And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.
Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything … by suppressing randomness and volatility.
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.
The chief ethical rule is the following: Thou shalt not have antifragility at the expense of the fragility of others.
An annoying aspect of the Black Swan problem—in fact the central, and largely missed, point—is that the odds of rare events are simply not computable.
The antifragile gains from prediction errors, in the long run. If you follow this idea to its conclusion, then many things that gain from randomness should be dominating the world today—and things that are hurt by it should be gone. Well, this turns out to be the case.
The fragilista falls for the Soviet-Harvard delusion, the (unscientific) overestimation of the reach of scientific knowledge. Because of such delusion, he is what is called a naive rationalist, a rationalizer, or sometimes just a rationalist, in the sense that he believes that the reasons behind things are automatically accessible to him.
In short, the fragilista (medical, economic, social planning) is one who makes you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.
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.
Heuristics are simplified rules of thumb that make things simple and easy to implement. But their main advantage is that the user knows that they are not perfect, just expedient, and is therefore less fooled by their powers. They become dangerous when we forget that.
I suddenly realized one day that fragility—which had been lacking a technical definition—could be expressed as what does not like volatility, and that what does not like volatility does not like randomness, uncertainty, disorder, errors, stressors, etc.
Consider that if you can suffer limited harm and are antifragile to small errors, time brings the kind of errors or reverse errors that end up benefiting you. This is simply what your grandmother calls experience. The fragile breaks with time.
Further, many writers and scholars speak in private, say, after half a bottle of wine, differently from the way they do in print. Their writing is certifiably fake, fake.
Compromising is condoning. The only modern dictum I follow is one by George Santayana: A man is morally free when … he judges the world, and judges other men, with uncompromising sincerity. This is not just an aim but an obligation.
Commerce, business, Levantine souks (though not large-scale markets and corporations) are activities and places that bring out the best in people, making most of them forgiving, honest, loving, trusting, and open-minded.
As a member of the Christian minority in the Near East, I can vouch that commerce, particularly small commerce, is the door to tolerance—the only door, in my opinion, to any form of tolerance. It beats rationalizations and lectures. Like antifragile tinkering, mistakes are small and rapidly forgotten.
For example: the centralized nation-state is on the far left of the Triad, squarely in the fragile category, and a decentralized system of city-states on the far right, in the antifragile one.
If you want to become antifragile, put yourself in the situation “loves mistakes”—to the right of “hates mistakes”—by making these numerous and small in harm. We will call this process and approach the “barbell” strategy.
Or take the health category. Adding is on the left, removing to the right. Removing medication, or some other unnatural stressor—say, gluten, fructose, tranquilizers, nail polish, or some such substance—by trial and error is more robust than adding medication, with unknown side effects, unknown in spite of the statements about “evidence” and shmevidence.
Debt always puts you on the left, fragilizes economic systems. And things are antifragile up to a certain level of stress. Your body benefits from some amount of mishandling, but up to a point—it would not benefit too much from being thrown down from the top of the Tower of Babel.
Hydra, in Greek mythology, is a serpent-like creature that dwells in the lake of Lerna, near Argos, and has numerous heads. Each time one is cut off, two grow back. So harm is what it likes. Hydra represents antifragility.
It is not well known that many colors we take for granted had no name for a long time, and had no names in the central texts in Western culture.
I contacted Guy Deutscher. He was extremely generous with his help and pointed out to me that the ancients even lacked words for something as elementary as blue.
But since abundance would bring the opposite effect, this episodic caloric restriction can be also interpreted as follows: too much regular food is bad for you, and depriving humans of the stressor of hunger may make them live less than their full potential; so all hormesis seems to be doing is reestablishing the natural dosage for food and hunger in humans. In other words, hormesis is the norm, and its absence is what hurts us.
He informed me—in response to the idea of antifragility—of a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, the opposite of post-traumatic stress syndrome, by which people harmed by past events surpass themselves. I had never heard about it before, and, to my great shame, had never made the effort to think of its existence: there is a small literature but it is not advertised outside a narrow discipline.
The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates! This message from the ancients is vastly deeper than it seems. It contradicts modern methods and ideas of innovation and progress on many levels, as we tend to think that innovation comes from bureaucratic funding, through planning, or by putting people through a Harvard Business School class by one Highly Decorated Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (who never innovated anything) or hiring a consultant (who never innovated anything).
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.
When I was a pit trader (one of those crazy people who stand in a crowded arena shouting and screaming in a continuous auction), I learned that the noise produced by the person is inverse to the pecking order: as with mafia dons, the most powerful traders were the least audible. One should have enough self-control to make the audience work hard to listen, which causes them to switch into intellectual overdrive. This paradox of attention has been a little bit investigated: there is empirical evidence of the effect of “disfluency.” Mental effort moves us into higher gear, activating more vigorous and more analytical brain machinery.
The same can be seen in the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which experienced a catastrophic failure in 2011 when a tsunami struck. It had been built to withstand the worst past historical earthquake, with the builders not imagining much worse—and not thinking that the worst past event had to be a surprise, as it had no precedent.
So, rather than taking lessons, I watched him train. He was into the “maximum lifts” type of training and swore by it, as he found it the most effective and least time-consuming. This method consisted of short episodes in the gym in which one focused solely on improving one’s past maximum in a single lift, the heaviest weight one could haul, sort of the high-water mark. The workout was limited to trying to exceed that mark once or twice, rather than spending time on un-entertaining time-consuming repetitions.
As my grandfather, his eldest son, was starting his administrative and hopefully political career, his father summoned him to his deathbed. “My son, I am very disappointed in you,” he said. “I never hear anything wrong said about you. You have proven yourself incapable of generating envy.”
Take this easy-to-use heuristic (which is, to repeat the definition, a simple compressed rule of thumb) to detect the independence and robustness of someone’s reputation. With few exceptions, those who dress outrageously are robust or even antifragile in reputation; those clean-shaven types who dress in suits and ties are fragile to information about them.
When you don’t have debt you don’t care about your reputation in economics circles—and somehow it is only when you don’t care about your reputation that you tend to have a good one. Just as in matters of seduction, people lend the most to those who need them the least.
Typically, the natural—the biological—is both antifragile and fragile, depending on the source (and the range) of variation. A human body can benefit from stressors (to get stronger), but only to a point.
In the complex world, the notion of “cause” itself is suspect; it is either nearly impossible to detect or not really defined—another reason to ignore newspapers, with their constant supply of causes for things.
It turns out, as shown by Karsenty and others who have since embarked on the line of research, that the reverse is also largely true: loss of bone density and degradation of the health of the bones also causes aging, diabetes, and, for males, loss of fertility and sexual function.
Further, the story of the bones and the associated misunderstanding of interconnectedness illustrates how lack of stress (here, bones under a weight-bearing load) can cause aging, and how depriving stress-hungry antifragile systems of stressors brings a great deal of fragility which we will transport to political systems in Book II.
Such a stressor would be certainly better than the mild but continuous stress of a boss, mortgage, tax problems, guilt over procrastinating with one’s tax return, exam pressures, chores, emails to answer, forms to complete, daily commutes—things that make you feel trapped in life. In other words, the pressures brought about by civilization.
The fragilista mistakes the economy for a washing machine that needs monthly maintenance, or misconstrues the properties of your body for those of a compact disc player.
Not only are we averse to stressors, and don’t understand them, but we are committing crimes against life, the living, science, and wisdom, for the sake of eliminating volatility and variation.
There may be a few good reasons to be on medication, in severely pathological cases, but my mood, my sadness, my bouts of anxiety, are a second source of intelligence—perhaps even the first source. I get mellow and lose physical energy when it rains, become more meditative, and tend to write more and more slowly then, with the raindrops hitting the window, what Verlaine called autumnal “sobs” (sanglots).
My friend Chad benefited from the kind of disorder that is less and less prevalent thanks to the modern disease of touristification. This is my term for an aspect of modern life that treats humans as washing machines, with simplified mechanical responses—and a detailed user’s manual. It is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness from things, trying to make matters highly predictable in their smallest details. All that for the sake of comfort, convenience, and efficiency.
We will see how touristification castrates systems and organisms that like uncertainty by sucking randomness out of them to the last drop—while providing them with the illusion of benefit.
But the worse touristification is the life we moderns have to lead in captivity, during our leisure hours: Friday night opera, scheduled parties, scheduled laughs. Again, golden jail. This “goal-driven” attitude hurts deeply inside my existential self.
Writing is only worth it when it provides us with the tingling effect of adventure, which is why I enjoy the composition of books and dislike the straitjacket of the 750-word op-ed, which, even without the philistinism of the editor, bores me to tears.
Further, in an ancestral habitat we humans were prompted by natural stimuli—fear, hunger, desire—that made us work out and become fit for our environment. Consider how easy it is to find the energy to lift a car if a crying child is under it, or to run for your life if you see a wild animal crossing the street. Compare this to the heaviness of the obligation to visit the gym at the planned 6 P.M. and be bullied there by some personal trainer—unless of course you are under the imperative to look like a bodyguard.
Ancestral life had no homework, no boss, no civil servants, no academic grades, no conversation with the dean, no consultant with an MBA, no table of procedure, no application form, no trip to New Jersey, no grammatical stickler, no conversation with someone boring you: all life was random stimuli and nothing, good or bad, ever felt like work.4 Dangerous, yes, but boring, never.
In fact, the most interesting aspect of evolution is that it only works because of its antifragility; it is in love with stressors, randomness, uncertainty, and disorder—while individual organisms are relatively fragile, the gene pool takes advantage of shocks to enhance its fitness.
Even when there is extinction of an entire species after some extreme event, no big deal, it is part of the game. This is still evolution at work, as those species that survive are fittest and take over from the lost dinosaurs—evolution is not about a species, but at the service of the whole of nature.
The same with cancer therapy: quite often cancer cells that manage to survive the toxicity of chemotherapy and radiation reproduce faster and take over the void made by the weaker cells.
When you starve yourself of food, it is the bad proteins that are broken down first and recycled by your own body—a process called autophagy. This is a purely evolutionary process, one that selects and kills the weakest for fitness.
If every trial provides you with information about what does not work, you start zooming in on a solution—so every attempt becomes more valuable, more like an expense than an error.
For the antifragile, harm from errors should be less than the benefits.
The engineer and historian of engineering Henry Petroski presents a very elegant point. Had the Titanic not had that famous accident, as fatal as it was, we would have kept building larger and larger ocean liners and the next disaster would have been even more tragic. So the people who perished were sacrificed for the greater good; they unarguably saved more lives than were lost.
Further, my characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on. These types often consider themselves the “victims” of some large plot, a bad boss, or bad weather.
We saw that the restaurant business is wonderfully efficient precisely because restaurants, being vulnerable, go bankrupt every minute, and entrepreneurs ignore such a possibility, as they think that they will beat the odds. In other words, some class of rash, even suicidal, risk taking is healthy for the economy—under the condition that not all people take the same risks and that these risks remain small and localized.
The great benefit of the Enlightenment has been to bring the individual to the fore, with his rights, his freedom, his independence, his “pursuit of happiness” (whatever that “happiness” means), and, most of all, his privacy.
This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing—and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.
In other words, a point worth repeating every time it applies, this avoidance of small mistakes makes the large ones more severe.
Switzerland is the most antifragile place on the planet; it benefits from shocks that take place in the rest of the world.
This great variety of people and their wallets are there, in Switzerland, for its shelter, safety, and stability. But all these refugees don’t notice the obvious: the most stable country in the world does not have a government. And it is not stable in spite of not having a government; it is stable because it does not have one. Ask random Swiss citizens to name their president, and count the proportion of people who can do so—they can usually name the presidents of France or the United States but not their own.
It is not quite true that the Swiss do not have a government. What they do not have is a large central government, or what the common discourse describes as “the” government—what governs them is entirely bottom-up, municipal of sorts, regional entities called cantons, near-sovereign mini-states united in a confederation.
Note for now that this is the last major country that is not a nation-state, but rather a collection of small municipalities left to their own devices.
The way people handle local affairs is vastly different from the way they handle large, abstract public expenditures: we have traditionally lived in small units and tribes and managed rather well in small units.
An administration is shielded from having to feel the sting of shame (with flushing in his face), a biological reaction to overspending and other failures such as killing people in Vietnam. Eye contact with one’s peers changes one’s behavior. But for a desk-grounded office leech, a number is just a number. Someone you see in church Sunday morning would feel uncomfortable for his mistakes—and more responsible for them.
The one case is a tragedy, the other a statistic. Our emotional energy is blind to probability. The media make things worse as they play on our infatuation with anecdotes, our thirst for the sensational, and they cause a great deal of unfairness that way. At the present time, one person is dying of diabetes every seven seconds, but the news can only talk about victims of hurricanes with houses flying in the air.
Note another element of Switzerland: it is perhaps the most successful country in history, yet it has traditionally had a very low level of university education compared to the rest of the rich nations. Its system, even in banking during my days, was based on apprenticeship models, nearly vocational rather than the theoretical ones. In other words, on techne (crafts and know how), not episteme (book knowledge, know what).
A turkey is fed for a thousand days by a butcher; every day confirms to its staff of analysts that butchers love turkeys “with increased statistical confidence.” The butcher will keep feeding the turkey until a few days before Thanksgiving. Then comes that day when it is really not a very good idea to be a turkey.
Then two events took place. First, after the Great War, one part of the northern Levant was integrated into the newly created nation of Syria, separated from its other section, now part of Lebanon. The entire area had been until then part of the Ottoman Empire, but functioned as somewhat autonomous regions—Ottomans, like the Romans before them, let local elites run the place so long as sufficient tax was paid, while they focused on their business of war.
Then, a few decades into the life of Syria, the modernist Baath Party came to further enforce utopias. As soon as the Baathists centralized the place and enforced their statist laws, Aleppo and Emesa went into instant decline. What the Baath Party did, in its “modernization” program, was to remove the archaic mess of the souks and replace them with the crisp modernism of the office building.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, citing him: “It seemed, wrote Machiavelli, that in the midst of murders and civil wars, our republic became stronger [and] its citizens infused with virtues.… A little bit of agitation gives resources to souls and what makes the species prosper isn’t peace, but freedom.”
A collection of statelings is similar to the restaurant business we discussed earlier: volatile, but you never have a generalized restaurant crisis—unlike, say, the banking business. Why? Because it is composed of a lot of independent and competing small units that do not individually threaten the system and make it jump from one state to another. Randomness is distributed rather than concentrated.
When we look at risks in Extremistan, we don’t look at evidence (evidence comes too late), we look at potential damage: never has the world been more prone to more damage; never.6 It is hard to explain to naive data-driven people that risk is in the future, not in the past.
Vienna became trapped in Austria, with whom it shared very little outside the formal language. Imagine moving New York City to central Texas and still calling it New York. Stefan Zweig, the Viennese Jewish novelist, then considered the most influential author in the world, expressed his pain in the poignant memoir The World of Yesterday. Vienna joined the league of multicultural cities such as Alexandria, Smyrna, Aleppo, Prague, Thessaloniki, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and Trieste, now squeezed into the Procrustean bed of the nation-state, with its citizens left in the grip of intergenerational nostalgia.
Indeed, confusing people a little bit is beneficial—it is good for you and good for them. For an application of the point in daily life, imagine someone extremely punctual and predictable who comes home at exactly six o’clock every day for fifteen years. You can use his arrival to set your watch. The fellow will cause his family anxiety if he is barely a few minutes late. Someone with a slightly more volatile—hence unpredictable—schedule, with, say, a half-hour variation, won’t do so.
Every child who undergoes an unnecessary operation has a shortening of her life expectancy. This example not only gives us an idea of harm done by those who intervene, but, worse, it illustrates the lack of awareness of the need to look for a break-even point between benefits and harm. Let us call this urge to help “naive interventionism.”
medical error still currently kills between three times (as accepted by doctors) and ten times as many people as car accidents in the United States. It is generally accepted that harm from doctors—not including risks from hospital germs—accounts for more deaths than any single cancer.
It is easy to assess iatrogenics when the surgeon amputates the wrong leg or operates on the wrong kidney, or when the patient dies of a drug reaction. But when you medicate a child for an imagined or invented psychiatric disease, say, ADHD or depression, instead of letting him out of the cage, the long-term harm is largely unaccounted for.
We will push the idea of iatrogenics into political science, economics, urban planning, education, and more domains. Not one of the consultants and academics in these fields with whom I tried discussing it knew what I was talking about—or thought that they could possibly be the source of any damage. In fact, when you approach the players with such skepticism, they tend to say that you are “against scientific progress.”
People with an engineering-oriented mind will tend to look at everything around as an engineering problem. This is a very good thing in engineering, but when dealing with cats, it is a much better idea to hire veterinarians than circuits engineers—or even better, let your animal heal by itself.
Theories are superfragile; they come and go, then come and go, then come and go again; phenomenologies stay, and I can’t believe people don’t realize that phenomenology is “robust” and usable, and theories, while overhyped, are unreliable for decision making—outside physics.
During the cold war, the University of Chicago was promoting laissez-faire theories, while the University of Moscow taught the exact opposite—but their respective physics departments were in convergence, if not total agreement. This is the reason I put social science theories in the left column of the Triad, as something superfragile for real-world decisions and unusable for risk analyses.
I also buy the opposite argument that regulating street signs does not seem to reduce risks; drivers become more placid. Experiments show that alertness is weakened when one relinquishes control to the system (again, lack of overcompensation). Motorists need the stressors and tension coming from the feeling of danger to feed their attention and risk controls, rather than some external regulator—fewer pedestrians die jaywalking than using regulated crossings.
Some libertarians use the example of Drachten, a town in the Netherlands, in which a dream experiment was conducted. All street signs were removed. The deregulation led to an increase in safety, confirming the antifragility of attention at work, how it is whetted by a sense of danger and responsibility. As a result, many German and Dutch towns have reduced the number of street signs.
And we may need to intervene to control the iatrogenics of modernity—particularly the large-scale harm to the environment and the concentration of potential (though not yet manifested) damage, the kind of thing we only notice when it is too late. The ideas advanced here are not political, but risk-management based.
There is an element of deceit associated with interventionism, accelerating in a professionalized society. It’s much easier to sell “Look what I did for you” than “Look what I avoided for you.”
The true hero in the Black Swan world is someone who prevents a calamity and, naturally, because the calamity did not take place, does not get recognition—or a bonus—for it.
Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad—at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment. It is my soul fighting the Procrustean bed of modernity.
The benefits of procrastination apply similarly to medical procedures: we saw that procrastination protects you from error as it gives nature a chance to do its job, given the inconvenient fact that nature is less error-prone than scientists.
Since procrastination is a message from our natural willpower via low motivation, the cure is changing the environment, or one’s profession, by selecting one in which one does not have to fight one’s impulses.
Using my ecological reasoning, someone who procrastinates is not irrational; it is his environment that is irrational.
Just as we are not likely to mistake a bear for a stone (but likely to mistake a stone for a bear), it is almost impossible for someone rational, with a clear, uninfected mind, someone who is not drowning in data, to mistake a vital signal, one that matters for his survival, for noise—unless he is overanxious, oversensitive, and neurotic, hence distracted and confused by other messages. Significant signals have a way to reach you.
The famine in China that killed 30 million people between 1959 and 1961 can enlighten us about the effect of the state “trying hard.”
France in 1863 did not speak French (only one in five persons could), but rather a variety of languages and dialects (a surprising fact: the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1904 went to the Frenchman Frédéric Mistral, who wrote in Provençal, a language of southern France no longer spoken).
Political and economic “tail events” are unpredictable, and their probabilities are not scientifically measurable. No matter how many dollars are spent on research, predicting revolutions is not the same as counting cards; humans will never be able to turn politics and economics into the tractable randomness of blackjack.
What is nonmeasurable and nonpredictable will remain nonmeasurable and nonpredictable, no matter how many PhDs with Russian and Indian names you put on the job—and no matter how much hate mail I get. There is, in the Black Swan zone, a limit to knowledge that can never be reached, no matter how sophisticated statistical and risk management science ever gets.
Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it—books have a secret mission and ability to multiply, as everyone who has wall-to-wall bookshelves knows well.
Nero enjoyed taking long walks in old cities, without a map. He used the following method to detouristify his traveling: he tried to inject some randomness into his schedule by never deciding on the next destination until he had spent some time in the first one, driving his travel agent crazy—when he was in Zagreb, his next destination would be determined by his state of mind while in Zagreb.
There is another dimension to the need to focus on actions and avoid words: the health-eroding dependence on external recognition. People are cruel and unfair in the way they confer recognition, so it is best to stay out of that game. Stay robust to how others treat you.
Nero learned that no matter how satisfied they could be with their work, these hotshots-who-depended-on-words were deprived of Tony’s serenity; they remained fragile to the emotional toll from the compliments they did not get, the ones others got, and from what someone of lower intellect stole from them.
A man is honorable in proportion to the personal risks he takes for his opinion—in other words, the amount of downside he is exposed to.
Yet not a single one of his commentators detected in Seneca the ideas about asymmetry that are central to this book, and to life, the key to robustness and antifragility. Not one. My point is that wisdom in decision making is vastly more important—not just practically, but philosophically—than knowledge.
The traditional understanding of Stoicism in the literature is of some indifference to fate—among other ideas of harmony with the cosmos that I will skip here. It is about continuously degrading the value of earthly possessions.
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 person or from fortune.”
If an additional quantity of wealth, say, a thousand Phoenician shekels, would not benefit you, but you would feel great harm from the loss of an equivalent amount, you have an asymmetry. And it is not a good asymmetry: you are fragile.
Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting—a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. 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
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. It is hard to stick to a good discipline of mental write-off when things are going well, yet that’s when one needs the discipline the most.
An intelligent life is all about such emotional positioning to eliminate the sting of harm, which as we saw is done by mentally writing off belongings so one does not feel any pain from losses. The volatility of the world no longer affects you negatively.
My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.
Seneca also provides us a catalogue of social deeds: invest in good actions. Things can be taken away from us—not good deeds and acts of virtue.
He said that wealth is the slave of the wise man and master of the fool.
If you have more to lose than to benefit from events of fate, there is an asymmetry, and not a good one.
Simple test: if I have “nothing to lose” then it is all gain and I am antifragile.
Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry
Antifragility implies more to gain than to lose, equals more upside than downside, equals (favorable) asymmetry.
A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says “f*** you” to fate.
In other words, if something is fragile, its risk of breaking makes anything you do to improve it or make it “efficient” inconsequential unless you first reduce that risk of breaking. As Publilius Syrus wrote, nothing can be done both hastily and safely—almost nothing.
For antifragility is the combination aggressiveness plus paranoia—clip your downside, protect yourself from extreme harm, and let the upside, the positive Black Swans, take care of itself.
A barbell can be any dual strategy composed of extremes, without the corruption of the middle—somehow they all result in favorable asymmetries.
In risky matters, instead of having all members of the staff on an airplane be “cautiously optimistic,” or something in the middle, I prefer the flight attendants to be maximally optimistic and the pilot to be maximally pessimistic or, better, paranoid.
One finds similar ideas in ancestral lore: it is explained in a Yiddish proverb that says “Provide for the worst; the best can take care of itself.”
Or, if I have to work, I find it preferable (and less painful) to work intensely for very short hours, then do nothing for the rest of the time (assuming doing nothing is really doing nothing), until I recover completely and look forward to a repetition, rather than being subjected to the tedium of Japanese style low-intensity interminable office hours with sleep deprivation.
I am personally completely paranoid about certain risks, then very aggressive with others. 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 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.
In social policy, it consists in protecting the very weak and letting the strong do their job, rather than helping the middle class to consolidate its privileges, thus blocking evolution and bringing all manner of economic problems that tend to hurt the poor the most.
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.
So just as Stoicism is the domestication, not the elimination, of emotions, so is the barbell a domestication, not the elimination, of uncertainty.
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 his travels, often guided by his sense of smell. The flâneur is not a prisoner of a plan.
Now a warning: the opportunism of the flâneur is great in life and business—but not in personal life and matters that involve others. 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.
Optionality will take us many places, but at the core, an option is what makes you antifragile and allows you to benefit from the positive side of uncertainty, without a corresponding serious harm from the negative side.
Like Britain in the Industrial Revolution, America’s asset is, simply, risk taking and the use of optionality, this remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again, and repeating failure.
This kind of sum I’ve called in my vernacular “f*** you money”—a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects, such as having to attend a black-tie charity event and being forced to listen to a polite exposition of the details of a marble-rich house renovation.
Financial independence, when used intelligently, can make you robust; it gives you options and allows you to make the right choices. Freedom is the ultimate option.
Sour grapes—as in Aesop’s fable—is when someone convinces himself that the grapes he cannot reach are sour.
Jacob argued that even within the womb, nature knows how to select: about half of all embryos undergo a spontaneous abortion—easier to do so than design the perfect baby by blueprint. Nature simply keeps what it likes if it meets its standards or does a California-style “fail early”—it has an option and uses it.
The graph in Figure 7 best illustrates the idea present in California, and voiced by Steve Jobs at a famous speech: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” He probably meant “Be crazy but retain the rationality of choosing the upper bound when you see it.” Any trial and error can be seen as the expression of an option, so long as one is capable of identifying a favorable result and exploiting it, as we see next.
As we saw, nature has a filter to keep the good baby and get rid of the bad. The difference between the antifragile and the fragile lies there. The fragile has no option. But the antifragile needs to select what’s best—the best option.
It is worth insisting that the most wonderful attribute of nature is the rationality with which it selects its options and picks the best for itself—thanks to the testing process involved in evolution. Unlike the researcher afraid of doing something different, it sees an option—the asymmetry—when there is one. So it ratchets up—biological systems get locked in a state that is better than the previous one, the path-dependent property I mentioned earlier.
The implication is nontrivial. For if you think that education causes wealth, rather than being a result of wealth, or that intelligent actions and discoveries are the result of intelligent ideas, you will be in for a surprise.
There is something sneaky in the process of discovery and implementation—something people usually call evolution. We are managed by small (or large) accidental changes, more accidental than we admit.
The error of naive rationalism leads to overestimating the role and necessity of the second type, academic knowledge, in human affairs—and degrading the uncodifiable, more complex, intuitive, or experience-based type.
We are very likely to believe that skills and ideas that we actually acquired by antifragile doing, or that came naturally to us (from our innate biological instinct), came from books, ideas, and reasoning. We get blinded by it; there may even be something in our brains that makes us suckers for the point.
For instance, directed research would tell you what has worked from funding (like AIDS drugs or some modern designer drugs), not what has failed—so you may have the impression that it fares better than random. And of course iatrogenics is never part of the discourse. They never tell you if education hurt you in some places.
The Soviet-Harvard illusion (lecturing birds on flying and believing that the lecture is the cause of these wonderful skills) belongs to a class of causal illusions called epiphenomena.
The real world relies on the intelligence of antifragility, but no university would swallow that—just as interventionists don’t accept that things can improve without their intervention.
But we know the opposite is true, that wealth leads to the rise of education—not an optical illusion.
Education makes individuals more polished dinner partners, for instance, something non-negligible. But the idea of educating people to improve the economy is rather novel.
Likewise, in ancient times, learning was for learning’s sake, to make someone a good person, worth talking to, not to increase the stock of gold in the city’s heavily guarded coffers.
Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking. My experience of good practitioners is that they can be totally incomprehensible—they do not have to put much energy into turning their insights and internal coherence into elegant style and narratives.
People with too much smoke and complicated tricks and methods in their brains start missing elementary, very elementary things. Persons in the real world can’t afford to miss these things; otherwise they crash the plane.
Optionality is Promethean, narratives are Epimethean—one has reversible and benign mistakes, the other symbolizes the gravity and irreversibility of the consequences of opening Pandora’s box.
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).
Something hit me then. Nobody worries that a child ignorant of the various theorems of aerodynamics and incapable of solving an equation of motion would be unable to ride a bicycle. So why didn’t he transfer the point from one domain to another?
Practitioners don’t write; they do. Birds fly and those who lecture them are the ones who write their story. So it is easy to see that history is truly written by losers with time on their hands and a protected academic position.
No, we don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice.
Some facts: architects (or what were then called Masters of Works) relied on heuristics, empirical methods, and tools, and almost nobody knew any mathematics—according to the medieval science historian Guy Beaujouan, before the thirteenth century no more than five persons in the whole of Europe knew how to perform a division.
Knowledge formation, even when theoretical, takes time, some boredom, and the freedom that comes from having another occupation, therefore allowing one to escape the journalistic-style pressure of modern publish-and-perish academia to produce cosmetic knowledge, much like the counterfeit watches one buys in Chinatown in New York City, the type that you know is counterfeit although it looks like the real thing.
An extraordinary proportion of work came out of the rector, the English parish priest with no worries, erudition, a large or at least comfortable house, domestic help, a reliable supply of tea and scones with clotted cream, and an abundance of free time. And, of course, optionality. The enlightened amateur, that is.
For a long time I had on the wall of my study the following quote by Jacques Le Goff, the great French medievalist, who believes that the Renaissance came out of independent humanists, not professional scholars.
One is a professor surrounded and besieged by huddled students. The other is a solitary scholar, sitting in the tranquility and privacy of his chambers, at ease in the spacious and comfy room where his thoughts can move freely. Here we encounter the tumult of schools, the dust of classrooms, the indifference to beauty in collective workplaces, There, it is all order and beauty, Luxe, calme et volupté
The Industrial Revolution, for a refresher, came from “technologists building technology,” or what he calls “hobby science.”
Note that I do not believe that the argument set forth above should logically lead us to say that no money should be spent by government. This reasoning is more against teleology than research in general.
The sociologist of science Steve Shapin, who spent time in California observing venture capitalists, reports that investors tend to back entrepreneurs, not ideas.
Because innovations drift, and one needs flâneur-like abilities to keep capturing the opportunities that arise, not stay locked up in a bureaucratic mold. The significant venture capital decisions, Shapin showed, were made without real business plans.
Visibly the money should go to the tinkerers, the aggressive tinkerers who you trust will milk the option.
Take for instance chemotherapy for cancer, as discussed in Meyers’s book. An American ship carrying mustard gas off Bari in Italy was bombed by the Germans in 1942. It helped develop chemotherapy owing to the effect of the gas on the condition of the soldiers who had liquid cancers (eradication of white blood cells).
Or, another way to see it, studying the chemical composition of ingredients will make you neither a better cook nor a more expert taster—it might even make you worse at both.
Let me stop to issue rules based on the chapter so far. (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.
Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.
Even their leisure is subjected to a clock, squash between four and five, as their life is sandwiched between appointments. It is as if the mission of modernity was to squeeze every drop of variability and randomness out of life—with (as we saw in Chapter 5) the ironic result of making the world a lot more unpredictable, as if the goddesses of chance wanted to have the last word.
In a way my father did not seem to value education, rather culture or money—and he prompted me to go for these two (I initially went for culture). He had a total fascination with erudites and businessmen, people whose position did not depend on credentials.
I thought it was the same with people who were selected for trying to get high grades in a small number of subjects rather than follow their curiosity: try taking them slightly away from what they studied and watch their decomposition, loss of confidence, and denial.
The enterprise needed to be totally effortless in order to be worthwhile. The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether—when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement.
Trial and error is freedom.
And my father gave me a complete break after I got published as a teenager in the local paper—“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.
But there is something central in following one’s own direction in the selection of readings: what I was given to study in school I have forgotten; what I decided to read on my own, I still remember.
Indeed, the most severe mistake made in life is to mistake the unintelligible for the unintelligent—something Nietzsche figured out.
“The problem, my poor old Greek, is that you are killing the things we can know but not express. And if I asked someone riding a bicycle just fine to give me the theory behind his bicycle riding, he would fall from it. By bullying and questioning people you confuse them and hurt them.”
“My dear Socrates … you know why they are putting you to death? It is because you make people feel stupid for blindly following habits, instincts, and traditions. You may be occasionally right. But you may confuse them about things they’ve been doing just fine without getting in trouble. You are destroying people’s illusions about themselves. You are taking the joy of ignorance out of the things we don’t understand. And you have no answer; you have no answer to offer them.”
In defense of Socrates, his questions lead to a major result: if they could not allow him to define what something was, at least they allowed him to be certain about what a thing was not.
This brilliant passage exposes what I call the sucker-rationalistic fallacy: 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?
“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 what he does not understand for nonsense.
First, Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and political philosopher, who also countered the French Revolution for disrupting the “collected reasons of the ages.” He believed that large social variations can expose us to unseen effects and thus advocated the notion of small trial-and-error experiments (in effect, convex tinkering) in social systems, coupled with respect for the complex heuristics of tradition.
The need to focus on the payoff from your actions instead of studying the structure of the world (or understanding the “True” and the “False”) has been largely missed in intellectual history. Horribly missed. The payoff, what happens to you (the benefits or harm from it), is always the most important thing, not the event itself.
We check people for weapons before they board the plane. Do we believe that they are terrorists: True or False? False, as they are not likely to be terrorists (a tiny probability). But we check them nevertheless because we are fragile to terrorism. There is an asymmetry. We are interested in the payoff, and the consequence, or payoff, of the True (that they turn out to be terrorists) is too large and the costs of checking are too low.
She requested that I write to her my thoughts about the future of education—as I told her that I was optimistic on the subject. My answer: b**t is fragile. Which scam in history has lasted forever? I have an enormous faith in Time and History as eventual debunkers of fragility. Education is an institution that has been growing without external stressors; eventually the thing will collapse.
I had not realized that it is hard for members of the media and the public to accept that the job of a scholar is to ignore insignificant current affairs, to write books, not emails, 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 friends and family members (but never in the morning), and read (again) in bed before sleeping, not keep rewriting one’s book and ideas for the benefit of strangers and members of the local chapter of Networking International who haven’t read it.
The example is shown in Figure 9. Let us generalize. Your car is fragile. If you drive it into the wall at 50 miles per hour, it would cause more damage than if you drove it into the same wall ten times at 5 mph. The harm at 50 mph is more than ten times the harm at 5 mph.
Other examples. Drinking seven bottles of wine (Bordeaux) in one sitting, then purified water with lemon twist for the remaining six days is more harmful than drinking one bottle of wine a day for seven days (spread out in two glasses per meal). Every additional glass of wine harms you more than the preceding one, hence your system is fragile to alcoholic consumption. Letting a porcelain cup drop on the floor from a height of one foot (about thirty centimeters) is worse than twelve times the damage from a drop from a height of one inch (two and a half centimeters).
Asymmetry is necessarily nonlinearity. More harm than benefits: simply, an increase in intensity brings more harm than a corresponding decrease offers benefits.
This leaves me with the principle that the fragile is what is hurt a lot more by extreme events than by a succession of intermediate ones.
For the antifragile, shocks bring more benefits (equivalently, less harm) as their intensity increases (up to a point).
Large animals, such as elephants, boa constrictors, mammoths, and other animals of size tend to become rapidly extinct. Aside from the squeeze when resources are tight, there are mechanical considerations. Large animals are more fragile to shocks than small ones—again, stone and pebbles.
The obvious is usually missed here: the Crystal Palace project did not use computers, and the parts were built not far from the source, with a small number of businesses involved in the supply chain. Further, there were no business schools at the time to teach something called “project management” and increase overconfidence. There were no consulting firms. The agency problem (which we defined as the divergence between the interest of the agent and that of his client) was not significant. In other words, it was a much more linear economy—less complex—than today. And we have more nonlinearities—asymmetries, convexities—in today’s world.
The method began as an avoidance of direct description, leading to a focus on negative description, what is called in Latin via negativa, the negative way, after theological traditions, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Yet in practice it is the negative that’s used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning of life is about what to avoid.
Now when it comes to knowledge, the same applies. The greatest—and most robust—contribution to knowledge consists in removing what we think is wrong—subtractive epistemology.
So the central tenet of the epistemology I advocate is as follows: we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right, or, phrased according to the fragile/robust classification, negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works). So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition—given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.
Rephrasing it again: since one small observation can disprove a statement, while millions can hardly confirm it, disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation.
Let us say that, in general, failure (and disconfirmation) are more informative than success and confirmation, which is why I claim that negative knowledge is just “more robust.”
And, as expected, via negativa is part of classical wisdom. For the Arab scholar and religious leader Ali Bin Abi-Taleb (no relation), keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.
Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.
For instance, a small number of homeless people cost the states a disproportionate share of the bills, which makes it obvious where to look for the savings. A small number of employees in a corporation cause the most problems, corrupt the general attitude—and vice versa—so getting rid of these is a great solution.
When it comes to health care, Ezekiel Emanuel showed that half the population accounts for less than 3 percent of the costs, with the sickest 10 percent consuming 64 percent of the total pie.
As Paul Valéry once wrote: que de choses il faut ignorer pour agir—how many things one should disregard in order to act.
For instance, if you have more than one reason to do something (choose a doctor or veterinarian, hire a gardener or an employee, marry a person, go on a trip), just don’t do it. It does not mean that one reason is better than two, just that by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself to do something. Obvious decisions (robust to error) require no more than a single reason.
I have often followed what I call Bergson’s razor: “A philosopher should be known for one single idea, not more” (I can’t source it to Bergson, but the rule is good enough).
Antifragility implies—contrary to initial instinct—that the old is superior to the new, and much more than you think. No matter how something looks to your intellectual machinery, or how well or poorly it narrates, time will know more about its fragilities and break it when necessary.
The fragile will eventually break—and, luckily, we are capable of figuring out what is fragile. Even what we believe is antifragile will eventually break, but it should take much, much longer to do so (wine does well with time, but up to a point; and not if you put it in the crater of a volcano).
Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least twenty-five centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn fifty-three hundred years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia.
To understand the future, you do not need technoautistic jargon, obsession with “killer apps,” these sort of things. You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders, and a grasp of the notion of “heuristics,” these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so determining of survival. In other words, you will be forced to give weight to things that have been around, things that have survived.
Gott made a list of Broadway shows on a given day, May 17, 1993, and predicted that the longest-running ones would last longest, and vice versa. He was proven right with 95 percent accuracy. He had, as a child, visited both the Great Pyramid (fifty-seven hundred years old), and the Berlin Wall (twelve years old), and correctly guessed that the former would outlive the latter.
Remember the following principle: I am not saying that all technologies do not age, only that those technologies that were prone to aging are already dead.
Much progress comes from the young because of their relative freedom from the system and courage to take action that older people lose as they become trapped in life. But it is precisely the young who propose ideas that are fragile, not because they are young, but because most unseasoned ideas are fragile.
So we confuse the necessary and the causal: because all surviving technologies have some obvious benefits, we are led to believe that all technologies offering obvious benefits will survive.
People acquire a new item, feel more satisfied after an initial boost, then rapidly revert to their baseline of well-being. So, when you “upgrade,” you feel a boost of satisfaction with changes in technology. But then you get used to it and start hunting for the new new thing.
So attending breakthrough conferences might be, statistically speaking, as much a waste of time as buying a mediocre lottery ticket, one with a small payoff.
Amateurs in any discipline are the best, if you can connect with them. Unlike dilettantes, career professionals are to knowledge what prostitutes are to love.
Let’s take this idea of Empedocles’ dog a bit further: If something that makes no sense to you (say, religion—if you are an atheist—or some age-old habit or practice called irrational); if that something has been around for a very, very long time, then, irrational or not, you can expect it to stick around much longer, and outlive those who call for its demise.
By the same Lindy effect, diseases and conditions that were not known to be diseases a hundred or so years ago are likely to be either (1) diseases of civilization, curable by via negativa, or (2) not diseases, just invented conditions. This applies most to psychological “conditions” and buzzwords putting people in silly buckets: “Type A,” “passive aggressive,” etc.
It is the same as with government intervention. This is squarely Thalesian, not Aristotelian (that is, decision making based on payoffs, not knowledge).
And recall that under nonlinearities, the simple statements “harmful” or “beneficial” break down: it is all in the dosage.
When you think you have found a free lunch, say, steroids or trans fat, something that helps the healthy without visible downside, it is most likely that there is a concealed trap somewhere. Actually, my days in trading, it was called a “sucker’s trade.”
And there is a simple statistical reason that explains why we have not been able to find drugs that make us feel unconditionally better when we are well (or unconditionally stronger, etc.): nature would have been likely to find this magic pill by itself.
I am not against the function and mission of pharma, rather, its business practice: they should focus for their own benefit on extreme diseases, not on reclassifications or pressuring doctors to prescribe medicines.
If the patient is close to death, all speculative treatments should be encouraged—no holds barred. Conversely, if the patient is near healthy, then Mother Nature should be the doctor.
Historians show that surgery had, for a long time, a much better track record than medicine; it was checked by the necessary rigor of visible results.
Evolution proceeds by undirected, convex bricolage or tinkering, inherently robust, i.e., with the achievement of potential stochastic gains thanks to continuous, repetitive, small, localized mistakes. What men have done with top-down, command-and-control science has been exactly the reverse: interventions with negative convexity effects, i.e., the achievement of small certain gains through exposure to massive potential mistakes.
Just as there is a dichotomy in law: innocent until proven guilty as opposed to guilty until proven innocent, let me express my rule as follows: what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.
We are built to be dupes for theories. But theories come and go; experience stays.
Take for instance the following statement, entirely evidence-based: if you build muscle, you can eat more without getting more fat deposits in your belly and can gorge on lamb chops without having to buy a new belt. Now in the past the theory to rationalize it was “Your metabolism is higher because muscles burn calories.” Currently I tend to hear “You become more insulin-sensitive and store less fat.” Insulin, shminsulin; metabolism, shmetabolism: another theory will emerge in the future and some other substance will come about, but the exact same effect will continue to prevail.
Alas, all these biases lead to action, almost never inaction.
What I am against is naive rationalized, pseudolearned discourse, with green lumber problems—one that focuses solely on the known and ignores the unknown.
We have a few pieces of data from the small number of hospital strikes during which only a small number of operations are conducted (for the most urgent cases), and elective surgery is postponed. Depending on whose side in the debate you join, life expectancy either increases in these cases or, at the least, does not seem to drop.
As a case study, consider mammograms. It has been shown that administering them to women over forty on an annual basis does not lead to an increase in life expectancy (at best; it could even lead to a decrease). While female mortality from breast cancer decreases for the cohort subjected to mammograms, the death from other causes increases markedly.
Whenever possible, replace the doctor with human antifragility. But otherwise don’t be shy with aggressive treatments.
So there are many hidden jewels in via negativa applied to medicine. For instance, telling people not to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last sixty years.
As usual, the ancients. As Ennius wrote, “The good is mostly in the absence of bad”; Nimium boni est, cui nihil est mali.
Instead, they should be lecturing us about unhappiness (I speculate that just as those who lecture on happiness look unhappy, those who lecture on unhappiness would look happy); the “pursuit of happiness” is not equivalent to the “avoidance of unhappiness.”
We know we can cure many cases of diabetes by putting people on a very strict starvation-style diet, shocking their system—in fact the mechanism had to have been known heuristically for a long time since there are institutes and sanatoria for curative starvation in Siberia.
I would add that, in my own experience, a considerable jump in my personal health has been achieved by removing offensive irritants: the morning newspapers (the mere mention of the names of the fragilista journalists Thomas Friedman or Paul Krugman can lead to explosive bouts of unrequited anger on my part), the boss, the daily commute, air-conditioning (though not heating), television, emails from documentary filmmakers, economic forecasts, news about the stock market, gym “strength training” machines, and many more.
Note that medical iatrogenics is the result of wealth and sophistication rather than poverty and artlessness, and of course the product of partial knowledge rather than ignorance.
If true wealth consists in worriless sleeping, clear conscience, reciprocal gratitude, absence of envy, good appetite, muscle strength, physical energy, frequent laughs, no meals alone, no gym class, some physical labor (or hobby), good bowel movements, no meeting rooms, and periodic surprises, then it is largely subtractive (elimination of iatrogenics).
We can see in the corpus of inscriptions (on graves) accounts of people erecting fountains or even temples to their favorite gods after these succeeded where doctors failed. Indeed we rarely look at religion’s benefits in limiting the intervention bias and its iatrogenics: in a large set of circumstances (marginal disease), anything that takes you away from the doctor and allows you to do nothing (hence gives nature a chance to do its work) will be beneficial. So going to church (or the temple of Apollo) for mild cases—say, those devoid of trauma, like a mild discomfort, not injuries from a car accident, those situations in which the risk of iatrogenics exceeds the benefit of cure, to repeat it again, the cases with negative convexity—will certainly help. We have so many inscriptions on temples of the type Apollo saved me, my doctors tried to kill me—typically the patient has bequeathed his fortune to the temple.
So take the following principles derived from the random structure of the environment: when we are herbivores, we eat steadily; but when we are predators we eat more randomly. Hence our proteins need to be consumed randomly for statistical reasons. So if you agree that we need “balanced” nutrition of a certain combination, it is wrong to immediately assume that we need such balance at every meal rather than serially so.
I speculate; in fact I more than speculate: I am convinced (an inevitable result of nonlinearity) that we are antifragile to randomness in food delivery and composition—at least over a certain range, or number of days.
Someone looked at the longevity of Cretans, cataloged what they ate, then inferred—naively—that they lived longer because of the types of food they consumed. It could be true, but the second-order effect (the variations in intake) could be dominant, something that went unnoticed by mechanistic researchers. Indeed, it took a while to notice the following: the Greek Orthodox church has, depending on the severity of the local culture, almost two hundred days of fasting per year; and these are harrowing fasts.
I will make up my deprivation of what researchers (for now) call protein with fish on days when it is allowed, and of course I will ravenously eat lamb on Easter Day, then consume disproportionally high quantities of fatty red meat for a while thereafter. I dream of the red steak served in Fat Tony–patronized restaurants in unapologetically monstrous portions. And there is this antifragility to the stressor of the fast, as it makes the wanted food taste better and can produce euphoria in one’s system. Breaking a fast feels like the exact opposite of a hangover.
I wonder how people can accept that the stressors of exercise are good for you, but do not transfer to the point that food deprivation can have the same effect.
We can look at biological studies not to generalize or use in the rationalistic sense, but to verify the existence of a human response to hunger: that biological mechanisms are activated by food deprivation.
And we have ample evidence that intermittently (and only intermittently) depriving organisms of food has been shown to engender beneficial effects on many functions—Valter Longo, for instance, noted that prisoners in concentration camps got less sick in the first phase of food restriction, then broke down later.
So once again, religions with ritual fasts have more answers than assumed by those who look at them too literally. In fact what these ritual fasts do is try to bring nonlinearities in consumption to match biological properties.
They do not realize that for reasons still opaque to them, walking effortlessly, at a pace below the stress level, can have some benefits—or, as I speculate, is necessary for humans, perhaps as necessary as sleep, which at some point modernity could not rationalize and tried to reduce.
Recall that the antifragility of a system comes from the mortality of its components—and I am part of that larger population called humans. I am here to die a heroic death for the sake of the collective, to produce offspring (and prepare them for life and provide for them), or eventually, books—my information, that is, my genes, the antifragile in me, should be the ones seeking immortality, not me.
The worst problem of modernity lies in the malignant transfer of fragility and antifragility from one party to the other, with one getting the benefits, the other one (unwittingly) getting the harm, with such transfer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal.
Ralph Nader has a simple rule: people voting for war need to have at least one descendant (child or grandchild) exposed to combat.
In the old days, privilege came with obligations—except for the small class of intellectuals who served a patron or, in some cases, the state. You want to be a feudal lord—you will be first to die. You want war? First in battle.
I got nauseous in Davos making eye contact with the fragilista journalist Thomas Friedman who, thanks to his influential newspaper op-eds, helped cause the Iraq war. He paid no price for the mistake. The real reason for my malaise was perhaps not just that I saw someone I consider vile and harmful. I just get disturbed when I see wrong and do nothing about it; it is biological.
He promoted the “earth is flat” idea of globalization without realizing that globalization brings fragilities, causes more extreme events as a side effect, and requires a great deal of redundancies to operate properly. And the very same error holds with the Iraq invasion: in such a complex system, the predictability of the consequences is very low, so invading was epistemologically irresponsible.
Never listen to a leftist who does not give away his fortune or does not live the exact lifestyle he wants others to follow. What the French call “the caviar left,” la gauche caviar, or what Anglo-Saxons call champagne socialists, are people who advocate socialism, sometimes even communism, or some political system with sumptuary limitations, while overtly leading a lavish lifestyle, often financed by inheritance—not realizing the contradiction that they want others to avoid just such a lifestyle.
I developed a friendship over the past few years with the activist Ralph Nader and saw contrasting attributes. Aside from an astonishing amount of personal courage and total indifference toward smear campaigns, he exhibits absolutely no divorce between what he preaches and his lifestyle, none. Just like saints who have soul in their game. The man is a secular saint.
He immediately exposed her propaganda with the counterargument—actually developed by Marx and Engels—that large bureaucratic corporations seized control of the state just by being “big employers,” and can then extract benefits at the expense of small businesses. So a company that employs six hundred thousand persons is allowed to wreck the health of citizens with impunity, and to benefit from the implied protection of bailouts (just like American car companies), whereas artisans like hairdressers and cobblers do not get such immunity.
A rule then hit me: with the exception of, say, drug dealers, small companies and artisans tend to sell us healthy products, ones that seem naturally and spontaneously needed; larger ones—including pharmaceutical giants—are likely to be in the business of producing wholesale iatrogenics, taking our money, and then, to add insult to injury, hijacking the state thanks to their army of lobbyists.
We accept that people who boast are boastful and turn people off. How about companies? Why aren’t we turned off by companies that advertise how great they are?
The definition of the free man, according to Aristotle, is one who is free with his opinions—as a side effect of being free with his time.