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Nassim Nicholas Taleb on How to Be More Antifragile

By Brian Stoffel - Apr 3, 2018 at 12:33PM

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If work is dull, don't do it, go stand outside in the cold, and much more.

Everything in the world can be classified into three categories:

  • The Fragile -- which breaks when exposed to stress, chaos, and variability over time.
  • The Robust-- which remains unchanged in the face of stress, chaos, and variability.
  • The Antifragile-- which becomes stronger when exposed to stress, chaos, and variability, up to a point.

Take the time to think a little, and you'll see antifragility all around you. When you lift weights, you are exposing yourself to stress and getting stronger in the process. A doctor gives a baby a vaccine -- a small stressor to the immune system -- because his or her body will grow stronger as a result. The examples are endless.

High angle of a group of fit people working out together during a weightlifting class at a gym.

Image source: Getty Images

Perhaps, then, it's fitting that I got to interview Nassim Nicholas Taleb -- a former trader, current professor of risk engineering at NYU, best-selling author, and the man who coined the word "antifragile" and wrote a book by the same name -- via Twitter.

Taleb has said that using Twitter is very antifragile: You might reach out to a celebrity and get turned down, but the downside is limited and the potential upside is huge. When I sent out this tweet -- trying to capture the essence of Taleb's most recent book, Skin in the Game -- the antifragility of the platform proved itself as he reached out for an interview. (Note: contains profanity)

During the interview, I asked him about what normal people could do -- outside of investing -- to make themselves more antifragile. Specifically, he mentioned:

  1. Fasting
  2. Weight lifting
  3. Challenging yourself
  4. Thermal variation ("Go stand outside in the cold")

On fasting

Although, we're not made to fast in modern society. In the particular environments where we are made to fast are environments where food is rare. You get, eventually, food -- but you don't have the chance to overeat too much.

And I've noticed that fasting programs me to be hungry all the time. So that's how you can gain weight although you're fasting. That isn't unhealthy, but it's one discovery I've made which that[sic] very unfortunate. In a typical environment, after fasting, you shouldn't get a lot of food. It's conditional on the environment -- you only fast because the environment doesn't give you food.

On lifting weights

One other trick from Antifragile: lift weights. But I'm still unsure whether the benefits are from gaining muscle or from having muscle. You still cannot disentangle one from the other.

I know that diabetes decreases more from losing weight. The stressor of losing weight is good for you. The stressor of putting muscle on -- I don't know what it is that it supports. Is it the stressor of putting muscles on you or is it simply having muscles?

On challenging yourself

I also learned that if you don't have periods of challenge, you have to create them. So I do math problems. I discovered that it's easier to solve difficult math problems than it is simple ones because of that regulation. You're more motivated.

If the idea of antifragility still seems mysterious, consider this: our mind and body are antifragile machines -- they need variation. We evolved through millennia to live in a certain environment -- namely, that of hunter-gatherers. Our would today may not provide the variation that our inner selves crave.

Fasting, lifting weights, exposing yourself to the cold -- these are all examples of introducing acute stress and variation to your life that (done properly) introduce no fatal risks, but give you the opportunity to grow stronger over time. 

Research on this is growing over time: regular bouts of short exposures to cold have proven to not only make those winter treks to your car more bearable, but it can boost the immune system and improve circulation.

Fasting, on the other hand, may not lead to permanent weight loss, but it does help in other ways. Intermittent fasting in particular has been shown to improve insulin levels and reduce inflammation, among other benefits.

Applying this to your own (financial) life

If you're still looking for ways to make your own life more antifragile, there's a simple heuristic I use when evaluating any activity in my own life: What's the potential downside to this versus the potential upside?

That might seem overly simplistic, but it helps explain a huge swath of approaches to life that don't seem like they'd work, but end up paying huge benefits.

  • It explains why venture capitalism works -- you can lose 100% of your investments on many prospects, but only need one to be a "unicorn" to be very successful.
  • If you routinely seek outlandish opportunities -- a raise from your boss, an interview with a celebrity, a job that seems out of reach -- the most you have to lose is short-term rejection, but the upside is life-altering.
  • When you're just out of college (or high school), offer to work for free at your desired employer for three months. Live at home during those three months. If it doesn't work out, you'll still be fine and have learned a lot. If it does work out, you have the job of your dreams.

This also helps us understand why debt can be so detrimental: It reduces your options and your antifragility. You can't make investments if you're in debt. You can't offer to work for free for three months if you have huge student-debt obligations. The list goes on.

This is why I'm such a big fan of community colleges, trade schools, and former Fool Morgan Housel's plan for how non-rich people can go to college without crippling debt. This isn't to say that going to college -- or taking on reasonable debt to do so -- is bad. We've all seen the statistics about suppressed earnings for those who don't go to college. But there's certainly more than one way to skin this cat.

The underlying principle can be applied across all facets of life, not just finances, and not just in terms of diet and exercise: acute stress and lots of rest. Introduce variation into your life that's non-fatal. Learn from it. Don't be deterred by the obstacles. The wisdom you gain from your failures will snowball over time, opening up opportunities that you never thought possible.

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