improves with failure. To do so, he advocates for a strong safety net for individuals, to ensure entrepreneurs will take the risks, but not a corporate safety net that bails out bad banks. Taleb declared, “Economy is like a cat, not a washing machine. There’s no re-wiring required. It’s self-maintaining.”

3. Eat like a caveman.

Taleb also embraces the Paleo Diet, as the key to health. Whatever else they may be, his opinions are at least logically consistent. 

A devotee of Art DeVany, the 75-year-old athletic guru, who also follows the Paleo Diet, both men eat only what our ancient ancestors could hunt or forage. For Taleb, this is to include the most important element of his theory, variation. Like all systems, he believes that our bodies need to maintain randomness in order to live.

He told the crowd, “We are part lion and part cow. The lion intermittently eats protein and fat, when it can hunt, and the cow steadily eats grass for nine hours a day.” According to this theory, intermittent fasting, and inconsistent meat intake are what our bodies are best evolutionarily suited to.

The author champions religion for the same reason. He is Orthodox and therefore is banned from eating proteins and fat on Friday and Wednesday. “Religion is beneficial because it forces us to randomize and vary our food intake, just as it forces you to vary your mood and place of worship.”

4. Workout like an Olympian. Sleep like a college kid.

For exercise, Taleb, who is 52, says he wants to, “reach the level of a sub-mediocre professional weight-lifter.” Dead lifting, or lifting an incredibly heavy object, fits perfectly into another theory of the book—mathematical convexity.

The simple idea of convexity is, “If you lift 100 kilos it is more beneficial than lifting one gram 100 times.” If a double dose gets more than twice the response, it is convex. Convex systems like volatility. Concave systems hate it. A system is convex (and by extension anti-fragile) if it has more to gain than to lose from disorder. As long as it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger, as the old maxim goes.

His perfect workout is, “Go to the gym and get into a fight on the way. Win. Go into the basemen and lift something very heavy.” Randomness and convexity teach the body to be strong and adaptable. Taleb scorns the idea of running on a treadmill. “If a Martian saw people on treadmill machines, they would think they were in a Russian labor camp.”

He also genuinely believes that aging, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s result from a lack of stressors on the body. In addition to randomizing his diet and exercise, Taleb does the same with sleep. As of the Brooklyn launch, he had not sleep for three days, but then planned sleep for 12 hours. Like the fact that staying in bed all day actually makes you more tired, much of Taleb’s prescriptions engage this type of counterintuitive thinking.

5. Be a doer not a thinker.

Anti-Fragile argues that academic formalism is overrated. Although Taleb is quick to point out that he is against “top down intellectual life, not intellectualism.”

The author is quite skeptical of education as a cure-all for economic development and career building. He points to the idea that rich countries have high levels of education and literacy. Therefore, there’s the belief that education leads to wealth, when actually the opposite occurs—countries get rich, and then they get educated. Since studies show that education does not equal GDP, to be anti-fragile, first have skills, and then obtain formal education.

An example given is, “The merchant profession has lots of variance. A dentist has very little.” Although parents want a life of stability for their children, Taleb’s theory would put the odds of success on the merchant in an unpredictable world. “College insulates students from downsides,” he says, “but also prevents brilliance.”

In terms of theory, doing is convex and study is concave. Taleb asks, “Can you study chemistry for a formula for the perfect hummus?” In cooking you can get a big gain from an error (adding lemon or garlic) but you only find out by trial-and-error.

Taleb’s philosophy is also hopeful about our country's mediocre global math and science scores, which he believes, “don’t capture the effectiveness of our citizens on the world,” because we are a country of risk-takers and entrepreneurs.

Overall, instead of trying to predict the unpredictable, a better strategy is to profit from it when it comes. The message is practical and difficult. But, if we embrace it, we can deal with the improbable in life.

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