Wednesday 4 September 2013

Book Review: Antifragile

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an exceptional writer - though not entirely in a good way. He is variously described as a "superhero of the mind" (Boyd Tonkin) and "Wall Street's principal dissident" (Malcolm Gladwell), and much commentary focuses on his style more than his content. Few dispute that he is brilliant, though he feels compelled to demonstrate this with striking frequency.

His most recent book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder is an exciting challenge to received wisdom about adopting middle-of-the-road strategies in personal health and finance, macroeconomics and much more besides. But it comes with a strong dose of personal advertisement and gratuitous demonstration of Taleb's breadth of learning.

It is worth putting up with this though. The essence of his argument is that a spectrum runs from fragility through robustness to antifragility, and that we should seek to develop antifragility - the ability to become stronger through challenges - in our bodies, our finances, our politics and our economies.

With examples from a wide variety of disciplines Taleb illustrates that we often describe certain things as good or bad when in fact the key consideration is dose. By careful dose control we can increase our tolerances of many things that would otherwise be very harmful to us - and in doing so we increase our antifragility. Taleb himself reacts to this insight by training with streetfighters rather than personal trainers and investing in a contrarian portfolio.

His arguments have fascinating ramifications for individuals and policy makers. For example, he suggests that our public health systems are riven by agency risks and the malign influence of what he calls "iatrogenics". He praises entrepreneurs as the heroes of humanity - the people who knowingly or unknowingly take risks that probably condemn them to losses but drive forward progress for the societies to which they belong.

One of Taleb's interesting conclusions is that we are terrible at making complex judgements and that we should therefore trust the only reliable assessor of quality - time. In other words, we should suspend judgement on things (foods, medicines, concepts, philosophies) until they have stood the test of time. He points out that the best predictor of how long something will last is how long it has already lasted. As a result, he advocates drinking wine and coffee but avoids all processed foods.

This is an exciting and bold book and it may change your behaviour in any of several ways. You may consider changing your diet, your attitude to saving and investment and even your career. It is well worth reading.

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