Book Review #3: Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.

book review Apr 26, 2020

“Nature does not find its members very helpful after their reproductive abilities are depleted… Nature prefers to let the game continue at the informational level, the genetic code. So organisms need to die for nature to be antifragile—Nature is opportunistic, ruthless, and selfish.”

Book Review Written by Jaymin Chang, ATC:

Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Recently, in the fitness industry, the importance of understanding complexity has been growing, and our overall understanding of stress has also improved. Fortunately, this has encouraged care providers to take a more holistic view with their clients and to incorporate a multi-disciplinary, client-centered approach. However, the pendulum never swings in moderation: with the emergence of terms like variability, the prescription of “reset exercises” in order to make clients more resilient to stress has subsequently skyrocketed. Yes, we experience loads of stress as social organisms, especially when compared to less-evolved species. But maybe, this focus on social stress and the over-prescription of “reset exercises” is fragilizing our notion of the human organism, and is also shifting our aims from “Let’s grow through stress” to “Let’s prepare ourselves to recover from stress.” Two different strategies; neither approach is useless, but prioritizing the latter over the former may not be helping your clients progress as much as you think. 


 Through Antifragile, Nassib Taleb shares his thoughts on the significance of variability as he argues that it correlates with a complex system’s ability to adapt through the unpredictable future. He uses his background in finance and economics to show the similarities in complexity between human organisms and financial markets. He continues to explain how this concept may provide useful methods of lessening the risk of a physiological equivalent of a market crash from occurring. 

 Taleb begins the book with an introduction to the book’s most fundamental domain: the continuum of fragility. He believes qualities of fragility, robustness, and antifragility exist along a continuum, and that this continuum can be used to describe any complex system. Since fragile objects are irreversibly damaged when stress is applied, complex systems that improve and grow with stress (aka hormesis) are characterized to be “antifragile.” So one of the ways Taleb defines being antifragile is “having greater upside than downside from random events.”

Figure: As an illustration, each quality along the continuum is represented by a mythological figure: fragility is represented by the Sword of Damocles, robustness by the Phoenix, and antifragility by the Hydra. 

 The book continues to explore the complex nature of self-autonomy and modularity. Taleb states that overcompensating a system by adding redundancies allows it to be more ready to adapt to stress. Having multiple interdependent components provides the system various strategies to buffer the effects of stressors. However, for the system to learn where/how to add redundancy is through experiencing unpredictable hardship (which he refers to as “Black Swans”). As an example, Taleb describes the airline industry as being antifragile, because they are able to learn from emergency events and then efficiently optimize their protocols in order to improve future outcomes.

The Fragility Continuum

The continuum of fragility Taleb describes is simply another mental model to characterize a complex system, and like all other models, there are appropriate contexts to use it in. Let’s first deconstruct the concept itself.

 A continuum is defined as “a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct.” This tells us 3 things about the continuum of fragility: (1) knowing only one point along the continuum has no relative value, (2) the distinct ends provide direction, and (3) this specific continuum compares the number of productive strategies to their relative costs.

The first two points indicate that where you or your client exists along the continuum, regardless of how it is measured, does not really matter. What matters more is in which direction you choose to move from that position. If you find a quality that makes someone more fragile, work on making that specific quality less fragile. This also means that robustness is inapplicable when attempting to describe any of the constantly adapting qualities of a human. We cannot just return to an original state as if nothing happened, like the Phoenix. This explains why activities, like the “reset exercises” mentioned above, may encourage the idea that the body must be “normalized.” Interventions aiming to reduce sympathetic tone can be crucial for creating an appropriate internal environment that allows optimal growth and recovery. Using those interventions to adjust neuromuscular tension could also reduce the risk of movement impairments. However, this preparation for growth does not cause the body to grow. Robustness is not enough.

The third point shows us why the continuum can be replicated in various contexts. Similar continua include performance versus health, impingement versus variability, product market versus service market, inductive reasoning versus deductive reasoning, commercial banking versus investment banking, etc. There are always two sides when it comes to comparing volatility of possible decisions, but none of these continua function for a single purpose. This is why they cannot be dichotomized into good or bad.

Overall, this book introduces an encompassing explanation of both organic and man-made complex systems and a possible mechanism that allows them to be adaptable. But as always, critical thinking is required to apply the book’s lessons appropriately, especially in terms of human development. Everybody has unique goals, and sometimes the individual must move away from becoming antifragile to accomplish their goal. Maybe blindly aiming for antifragility in all contexts actually creates a fragile system. Possible confusions like these explain why context always trumps the model being used, but this mental model is valuable in certain contexts and knowing it may over-compensate your process of decision-making. Continue to become Antifragile.

Big Hitters and Quotes

  • Domain Dependence: the inability to take higher level lessons in one domain, or area or category of activity and apply them in other domains
    • For example, some doctors prescribe exercises to promote resilience, but also prescribe painkillers to reduce stress perception.
  • Causal Opacity: difficulty of seeing cause to consequence when regarding complex systems
    • “In the complex world, the notion of ‘cause’ itself is suspect; it is either nearly impossible to detect or not really defined.”
  • Stress-testing a system using the worst cases in the past to estimates its resilience is problematic
    • Lucretius Problem: the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one has has observed
  • Information is antifragile because “it feeds more on attempts to harm it than it does on efforts to promote it.”
    • Therefore, types of information like reputation and fame should not be controlled. Caring less about it may give you more.
  • “We know more than we think we do, a lot more than we can articulate.”
  • “Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks. Overcompensation here again.”
  • “Your body gets information about the environment not through your logical apparatus, your intelligence and ability to reason, compute, and calculate, but through stress, via hormones or other messengers we haven’t discovered yet.”
    • Recovery allows stressors to do their jobs as messengers.
  • “My mood, my sadness, my bouts of anxiety are a second source of intelligence—perhaps even the first source.”

Overall Score:  5.2/10

Alright, Franky. I recommend listening to Nassim Taleb speak about the subject before getting the book. Some criticize him for sounding a bit too pompous when he speaks, and I’d say he tends to write in a similar manner. 

The book’s actual content gets a 1.2 for its premise and long-reaching examples, because the book fails to generate any strategies for becoming antifragile. Such suggestions would probably be dangerously generalizing and under-appreciative of the context of application. But that’s the thing about these globally applicable, theoretical measures. The most important lesson I took away from this book is the importance of context and perspective. Fragility can be applied to so many areas because it subtly shifts between different contextual hierarchies. Although indirect, I thought this lesson was worth the remaining 4 points. Maybe you’ll learn something else.

About Author:

Jaymin Chang, ATC

– Former intern at Northeastern University Sports Performance

– Current Graduate Student at Teachers College, Columbia University (New York City, New York)




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