Whatever the Weather


Gillian Tett reviews Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, in the FT:

So what advice can Taleb offer? His central argument is encapsulated in the title. Until now, Taleb says, modern society has generally assumed that people, systems or institutions fell into two camps: either they were fragile (and likely to break when shocks occur) or robust (and thus able to resist shocks without being impacted at all). Taleb insists there is a third category of people, institutions and systems that are resilient in a way we have been unable to articulate: they survive shocks not because they are immovable but precisely because they do change, bending in the face of stress; adapting and learning. This is the quality that he describes as “antifragile”. (In the US the book is being published with the rather more explicit subtitle “Things that Gain from Disorder”.)

Taleb goes on to explain how this works: while nation-states tend to be fragile (because they are highly dependent on one vision of the nation), city-states tend to be antifragile (because they can adapt and learn from history). Careers that are based on one large employer can be fragile but careers that are flexible and entrepreneurial are antifragile, because they can move with changing times. Similarly, the banking system is fragile, while Silicon Valley is antifragile; governments that are highly indebted are fragile, while those (such as Sweden) which have learnt from past mistakes and refuse to assume too much debt are antifragile. And Switzerland is presented as one of the most antifragile places of all, partly because its decentralised structure allows for plenty of experimentation.

Expressed like this, Taleb’s argument about the merits of resilience – and change – might seem almost laughably simple. However, the book develops the theme on multiple levels. Some of his arguments are highly technical: he uses mathematical techniques to prove how the antifragile concept can be measured, and to demonstrate why popular statistical measures of probability are wrong.

Speaking of resilience, this piece by Ashwin Parameswaran in interesting, perhaps a bit technical.

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