I've read 289 books in the past four years. Some were awful. Others were incredible. But I took notes on all of them.
I've never known what to do with these notes. Then I got an idea: I'll dump some of the highlights into a weekly article.
Antifragile by Nassim Taleb teaches us how some things gain from disorder. Some things are fragile -- they don't like chaos. Other things are robust -- they don't care if things are crazy. Antifragile things getting better and stronger when the world is falling apart.
Here are six things I learned from the book.
1. Innovation comes from necessity.
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, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity (from the unintended side effects of, say, an initial invention or attempt at invention). Naturally, there are classical thoughts on the subject, with a Latin saying that sophistication is born out of hunger (artificia docuit fames). The idea pervades classical literature: in Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up the genius (ingenium mala saepe movent), which translates in Brooklyn English into "When life gives you a lemon ..."The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates!
In writing, I feel corrupt and unethical if I have to look up a subject in a library as part of the writing itself. This acts as a filter — it is the only filter. If the subject is not interesting enough for me to look it up independently, for my own curiosity or purposes, and I have not done so before, then I should not be writing about it at all, period. It does not mean that libraries (physical and virtual) are not acceptable; it means that they should not be the source of any idea. Students pay to write essays on topics for which they have to derive knowledge from a library as a self-enhancement exercise; a professional who is compensated to write and is taken seriously by others should use a more potent filter. Only distilled ideas, ones that sit in us for a long time, are acceptable — and those that come from reality.
To take one example, risk management professionals look in the past for information on the so-called worst-case scenario and use it to estimate future risks — this method is called "stress testing." They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time. I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed.
If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don't need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution , an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything — you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy.
A complex system, contrary to what people believe, does not require complicated systems and regulations and intricate policies. The simpler, the better. Complications lead to multiplicative chains of unanticipated effects. Because of opacity, an intervention leads to unforeseen consequences, followed by apologies about the "unforeseen" aspect of the consequences, then to another intervention to correct the secondary effects, leading to an explosive series of branching "unforeseen" responses, each one worse than the preceding one. Yet simplicity has been difficult to implement in modern life because it is against the spirit of a certain brand of people who seek sophistication so they can justify their profession.
While in the past people of rank or status were those and only those who took risks, who had the downside for their actions, and heroes were those who did so for the sake of others, today the exact reverse is taking place. We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D. (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/ or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price. At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control.
Contact Morgan Housel at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.