Part 2 of reviewing Nassim Taleb’s masterwork, Antifragile, has to look at some of his insights into embracing failure itself.
He explores the subject on a personal and almost philosophical level…
- “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.”
- “Nature loves small error (without which genetic variations are impossible), humans don’t – hence when you rely on human judgement you are at the mercy of a mental bias that disfavours antifragility.”
- “My son, I am very disappointed in you. I never hear anything wrong about you. You have proven yourself incapable of generating envy.” [in response to a popular child that no one picks on]
- “Poverty makes experience.” – Publilius Syrus
- “He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has sinned once.”
- “There is no such thing as a failed solider, dead or alive (unless he acted in a cowardly manner) – likewise, there is no such thing as a failed entrepreneur or failed scientific researcher, any more than there is a successful babbler, philophaster, commentator, consultant, lobbyist, or business school professor who does not take personal risks.”
- “A Latin saying that sophistication is born out of hunger (artificial docuit fames). The idea pervades classical literature: in Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up the genius (ingenium mala saepe movent).”
…as well as on a more professional and business level…
- “Firms become very weak during long periods of steady prosperity devoid of setbacks, and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate silently under the surface – so delaying crises is not a very good idea.”
- “When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free…by a mechanism called stochastic resonance, adding random noise to the background makes you hear the sounds (say music) with more accuracy.”
- “Not seeing a tsunami or an economic event coming is excusable; building something fragile to them is not…Focus on exposure to failure – making the prediction or nonprediction of failure quite irrelevant.”
- “In a system, the sacrifice of some units, that is, or people – are often necessary for the well-being of the other units or the whole. The fragility of every start-up is necessary for the economy to be antifragile, and that’s what makes, among other things, entrepreneurship work: the fragility of individual entrepreneurs and their necessarily high failure rate,”
- “The engineer and historian of engineering Henry Petrovski 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.’”
- “With bailouts, governments typically favour a certain class of firms that are large enough to require being saved in order to avoid contagion to other business. This is the opposite of healthy risk-taking; it is transferring fragility from the collective to the unfit.”
- “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos; you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind” – first line of Anti-Fragile
“Antifragile” is the inspired word of Embracing Failure.
Many wise individuals embrace failure, but its prophet has to be Nassim Taleb. All of his works are imbued with its spirit, but his latest book ‘Antifragile’ makes the principle its very heart and core.
It’s not a perfect book. It employs lots of anecdote which is fine as illustration, but can lead to causation fallacy. I also feel that Taleb is a bit unfairly harsh on academia. His “History Written by the Losers” chapter is particularly slighting of models versus “tinkering”, but I don’t think you build a nuclear reactor by tinkering.
Where does one begin to share such a rich trove of insights? I’ve decided to do a bit of a Readers Digest selection of favourite excerpts for those of you who can’t get through the Bible-sized 426 pages (and that’s without the extensive appendices). But even then, there is so much to share that I am going to parcel it out in a few posts over the coming week.
I’ve chunked the citations into some of the more prevalent categories I use on the blog as well as added a few bits of commentary. The first post today focuses on defining the terms. Taleb not only provides helpful definitions and categorisations, but he also deftly coins new terms where nothing conventional fits (or an existing term is too laden is misconstruing semantic baggage).
Of course, the first one of all is the very concept of “Antifragility” itself…
- Antifragile – “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it anti-fragile. Antifragile is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better…This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas. Revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic progress, corporate survival, good recipes…, the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance…even our own existence as a species on this planet..The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means – crucially – a love of error, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them…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 anti-fragile. The reverse is fragile.”
A sampling of others that he has either defined, re-defined or lifted from obscurity include…
- Mithridatization – “Let us call Mithridatization the result of an exposure to a small dose of a substance that, over time, makes one immune to additional, larger quantities of it. It is the sort of approach used in vaccination and allergy medicine. It is not quite antifragility…but we are on our way.”
- Hormesis – “A word coined by pharmacologists, is when a small dose of a harmful substance is actually beneficial for the organism, acting as a medicine.”
- Percolation Theory – “It is the system and its fragility, not events, that must be studied – what physicists call ‘percolation theory.’ In which the properties of the randomness of the terrain are studied rather than those of a single element of the terrain.”
- Losers – My characterisation of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect it, 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.”
- Stoicism – “The key phrase reverberating in Seneca’s oeuvre is ‘nihil perditi’, “I lost nothing,” after an adverse event. Stoicism makes you desire the challenge of a calamity…Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions…My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
- Strategy – “It turns out, strategic planning is just superstitious babble.”
- Negative description – “Via negative does not try to express what God is…It just lists what God is not and proceeds by the process of elimination.” [metaphysical Sudoku].
- Subtractive epistemology – “The greatest-and most robust-contribution to knowledge consists of removing what we think is wrong…So knowledge grows by subtraction not addition.”
- Innovation – “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things. – Steve Jobs”
- Herosim – Heroism is the exact inverse of the agency problem [ie. “Other People’s Money” accountability]: someone elects to bear the disadvantage (risks his own life, or harm to himself, or, in milder forms, accepts to deprive himself of some benefits) for the sake of others…In traditional societies, a person is only as respectable and as worthy as the downside he (or, a lot more, than expected, she) is willing to face for the sake of others…The robustness of society depends on them; if we are here today, it is because someone, at some stage, took some risks for us.”
- Pseudocourage – “Comes from risk blindness, in which people underestimate the odds of failure.”
- “Option = asymmetry + rationality”
- “To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The author of one of embracing failure’s most popular tag lines – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – was born 170 year ago today. Nietzsche’s embrace of failure extends well beyond a catchy turn of phrase and was central to this multi-faceted philosophy. The quote above is taken from Alain de Botton’s chapter “Consolation for Difficulties” (in his book “The Consolations of Philosophy”) which focuses on this perspective of Nietzsche. Nietzsche was indeed one of the oracles of embracing failure.
Nietzsche also shared another philosophical perspective with this blog – a dichotomy between two opposing forces that invariably intertwine, Apollian and Dionysian. Though Nietzsche’s duality pivots more on the structure vs. freedom axis while Leadership and Management pivot more on upside vs. downside axis of risk.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s an anatomical failure that I have covered so many times that I have now introduced a “cancer” tag for it on the blog.
So how does one embrace something as horrid and tragic as breast cancer? For starters, you can be inspired by the upbeat attitude of Deborah Cohan’s flash mob video and the friends who supported her. Sometimes embracing that help can be less easy than it appear as Karen Perry described in her family’s two-pronged cancer battle…
- “’People are always asking to help,” she said. “The hardest thing was to accept that help. You think you can do it all on your own.”
The “Church of Fail” seems like my kind of Sunday (or ever day) devotional…
- “’Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to confess and celebrate the failures of ourselves and our colleagues.’ Welcome to the Church of Fail. It’s the invention of NixonMcInnes, a 15-person social-media consultancy in Brighton, England. The exercise was conceived three years ago at an off-site, as groups of employees brainstormed ways to improve the business. "One group decided they wanted to make it OK to fail, because the more we fail, the more we can innovate and succeed," says co-founder Will McInnes.”
Happy Programmers Day! Good to have one day to focus on the happy bits (yes, pun intended), because as Peter Welch colourfully embraces…“Programming Sucks” (thanks Chris). It’s less of a paean to computing failure and more of a powerful illustration of the black box opacity of it all.
- “Not a single living person knows how everything in your five-year-old MacBook actually works. Why do we tell you to turn it off and on again? Because we don’t have the slightest clue what’s wrong with it.”
- “The only reason coders’ computers work better than non-coders’ computers is coders know computers are schizophrenic little children with auto-immune diseases and we don’t beat them when they’re bad.”
- “Trillions of dollars depend on a rickety cobweb of unofficial agreements and ‘good enough for now’ code with comments like ‘TODO: FIX THIS IT’S A REALLY DANGEROUS HACK BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S WRONG’ that were written ten years ago.”
The moral of the story really is to not get caught up in goals of perfection because it won’t find a welcome home on any computer. And when stepping into the world of computing, appreciating its imperfections and idiosyncrasies are the first step to being sanely productive.
- “Imagine joining an engineering team. You’re excited and full of ideas, probably just out of school and a world of clean, beautiful designs, awe-inspiring in their aesthetic unity of purpose, economy, and strength….Every programmer occasionally, when nobody’s home, turns off the lights, pours a glass of scotch, puts on some light German electronica, and opens up a file on their computer… This file is Good Code. It has sensible and consistent names for functions and variables. It’s concise. It doesn’t do anything obviously stupid. It has never had to live in the wild, or answer to a sales team. It does exactly one, mundane, specific thing, and it does it well. It was written by a single person, and never touched by another. It reads like poetry written by someone over thirty. Every programmer starts out writing some perfect little snowflake like this. Then they’re told on Friday they need to have six hundred snowflakes written by Tuesday, so they cheat a bit here and there and maybe copy a few snowflakes and try to stick them together or they have to ask a coworker to work on one who melts it and then all the programmers’ snowflakes get dumped together in some inscrutable shape and somebody leans a Picasso on it because nobody wants to see the cat urine soaking into all your broken snowflakes melting in the light of day. Next week, everybody shovels more snow on it to keep the Picasso from falling over.”
Finally, his lament recalled the Leadership and Management balancing challenge. The “Leader” inside the Programmer strives for the “Good Code”, but the “Manager” is a master of keeping “the Picasso from falling over”.
Yesterday was a high holiday on the technophile calendar with the latest Apple launch event. New icons for the altar of the neophiles.
So many articles focus on “innovation” and “embracing failures” is often a theme in those examinations. But innovation for innovation’s sake is not really the objective. What we are really seeking are “positive outcomes” (on a micro, tactical level), and “progress” (on a macro, strategic level). Innovation is just a tool for that progress.
Curiously enough (since he normally weighs in heavily for Leadership over Management), Seth Godin makes a compelling appeal for the importance of Management (ie. averting downside by respecting “what works”) in the face of excessive pandering to new and shiny in his post Neophilia as a form of hiding :
- “Every once in a while someone will say to me, ‘yeah, sure, I’ve heard that before… what do you have that’s new?’ In contemporary art or movies, it makes perfect sense to be focused on the bleeding edge, on the new idea that’s never been previously contemplated. But when we’re discussing our goals, our passion and the way we interact with the culture, it seems to me that what works is significantly more important than what’s new. Racing to build your organization around the latest social network tool or graphics-rendering technology permits you to spend a lot of time learning the new system and skiing in the fresh powder of the unproven, but it might just distract you from the difficult work of telling the truth, looking people in the eye and making a difference. ‘I can’t describe the value we deliver, I’m too busy integrating this new technology into my workflow!’ All too often, the ones who are aggressively seeking the theory of the day don’t have a lot to show for what they did yesterday.”
I definitely confronted this syndrome at Microsoft where senior executives were constantly wanting to hear about everyone’s colourful rain dance rather than the boring mechanics of the success achieved.
Leaders seek what’s new, Managers seek what works. Both together achieve progress.