“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes a fire.” The first line in “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
There is something about a book you read on a trip that stays with you. Probably because you are mentally and physically in flux, shifting, and the passages anchor you to a fixed point while at the same time making a deeper etch on your brain than that book you are picking up in bed instead of flipping on Letterman.
On my trip across the country last summer—having fled the overstuffed core of the Big Apple and an MSNBC news desk for a life of promoting kale, veterans, and kale-growing veterans—I carried what I fervently believe to be a very important book in at least the past quarter century, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile.”
What’s it about? Nassim says it best, “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
Everyone, from so-called risk management experts to bankers to boxers, are all repackaging and spitting out his ideas and, as a result, ideas like measured harm and exposure to potential danger (in the form of Taleb’s “stressors”) are infiltrating a wide variety of dialogue.
My strongest criticism of Taleb—mainly that his witty and charmingly arrogant prose makes the pursuit of measured harm and casting away of safe shores seem so important that one is tempted to forget that there will be harm in seeking measured harm.
Much like reading the clear, gracefully lucid passages in “A River Runs Through It” has lead to immeasurable amounts of swearing and tangled fly lines, “Antifragile” weaves a miraculously simple line of reasoning that is almost too good for the reader’s good.
Real creativity and progress only happen in that sweet spot that is outside of the comfort zone yet not so deep in that we are paralyzed by fear. While the Harvard Business Review likes to publish articles about it as much as financial journalists love to write about it, the reality of moving into this spot is frightening and booby-trapped with snares of doubt and uncertainty.
That I read this book as I was shifting from a stressful, albeit incredibly rewarding lifestyle in Manhattan which had worn in and settled around me like an old baseball glove and intentionally cast myself into unfamiliar acreage (literally, three of them here on the farm) only served to deepen my appreciation of Antifragility.
It provided no advice, nor was it a roadmap for this journey. Taleb doesn’t provide answers, but his questions felt familiar and asking them myself and finding my own answers does keep me sane on some long, dark nights in the west.
And for all of this what have I learned? Little so far. The wave hasn’t even crested yet and already it has been a wild ride, albeit with little time for real reflection. And anyway, a wise man once said that nobody knows the winners of the most important games until years after they are played.
I have joined a collaborative game and every player affects the variables. We are small pieces in a large puzzle, none of us sure of exactly where we fit, tumbling as we are through this adventure, and pulled by something that none of us quite understands.
It is a blazingly brilliant trip — but it is also sleepless nights on an upset stomach.
Two things: I’m not whining about my new scars and I’m not preaching to you about the need to get outside your comfort zone. My failures and successes have been of my own doing — except those successes that I owe to the team around me — and I wouldn’t wish the difficulty on an enemy or give away the joy at gunpoint.
This is just a view from where I’m sitting and, most of the time, I’m enjoying it.
I will leave you with the words of a man I suspect Nassim would appreciate. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a man who should pop into every mind that conjures the phrase “skin in the game.”
“If anyone says that the best life of all is to sail the sea, and then adds that I must not sail upon a sea where shipwrecks are a common occurrence and there are often sudden storms that sweep the helmsman in an adverse direction, I conclude that this man, although he lauds navigation, really forbids me to launch my ship.”
Onward and Upward!