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Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) Hardcover – November 27, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2012: Fragile things break under stress. But, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, there's an entire class of other things that don't simply resist stress but actually grow, strengthen, or otherwise gain from unforeseen and otherwise unwelcome stimuli. Taleb sees degrees of antifragility everywhere, from fasting, mythology, and urban planning to economic, technological, cultural, and biological systems. The wealth of radical thinking in this book astounds; the glossary alone offered more thought-provoking ideas than any other nonfiction book I read this year. That said, Antifragile is far from flawless. As comical as Taleb's rough handling of his favorite targets can be--academics, economists, and tourists, to name a few--his argumentative style boasts gaping holes, non sequiturs aplenty, and at times an almost willfully repugnant tone. Some readers will find Taleb's brashness off-putting; others will embrace it as a charismatic component of the ideas themselves. Either way, no one will finish this book unchanged. --Jason Kirk
Judging by his anecdotes, Taleb interacts with the economic masters of the universe as he jets from New York to London or attends business-politics confabs in Davos, Switzerland. Anything but awed by them, Taleb regards them as charlatans, not as credible experts. Such skepticism toward elites, which imbued Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007), continues in this work, which grapples with a concept Taleb coins as “antifragile.” Not readily reducible to a definition (Taleb takes the whole book to develop the idea), suffice to say here that antifragile’s opposites—economic, political, or medical systems that are vulnerable to sudden collapse—tend to be managed by highly educated people who think they know how systems work. But they don’t, avers Taleb. Their confidence in control is illusory; their actions harm rather than help. In contrast, Taleb views decentralized systems—the entrepreneurial business rather than the bureaucratized corporation, the local rather than the central government—as more adaptable to systemic stresses. Emphatic in his style and convictions, Taleb grabs readers given to musing how the world works. --Gilbert Taylor
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Taleb conveniently quotes one of his friend's summary of this book: "Everything gains or loses from volatility. Fragility is what loses from volatility and uncertainty."
I think the point is better expressed by rephrasing: "Antifragility is what gains from volatility and uncertainty, up to a point. And being antifragile is a good thing."
Well, that's pretty much summarizes this 500-pages-long book. The rest is an accumulation of more or less relevant topics, delivered in Taleb's trademarked seering, holier-than-thou, hero-or-moron style. Why, even in "Dynamic hedging", his first, $100-book on trading exotic options, he was already both immensely entertaining and almost unbearably infuriating.
1.2 A few of the more interesting points:
1.2.1 Every phenomenon in the world belongs to one of the following categories:
Fragile: vulnerable to unforeseen shocks
Robust: indifferent to shocks
Antifragile: thrive on shocks, up to a point.
That's what Taleb calls the Triad.
1.2.2 Most modern structures are inherently fragile
Salaried employment: while it looks safe on the surface (predictable salary every month) it is subject to the catastrophic risk of losing one's job.
Debt-fueled economies: debt has no flexibility, so these economies can't stand even a slowdown without risking implosion (cf current situation)
Modern societies: efficiency demands are pushing the structures to the maximum, so a little sand in the cogs make the whole edifice totter.
Touristification: turning adventures (kids growing up, people visiting foreign countries) from exciting, dangerous activities into bland, Disneyfied and safe ones.
1.2.3 Ways to be antifragile include:
Stressors: it is healthy to be subject to some punctual stresses to awake the organism from complacency (e.g. irregular meal times, violent exercise or ingesting small amounts of poison)
Barbell strategy: put 90% of your eggs into something super-safe and be very risk-seeking with the other 10% (swing for the fences).
Optionality: get into situations where downside is limited but upside is unlimited (non-linearity)
Redundancy: have more than one way to have things done.
Less is more: don't add unnecessary things.
Tinkering: empiricism is better than top-down academic research
Small is beautiful: large organizations are inherently fragile, but small structures are well adapted to be nimble and profit from unexpected opportunities.
1.2.4 For small troubles, better trust nature and do nothing than bring untested methods that can have tragic unforeseen consequence
Beware of neomania: don't embrace novelty for the sake of it
Stick to time-tested methods: what has stood the test of time has proved to be robust
Don't sweat the small stuff if it can lead to tragedy: radiation used to cure acne leading to leukemia, thalidomide prescribed to reduce morning sickness leading to malformed babies.
1.2.5 An antidote to the lack of accountability seen in the powerfuls who rule us (government officials, corporate honchos, bankers)
Have them have skin in the game, i.e. to share in the downside of their decisions. Taleb quotes the 3000-year-old+ Hammurabi code, "eye for an eye, teeth for a teeth."
So, what's the score? As with his other books, I found myself reading every page the first 40-50 pages, then turning the pages faster and faster as the neat, amusing prose turns into Fidel Castro-style interminable ramblings, hyperboles and inaccuracies, annoying personal anecdotes, and worst of all, the silly little tales with his imaginary heroes Nero Tulip and Fat Tony (Tulip seems to be some kind of idealized version of Taleb himself). One or two hours for the first third, 40 minutes for the second and 15 minutes for the last.
And I'll spare (or maybe not) the "very technical" appendix 2 with its silly little formula he seems to be so proud of. Thanks for teaching us high-school math about convexity (Jensen inequality as if it were rocket science? Come on!)
The basic point is sound however: we sure all need a bit more antifragility in our lives.
If we only ditched what is unnecessary (going to the doctor for trivial stuff, seeking novelty for the sake of it, buying stuff we don't need), we'd have gone a long way toward being more robust.
But going beyond that is more problematic: Taleb waxed lyrical about the upside of antifragility, but he says nothing about its cost.
And seeing how he came to his idea from the world of options trading, it looks dishonest. In options trading, when you buy and option and get all the good stuff associated with it (unlimited upside, limited downside), the flipside is that it costs money everyday (time decay). Spending all your time buying options is quite a good way to the poorhouse.
As in the financial world, so in the real world, unless you're talking about "free optionality" (the people who don't have skin in the game that Taleb reviles). Maybe being a free agent beats being an office drone because one doesn't need to fear getting fired, but what about the daily stress of needing to go out and find work without any certainty to get it? That's a cost that's a bit too high for probably most people.
In conclusion, this is an imperfect, overlong and often eye-roll-inducing book (as is usual for Taleb), but it presents an intriguing and original argument for the reader to chew on.
Breathtaking in its delivery, this book cannot be digested in a single session and must be re-read time and again to assimilate all its valuable nuggets of truth.
This book answers the question "Why do individual, central, and global banks inevitably collapse, losing all of their historical profits, literally overnight, while for restaurants it is usually only individual restaurants fail. Why has there never been a global restaurant melt-down?" The answer to this question, when asked about many different domains, is probably more important to you than you think.
In Antifragile, Taleb made me aware of several cognitive biases that made me hold contradictory beliefs in different domains. For example, I believe that collaborative, distributed, decision making is the best way to run the internet - both technologically and policy wise. Yet I strongly supported the ever growing executive powers of the EU, believing that the individual countries governments are basically corrupt and easily corrupted. So removing the power to decide on the Irish economy from local (and international) lobbyists with hidden agendas, able to wield undue influence on the government, and putting that power into the hands of EU bureaucrats with no bias seems to make sense. Yet, this is exactly why people in governments are so easily corruptible - it is easy to lie to, and steal from, people whom they don't know, and will probably never meet in person. And easy to move numbers on a spreadsheet and justify sweeping socio-economic hardship if all you are looking at is numbers, not real individual people that you personally know. If you are the local mayor of a small village, then you have to look your victims in the eye, and will be caught out much sooner. So - in fact, city states make much more sense - historically they performed much better than countries, and the modern equivalent of the loose alliance between small practically independent regions in Switzerland works today (and has weathered the storms of major economic collapses profitably over the last hundred years) . So small local government is Antifragile (if petty and boring) while central governments, and central banks, (though not boring, but still petty on a much more damaging scale) make systems fragile - as the recent economic crashes have yet again proven.
Read this book to become aware of societal, and probably your own, biases. Knowing where your thinking is too much influenced by nonsense "accepted wisdom", and which "old wives tales" are actually valid heuristics that should be more broadly applied, may not change the world, but might make your life a bit better. Apply it to your business to become resilient and more profitable when the next calamity strikes your industry or economy - instead of following the lemmings over the inevitable recurring fiscal cliff.
So read this book. Today. Really!