Avi Gvili
ANTIFRAGILE
by Nassim Taleb

 In his new book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb presents the controversial thesis that disorder, difficulty, even pain is beneficial for people. He states from the outset:

"Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with  randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you   want to use them, not hide  from them. …We just don’t want to survive uncertainty and, in  addition—like a certain class of aggressive stoics—have the  last  word. The mission is how to domesticate, even conquer, the  unseen, the opaque, and the inexplicable. How?"

 How indeed! With wit and an engaging prose style, Taleb makes the case that difficulty and the problematic are on our side.  Spanning such subjects as biology, sociology, psychology and more, Taleb makes the case that welcoming the difficult can move organisms, humans and otherwise, forward into greater areas of strength and development. While I would hesitate to "conquer the unseen" I think Nassim Taleb points to a necessary and helpful seeing in people's lives. "Some thing like struggle is needed by the human being," writes philosopher Eli Siegel in his seminal text, Self & World.  "Something even like discontent is needed by the human being. ...One cannot think of a world made up of smooth roads strewn with roses and bordered by exceedingly accessible marshmallows.  The world, like the human body, is a compound of resistance and ease, obstruction and going forward, obstacle and companion." (p, 275)

Taleb has long been, to this writer, a keen observer of the modern world.  In his previous books, The Black Swan, and Fooled by Randomness, he describes the role of randomness and major chance events on shaping the world in which we live, and, in so doing, presents a cautionary tale to the people who believe we are in constant control, and that the modern hi-tech age has the solution to every question.

Antifragile, however, is a book with a subject that needs qualification. Taleb is accurate in stating that difficulty is a stepping stone that can lead to greater achievement.  Biology tells us that muscle growth occurs when muscle fiber tears and then rebuilds.  He usefully describes how bones become stronger through resistance, as in, for example, lifting weights.

But what about the difficulty of poverty, of disease, of conflict between nations? Are those necessary? Taleb does not clarify the difference between difficulty that can aid a person’s development and that which is unnecessary and debilitating such as in economics. Under the heading, “Why the Aggregate Hates the Individual” he writes the following:

"While sacrifice as a modus is obvious in the case of ant colonies, I am certain that individual      businessmen are not overly interested  in hara-kiri for the greater good of the economy. …That’s not  necessarily compatible with the interest of the collective—that is,  the economy. So there is a problem in which the property of the  sum ( the aggregate) varies from that of each one of the parts—in  fact, it wants harm to the parts. It is painful to think about  ruthlessness as an engine of improvement. (p.75)"

It may be painful but it is also false, and descriptive of cancerous cells who strike out on their own in the hope of completely and ruthlessly taking over the organism. Every good team, from the Yankees to those involved in bringing a revolutionary product to market, bring together the collective and the individual.  Moreover, the best teams are comprised of individuals who shine through their concerted effort in behalf of the collective.  Taleb mentions businessmen who disdain the collective and mercilessly strive for selfish and triumphant individualism. Certainly that isn’t news to anyone who has even a passing interest in the events of the day. Indeed, the lack of thought for the common good has been the cause of the many financial disasters that the United States has witnessed in the last decades. Yet, instances of businesses exist that do incorporate a feeling for the welfare of people. From Ben & Jerry’s to Costco, many successful organizations believe in taking care of their employees and the environment.  It’s not just disaster capitalism all the time.  Whether you agree with everything he writes or not, Antifragile is a book definitely worth reading. It will stimulate your thought about one of the biggest subjects in people’s lives—difficulty itself!

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