Book Review: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb


This is the first of three book review posts, though this first one is a bit of a con – I can’t claim to have read the whole of Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile book for reasons that I’ll go in to below. So, this is a very short post before I review a couple more books next – Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout, and Digital Body Language by Steven Woods.

I’ve written previously about how much I loved Taleb’s previous books. And I still stand by this. But, taking one of Taleb’s own quotes (which I really like!) from these books:

[The public person most visibly endowed with such a trait is] George Soros. One of his strengths is that he revises his opinion rather rapidly, without the slightest embarrassment….What characterizes real speculators like Soros from the rest is that their activities are devoid of path dependence. They are totally free from their past actions. Every day is a clean slate.

The point he’s making here, and which I’ll labour, is that we should all be free to change our minds on any subject and not feel embarrassment from this “path dependence”. So I feel no embarrassment in now stating how much I disliked Taleb’s latest book, Antifragile.

The reason this review is such a con, is that I only got to around page 60 before I had to sell the book on Amazon to get it out of the house!

As I mentioned in the previous post, Taleb has a lot of extremely insightful things to say. However, to get to these nuggets, you have to wade through a dreadful and obnoxious writing style. If you’re willing to put the work in, it’s worth it. And for Black Swan in particular, the scales weighing the benefits against the irritation fell strongly on the side of an interesting read.

However, what I most dislike about his writing style is his overbearing, almost misanthropic dislike for whole groups of people. An example from Black Swan:

If you hear a “prominent” economist using the word ‘equilibrium,’ or ‘normal distribution,’ do not argue with him; just ignore him, or try to put a rat down his shirt.

From memory, Taleb has a dislike for economists, doctors, “nerds”, most investors, poets, artists generally, pretty much all academics (and the whole profession of academia), scientists, and basically anyone who doesn’t share his opinions. He’ll happily attempt to undermine whole professions and other points of views in a really very disparaging and ungracious manner.

As I say, as much as this grated previously, I worked through it to get to the quality. But here, in Antifragile, enough is enough! His main argument in the book (that there are certain phenomena and systems which are “antifragile”, meaning that they actually thrive and improve in the face of adversity, randomness and turmoil), is mildly interesting as far as I got, but I don’t think it’s as revolutionary or simple as he would like to claim. Unlike Black Swan, he fails (for me) to come up with a convincing argument that this is something real and useful – and many of his examples are weak.

Anyway, I don’t feel qualified to write further on the book because, as I say, I struggled to make it through the dreadful writing style (and the arrogance! The irony is that he so desperately wants to be accepted as a serious scholar – a profession he has so little time for!), so I’ll leave the reviewing to others. The next two books I’ll be reviewing are far more to my taste..

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