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We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the emptiness of the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
I just finished reading Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which is, without question, the best book I’ve ever read. I am blogging less since I get most of the same benefits from twitter (interesting conversation, thought leadership attribution, etc.) at a much lower cost (it takes considerably less time to tweet, than to blog). That said, I thought I’d share some of my takeaways from Antifragile in long form since they are worth the extra characters.
Below is a summary of the crux of the book, by Dr. Shaiy Pilpel:
Everything gains or loses from volatility. Fragility is what loses from volatility and uncertainty.
To be antifragile, and thus benefit from volatility and uncertainty (norms in today’s macro-environment), one must be able to identify things that “love volatility” and things that “hate volatility”. Taleb says to be antifragile, one must learn to “not be a turkey”. What he means is that turkeys think life is good on average because every day they are usually well-fed and allowed to roam free. That is of course until Thanksgiving, when they are slaughtered. Turkeys are not free, and they are only fed to be slaughtered. Turkeys are in the matrix.
To free oneself of the matrix, one must understand that the fragile breaks with time and thus embrace, and love, volatility. Taleb has a recipe for translating this theory to practice:
(i) Look for optionality; in fact, rank things according to optionality, (ii) preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended, payoffs; (iii) Do not invest in business plans but in people, so look for someone capable of changing six or seven times over his career, or more (an idea that is part of the modus operandi of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen); one gets immunity from the backfit narratives of the business plan by investing in people. It is simply more robust to do so; (iv) Make sure you are barbelled, whatever that means in your business.
As in the turkey example, the notion of average is of no significance when one is fragile to variability (e.g. Thanksgiving). Taleb suggests one should not spend any energy on mundane events and should only focus on Thanksgiving-type events (not necessarily Thanksgiving itself, since a Turkey could not know about Thanksgiving, but only that something was likely to change significantly - variability). He uses iatrogenesis as an example.
…we need to focus on high-symptom conditions and ignore, I mean really ignore, other situations in which the patient is not very ill.
He also uses what he calls the “tragedy of big data” as an example.
The more variables, the more correlations that can show significance in the hands of a “skilled” researcher. Falsity grows faster than information; it is nonlinear (convex) with respect to data.
Taleb’s solution is to only look at very large changes in data or conditions, never at small ones. Because the commercial world only benefits from addition, not subtraction, one can identify things that hate volatility as things that would be harmed if, as the result of changing conditions, they would no longer exist. For me, I plan to become more vigilant to things in my life that “hate volatility”, and will seek more opportunities to subtract.
Happy new year everyone!
Thanks for the cliff note version! I am waiting to get a copy from the library. I’m like 15th in line.
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, The Black Swan of Cairo | Foreign Affairs
And is the same true in business? Businesses often have ‘stability at all costs’ as an unstated operating principle. And to achieve that goal management will prohibit risk taking, and avoids entering into activities that could lead to fluctuations in business operations.
Business management is just as likely to be blindsided by high-impact, low probability events as governments are, and for the same systemic reasons, one of which is they do not naturally allow the ‘noise’ from work to rise to the surface, into strategic realms of management.
Just as we should aspire to make our economic systems robust and resilient, working at the macro economic level, so too businesses, at the microeconomic level, must to take a different operating stance to do the same.