Posted December 20th, 2012
Last Month, Nassim Taleb, author of the New York Times best seller The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering and Co-Director of the Research Center for Risk Engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), gave a lecture and book signing at the Brooklyn Campus. Introduced by fellow faculty members Barry Blecherman and Philip Maymin, Taleb followed with a talk about antifragility based on his new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, released in late 2012. The concept of antifragility is grounded in the mathematical notion of Jensen's Inequality.
In The Black Swan, Taleb, a former derivatives trader, coined the term “black swan” to describe highly improbable and unpredictable events—such as 9/11, World War I and the rise of Google—that have a massive impact on the world. Contrary to what many assumed, however, Taleb was not making a call for better methods of predicting black swans, which are, by definition, unpredictable. A more suitable course of action, he suggests, is to create institutions that can not only survive the catastrophic but can emerge stronger in the aftermath. Taleb coined the adjective “antifragile” to describe the phenomenon.
Words like “robust” or “resilient” are inadequate, he argues, because they imply that a thing is merely resistant to breakage. An antifragile entity will actually benefit from stress, volatility, and chaos. When our policy makers aim for maximum stability—such as when former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan tried to smooth economic fluctuations by injecting money into the system—it can have the opposite effect, Taleb explains, because suppressing natural fluctuations hides deeper problems, thereby causing the repercussions to be more intense when they do occur.
Called “a blueprint for living in a Black Swan world,” Antifragile examines how we can use the concept of antifragility to improve our health (we can benefit, Taleb asserts, from occasional hunger and exposure to extreme temperatures), parenting (children should not be raised in a protected vacuum), and other personal areas. “[Antifragility] is not just a useful heuristic for socioeconomic matters but a crucial property of life in general,” Taleb wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Modernity has been obsessed with comfort and cosmetic stability, but by making ourselves too comfortable and eliminating all volatility from our lives, we do to our bodies and souls what Greenspan did to the U.S. economy: We make them fragile.”
Praised by Fortune, the New York Times, Harvard Review, Wharton Knowledge, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist, among other outlets, Antifragile will undoubtedly cement Taleb’s reputation for incisive wit and accessible prose. He will probably be unbothered by any negative feedback, however. “I . . . picked a profession in which I am antifragile, because any attack makes me stronger,” he told a journalist at Slate.com. “When I write about something, I have skin in the game, and I have benefited more from attacks on The Black Swan than been harmed by them.”