Joseph Ruocco

Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble. I hold—it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction—that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity

difficulty is what wakes up the genius (ingenium mala saepe movent

Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity

How to Win a Horse Race Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks. Overcompensation, here again

How to Win a Horse Race It is all about redundancy. Nature likes to overinsure itself.

How to Win a Horse Race Layers of redundancy are the central risk management property of natural systems

How to Win a Horse Race If you ingest, say, fifteen milligrams of a poisonous substance, your body may prepare for twenty or more, and as a side effect will get stronger overall. These extra five milligrams of poison that you can withstand are no different from additional stockpiles of vital or necessary goods, say

How to Win a Horse Race But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time

How to Win a Horse Race believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed

which advanced a certain indifference to fate. His

becomes pure robustness—for the attainment of a state of immunity from one’s external circumstances, good or bad, and an absence of

Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as a punishment as we depend on them. All upside, no downside. Even more: dependence on circumstances—rather, the emotions that arise from circumstances—induces a form of slavery.

Livy: “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad” (segnius homines bona quam mala sentiunt), he

Actually the method of mentally adjusting “to the worst” had advantages way beyond the therapeutic, as it made me take a certain class of risks for which the worst case is clear and unambiguous, with limited and known downside

Seneca was all deeds, and we cannot ignore the fact that he kept the wealth. It is central that he showed his preference of wealth without harm from wealth to poverty

On the Irreversibility of Broken Packages As Publilius Syrus wrote, nothing can be done both hastily and safely—almost nothing.

Seneca’s Barbell More barbells. Do crazy things (break furniture once in a while), like the Greeks during the later stages of a drinking symposium, and stay “rational” in larger decisions. Trashy gossip magazines and classics or sophisticated works; never middlebrow stuff. Talk to either undergraduate students, cab drivers, and gardeners or the highest caliber scholars; never to middling-but-career-conscious academics. If you dislike someone, leave him alone or eliminate him; don’t attack him verbally.2 So take for now that a barbell strategy with respect to randomness results in achieving antifragility thanks to the mitigation of fragility, the clipping of

Seneca’s Barbell The rules are: no smoking, no sugar (particularly fructose), no motorcycles, no bicycles in town or more generally outside a traffic-free area such as the Sahara desert, no mixing with the Eastern European mafias, and no getting on a plane not flown by a professional

Seneca’s Barbell pilot (unless there is a co-pilot). Outside of these I can take all manner of professional and personal risks, particularly those in which there is no risk of terminal injury.

Seneca’s Barbell My writing approach is as follows: on one hand a literary essay that can be grasped by anyone and on the other technical papers, nothing in between—such as interviews with journalists or newspaper articles or op-ed pieces, outside of the requirements of publishers.

Do You Really Know Where You Are Going? So let us call here the teleological fallacy the illusion that you know exactly where you are going, and that you knew exactly where you were going in the past, and that others have succeeded in the past by knowing where they were going.

Do You Really Know Where You Are Going? The rational flâneur is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision at every step to revise his schedule, so he can imbibe things based on new information, what Nero was trying to practice in

Do You Really Know Where You Are Going? The opposite of opportunism in human relations is loyalty, a noble sentiment—but one that needs to be invested in the right places, that is, in human relations and moral commitments

Do You Really Know Where You Are Going? America’s Principal Asset

But Thales, as a philosopher, was characteristically impecunious

the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you

Option and Asymmetry Authors, artists, and even philosophers are much better off having a very small number of fanatics behind them than a large number of people who appreciate their work. The number of persons who dislike the work don’t count—there is no such thing as the opposite of buying your book, or the equivalent of losing points in a soccer game, and this absence of negative domain for book sales provides the author with a measure of optionality.

Option and Asymmetry No one at present dares to state the obvious: growth in society may not come from raising the

Option and Asymmetry Asian way, but from increasing the number of people in the “tails,” that small, very small number of risk takers crazy enough to have ideas of their own, those endowed with that very rare ability called imagination, that rarer quality called courage, and who make things happen.

The Thalesian and the Aristotelian This property allowing us to be

The Thalesian and the Aristotelian stupid, or, alternatively, allowing us to get more results than the knowledge may warrant, I

Conjecture, quarks, shmarks, had to carry their suitcases through airport terminals, without thinking about applying their brain to such an insignificant transportation problem. (We said that the intellectual society rewards “difficult” derivations, compared to practice in which there is no penalty for simplicity.

it on your desk, then laptop—only he had a vision of the dialectic between images and humans—later adding sounds to a trilectic. The

the simpler and more obvious the discovery, the less equipped we are to figure it out by complicated methods

The key is that the significant can only be revealed through practice. How many of these simple, trivially simple heuristics are currently looking and laughing at us?

The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology Nobody discusses the possibility of the birds’ not needing lectures—and nobody has any incentive to look at the

The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology number of birds that fly without

The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology such help from the great scientific establishment.

The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology birds” with “men,” the idea that people learn to do things thanks to lectures becomes plausible

The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology in addition to the sad fact that history belongs to those who can write about it (whether winners or losers), a second bias appears, as those who write the accounts can deliver confirmatory facts (what has worked) but not a complete picture of what has worked and what has failed

The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology iatrogenics

Epiphenomena coxswain’s station with a large compass in front, you can easily develop the impression that the compass is directing the ship rather than merely reflecting its direction.

Epiphenomena But it is easy to fall into other epiphenomena, particularly when one is immersed in a news-driven culture.

Epiphenomena And how about areas out of the reach of mathematics? I thought right there of a different project

Epiphenomena a

Epiphenomena catalog of where mathematics

Epiphenomena fails to produce results, hence causes harm

Education → Wealth and Economic Growth or Wealth and Economic Growth → Education

But we know the opposite is true, that wealth leads to the rise of education—not an optical illusion

Serious empirical investigation (largely thanks to one Lant Pritchet, then a World Bank economist) shows no evidence that raising the general level of education raises income at the level of a country

I wonder why people don’t make

the epiphenomenal association between the wealth of a country and something “bad,” say, decadence, and infer that decadence, or some other disease of wealth like a high suicide rate, also generates wealth.)

Dickens, Victor Hugo, or Julien Gracq

Accordingly, I am not saying that knowledge is not important; the skepticism in this discussion applies to the brand of commoditized, prepackaged, and pink-coated knowledge, stuff one can buy in the open market and use for self-promotion

I interrupted him to state the point that America’s values were “convex” risk taking and that I am glad that we are not like these helicopter-mom cultures—the kind of thing I am writing here. Everyone was shocked, either confused or in heavy but passive disagreement, except for one person who came to lend her support to me. It turned out that she was the head of the New York City school system.

something psychologists call the halo effect, the mistake of thinking that skills in, say, skiing translate unfailingly into skills in managing a pottery workshop or a bank department, or that a good chess player would be a good strategist in real life

interesting their conversation, the more cultured they are, the more they will be trapped into thinking that they are effective at what they are doing in real business

The Green Lumber Fallacy Five is “Lady Godiva” or “ching,” fifteen is a “commodore,” twenty-five is a “pony,” etc. I had to learn cockney just to communicate, and mostly to go drinking, with my colleagues during my visits there; at

The Green Lumber Fallacy Unlike researchers, they were selected for survival, not complications

Prometheus and Epimetheus It is a way—the only way—to domesticate uncertainty, to work rationally without understanding the future

Prometheus and Epimetheus But let me change Popper’s idea ever so slightly (actually quite a bit): my take is that this evolution is not a competition between ideas, but between humans and systems based on such ideas. An idea does not survive because it is better than the

Prometheus and Epimetheus competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived

Prometheus and Epimetheus When you are fragile you need to know a lot more than when you are antifragile. Conversely, when you think you know more than you do, you are fragile (to error

For a minute I wondered if I was living on another planet or if the gentleman’s PhD and research career had led to this blindness and his strange loss of common sense—or if people without practical sense usually manage to get the energy and interest to acquire a PhD in the fictional world of equation economics.

The enlightened amateur, that is. The Reverends Thomas Bayes (as in Bayesian probability) and Thomas Malthus (Malthusian overpopulation) are the most famous. But there are many more surprises, cataloged in Bill Bryson’s Home, in which the author found ten times more vicars and clergymen leaving

embodies the Industrial Revolution. As we saw, we had a blueprint of how to build it from Hero of Alexandria. Yet the theory didn’t interest anyone for about two millennia. So practice and rediscovery had to be the cause of the interest in Hero’s blueprint, not the other way around.

second, consider textile technologies. Again, the main technologies that led to the jump into the modern world owe, according to Kealey, nothing to science. “In 1733,” he writes, “John Kay invented the flying shuttle, which mechanized weaving, and in 1770 James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, which as its name implies, mechanized spinning. These major developments in textile technology, as well as those of Wyatt and Paul (spinning frame, 1758), Arkwright (water frame, 1769), presaged the Industrial Revolution, yet they owed nothing to science; they were empirical

developments based on the trial, error, and experimentation of skilled craftsmen who were trying to improve the productivity, and so the profits, of their factories

a religious belief in the unconditional power of organized science, one that has replaced unconditional religious belief in organized religion.

The Inverse Turkey Problem First, “most companies” in Extremistan make no profit—the rare event dominates, and a small number of companies generate all the shekels. And whatever point he may have, in the presence of the kind of asymmetry and optionality we see in Figure 7, it is inconclusive, so it is better to write about another subject, something less harmful that may interest Harvard students, like how to make a convincing PowerPoint presentation or the difference in managerial cultures between the Japanese and the French

The Inverse Turkey Problem i) Look for optionality; in fact, rank things according to optionality, (ii) preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended, payoffs; (iii) Do not invest in business plans but in people, so look for someone capable of changing six or seven times over his career, or more (an idea that is part of the modus operandi of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen); one gets immunity from the backfit narratives of the business plan by investing in people. It is simply more robust to do so; (iv) Make sure you are barbelled, whatever that means in your business.

The Ecological and the Ludic nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom

The Ecological and the Ludic compatible) maps of reality

The Ecological and the Ludic Good students, but nerds—that is, they are like computers except slower

The Ecological and the Ludic Further, they are now totally untrained to handle ambiguity

The Ecological and the Ludic It is as if the mission of modernity was to squeeze every drop of variability and randomness out of life—with

The Ecological and the Ludic Lions in captivity live longer; they are technically richer, and they are guaranteed job security for life, if these are the criteria you are focusing on

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education It is exactly like options, trial and error, not getting stuck, bifurcating when necessary but keeping a sense of broad freedom and opportunism. Trial and error is freedom. (I confess I still use that method at the time of this writing

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education Avoidance of boredom is the only worthy mode of action. Life otherwise is not worth living

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Bishop Bossuet, Stendhal, Dante, Proust, Borges, Calvino, Céline,

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education Schultz, Zweig (didn’t like), Henry Miller, Max Brod, Kafka, Ionesco, the surrealists, Faulkner, Malraux (along with other wild adventurers such as Conrad

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Jaspers, Husserl, Lévi-Strauss, Levinas, Scholem, Benjamin,

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education Trollope to Burke, Macaulay, and Gibbon, with Anaïs Nin and other then fashionable authors de scandale)

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education just don’t flunk” was his condition. It was a barbell—play it safe at school and read on your own, have zero expectation from school

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education There is such a thing as nonnerdy applied mathematics: find a problem first, and figure out the math that works for it (just as one acquires language), rather than study in a vacuum through theorems and artificial examples, then change reality to make it look like these examples.

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education To this day I still have the instinct that the treasure, what one needs to know for a profession, is necessarily what lies outside the corpus, as far away from the center as possible.

An Antifragile (Barbell) Education what I was given to study in school I have forgotten; what I decided to read on my own, I still remember.

mistaking what we don’t see for the nonexistent, a sibling to mistaking

Euthyphro beginning of the Euthypro dialogue, he catches his interlocutor

Fat Tony Versus Socrates respectable reasons: he almost flunked out of high school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

Fat Tony Versus Socrates conversation, would have claimed one doesn’t argue with someone who is ready to pay you to argue with him

Fat Tony Versus Socrates He taught Nero that an answer is planted in every question; never respond with a straight answer to a question that makes no sense to you

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge it is the very goodness of knowledge that he questioned. It took me a long time to figure out the central problem that Nietzsche addressed in The Birth of Tragedy. He sees two forces, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. One is measured, balanced, rational, imbued with reason and self-restraint; the other is dark, visceral, wild, untamed, hard to understand, emerging from the inner layers of our selves

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge Perhaps—thus he [Socrates] should have asked himself—what is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent” is perhaps the most potent sentence in all of Nietzsche’s century—and we used a version of it in the prologue, in the very definition of the fragilista who mistakes

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge Nietzsche is also allergic to Socrates’ version of truth, largely motivated by the agenda of the promotion of understanding, since according to Socrates, one does not knowingly do evil—an argument that seems to have pervaded the Enlightenment as such thinkers as Condorcet made truth the only and sufficient source for the good.

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge vituperated

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge knowledge is the panacea;

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge Karl Marx, it is indeed Nietzsche who was first to coin the term with reference to Dionysus, whom he called “creatively destructive” and “destructively

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge creative.” Nietzsche indeed figured

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge I did not find explicitly stated in his work: that growth in knowledge—or in anything—cannot proceed without the Dionysian

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge Because structured learning likes the impoverishment and simplification of naive rationalism, easy to teach, not the rich texture of empiricism, and, as I said, those who attacked academic thinking had little representation (something that we will see is starkly apparent in

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge the history of medicine).

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge Nietzsche, the nineteenth-century French thinker Ernest Renan, knew, in addition to the usual

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge is something too small for him. While most of the accounts we hear of Socrates make him heroic, thanks to his death and his resignation to die in a philosophical way, he had some classical critics who believed that Socrates was destroying the foundations of society—the heuristics that are transmitted by the elders and that we may not be mature enough to question

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge quotes him as saying: “Socrates was a mighty babbler who tried to make himself tyrant of his country in order to destroy its customs and entice its citizens into holding views contrary to law and order

Primacy of Definitional Knowledge Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and political philosopher, who also countered the French Revolution for disrupting the “collected reasons of the ages.” He

The Sucker-Nonsucker Distinction The payoff, what happens to you (the benefits or harm from it), is always the most important thing, not the event itself.

The Sucker-Nonsucker Distinction True and False (hence what we call “belief

The Sucker-Nonsucker Distinction True and the False that dominates—and it is almost always asymmetric, with one consequence much bigger than the other, i.e., harboring positive and negative asymmetries (fragile or antifragile). Let me explain.

Conclusion to Book IV Asian and U.S. upper class a status luxury good. Harvard is like a Vuitton bag or a Cartier watch

Conclusion to Book IV name” to get ahead in life; but we know that collectively society doesn’t appear to advance with organized education

On the Importance of Attics and not to give lectures dancing on a stage; that he has other things to do, like read in bed in the morning, write at a desk in front of a window, take long walks (slowly), drink espressos (mornings), chamomile tea (afternoons), Lebanese wine (evenings), and Muscat wines (after dinner), take more long walks (slowly), argue with

On the Importance of Attics friends and family members (but never in the morning), and read (again) in bed before sleeping, not

On the Importance of Attics Lady Fortuna brought two ideas to me, making me feel stupid—for I realized I had had them inside me all along.


Traffic in New York

Traffic in New York Such personal discipline forces me to build buffers, and, as I carry a notebook, it allowed me to write an entire book of aphorisms

Small May Be Ugly, It Is Certainly Less Fragile Jared Diamond, always ahead of others, figured out such vulnerability in a paper called “Why Cats Have Nine

Small May Be Ugly, It Is Certainly Less Fragile Lives.” If you throw a cat or a mouse from an elevation of several times their height, they will typically manage to survive. Elephants, by comparison, break limbs very easily

Where the “Efficient” Is Not Efficient they are forced to invest, regardless of price

Where the “Efficient” Is Not Efficient say tuna, coffee or tea, rice, mozzarella, Cabernet wine, olive oil, and other items that appear to us as not easily substitutable

Barbells, Again As they say in the mafia, just work on removing the pebble in your shoe.

Admittedly it is certainly not very convincing to read denigrations of material wealth from a fellow writing the lines on one of his several hundred tables (with ivory legs). The traditional understanding

“I lost nothing,” after an adverse event. Stoicism makes you desire the challenge of a calamity. And Stoics look down on luxury: about a fellow who led a lavish life, Seneca wrote: “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another

This made them avoid considering that Seneca wanted the upside from fate, and there is nothing wrong with it.

It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time (though I need to qualify, to set things in the context of the day, that he had accompanying him “only one or two slaves”).

Now, the more asymmetries there are between the something and the function of something, then the more difference there is between the two. They may end up having nothing to do with each other.

Theory should stay independent from practice and vice versa—and we should not extract academic economists from their campuses and put them in positions of decision making. Economics is not a science and should not be there to advise policy.

The “right thing” here is typically an antifragile payoff. And my argument is that you don’t go to school to learn optionality, but the reverse: to become blind to it.

Optionality is Promethean,

sense—or if people without practical sense usually manage to get the energy and interest to acquire a PhD in the fictional world of equation economics. Is there a selection bias?