Antifragile: embracing discomfort – 3 takeaways from a thought provoking book

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb is thought provoking and forces you to look at things from a different angle. The book provides a mental model applicable to various aspects of life. While it is sometimes hard to read and Taleb’s style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Antifragile includes many fascinating insights and ideas. Its effect on my thinking was profound, probably even more so in my personal life than in my work. Ever since I read it I have been noticing things I wouldn’t have considered before. I have also changed what I take into account when making decisions.

A summary in the form of an article likely doesn’t do justice to Antifragile. Nevertheless, I want to try as I’ve meant to write about the book for a while now. I will explain the main ideas and also share my personal takeaways. First, though, let me address the style. 

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Nassim Taleb’s writing style may not be for everyone

I once read that in Nassim Taleb’s writing you can tell he is so rich that he doesn’t need to care about anyone’s opinion. (Some may phrase this differently.) I think this sums it up nicely. He is very blunt and tends to polarize. 

The book is long and not always an easy read. The writing is sometimes convoluted and Taleb often comes across as arrogant. 

This style may not be for everyone. I know at least one person who couldn’t get over the tone and thus quit after the first chapters (my wife). I suspect there are many who have the same experience. It also took me some time to get used to the writing. 

But if you can get over the style and tone, the book does include many fascinating ideas.

The main concepts in Antifragile

Having gotten this out of the way let’s get to the actual contents. I want to run through the main concepts as I understand them. Let’s start with the most obvious. 

Antifragile Systems

The main concept of the book are systems that are antifragile. These are systems that benefit from volatility and disorder. 

Being antifragile is not the same as being robust or resilient. These describe systems that are neutral in the face of volatility. Antifragile systems actually benefit from outside shocks. They become stronger under stress. In fact, they sometimes need stress to survive. 

An example of an antifragile system that Taleb keeps coming back to is the human body. It’s one of the most antifragile things out there. 

Take muscles for example. In order to make them stronger humans lift weights. This is nothing more than stressing the muscles. The same is true for bones, the brain, or the cardiovascular system. Stress makes them stronger. 

The human body is the result of millions of years of evolution. Anything that survived this long is antifragile. The same is true for many other things in nature. 

While most of nature consists of antifragile systems, antifragility can also be found in human creations. The economy as a whole, for example, is an antifragile system. Stress keeps it that way. It forces individual companies to fail so that the economy remains healthy. 

As is true for the economy, it is the case for many systems that they are antifragile precisely because the parts they are made of are fragile. 

Volatility and risk are good things

Volatility is natural. It is, however, generally assumed randomness is risky. Humans therefore often try to suppress volatility. This is unnatural and builds up non-obvious risk. If this risk manifests the consequences are exponentially higher than the cumulative effects of the suppressed volatility would have been.

This avoidance of small mistakes leads to big ones. Taleb likens it to being hit by a rock. Being hit 100 times by a rock that weighs 100 grams is easier to sustain than being hit once by a 10 kg rock. Although the total mass that hit the person is the same.

Or to use the example of the economy again. Artificially shielding the economy from slight stress and volatility will make it weaker. If and when the inevitable outside shock – the black swan event – comes to be, its consequences will be profound. Much more profound than the cumulative consequences of the unrestricted volatility. 

We should therefore embrace volatility and discomfort instead of trying to suppress them with naive interventions. 

Interventions and unforeseen consequences

The problem is that humans generally want to intervene to suppress volatility, often causing more harm than good. This is because humans are horrible at forecasts. We simply cannot predict the future. (This is true in life and also in product development). 

As a general rule, Taleb suggests only listening to the predictions of people that have skin in the game. That is, those that are affected negatively if the prediction is wrong.

Many interventions have unforeseen consequences that we don’t see. Nevertheless, humans tend to naively intervene far too often. 

An example of this is doctors. For almost all of history, doctors did more harm than good. Still, humans kept going to them because it gave them the feeling that someone was doing something about their problems. (Taking the Medicine by Druin Burch is a great book about this.)

It’s important to realize that no evidence of harm doesn’t prove that there is no harm. Those proposing an intervention should therefore have the burden to prove that it doesn’t harm. Instead of those opposing the intervention having to find evidence for harm. 

When in doubt, don’t intervene!

The barbell strategy

Intervening – i.e. adding to a situation – tends to add fragility, while removing things tends to  increase antifragility. Instead of thinking what we could do to improve the situation, it makes more sense to think what we could do less of that could benefit. 

For this reason, Taleb recommends being extreme. In most situations in life the best is not to do anything, or to do less. Not doing anything has limited downside because there are no unintended consequences from intervening. 

However, in some situations where the known downside is low, the best is to try very risky actions that have exponential upside. 

The example that helped me understand this was the treatment of patients. When patients are more or less healthy or have a minor sickness, Taleb argues for doing nothing at all. The risk of side effects outweighs the benefits, making someone that is basically healthy feel slightly better. The downside is unknown, whereas the upside is limited.

For terminally ill patients he argues for using highly speculative treatment. Here the risk of side effects is worth it because the situation can’t become much worse. There is however, potential for significant upside, healing the patient fully. The downside is limited, whereas the upside is unknown. 

The goal should be to place many bets with unknown upside but known downside.

My personal takeaways from Antifragile

The book challenged how I think about specific things in life. It had an effect on my decision making and changed my feelings about discomfort. Three things stood out to me. 

  • Trying to predict the future is wasted effort
  • The power of optionality
  • Humans thriving in slight discomfort

Trying to predict the future is wasted effort

This was not so much a change in my way of thinking. But the book reinforced beliefs that I already held. 

Humans are bad at predictions. Correct predictions are often caused by luck. Survivorship bias also means that correct predictions remain prominent in our minds. We forget about all the wrong predictions.  

In product development, we also tend to try and predict the future. More often than not this is in the form of delivery dates. Because product development is uncertain, this effort is usually in vain. For this reason I  try to avoid date commitments and deadlines if at all possible. I always advocate for using alternatives to the typical roadmap that doesn’t include dates. 

Any dates that I do commit to are high integrity commitments that we will achieve. 

The power of optionality

The concept of optionality appealed to me. Increasing optionality means increasing the amount of options with unknown upside. Before Antifragile I underestimated this aspect. Most of the time I didn’t consider it and wasn’t aware of the effects decisions had on optionality in my life. 

Now, I always think about what any decision does to my future solution space. For me a helpful rule of thumb is thinking about how much a given choice restricts what I can do in the future. When in doubt I shy away from things where I am unsure about the effort or commitment and move for things that leave me the most possibilities. 

When we discuss solutions within the product team, I now place more value on the flexibility of the options. Avoiding premature optimization is crucial. 

The concept of optionality may not seem so spectacular. But it’s one of those things that once you see it one time you see it everywhere. Specializing on a narrow field or getting a mortgage at a young age: bad for optionality. Going to social events without any associated commitments or building savings to gain some financial independence: good for optionality. 

Humans thrive in slight discomfort

Think about it, everything in life is geared towards convenience and comfort. Hungry? Order food to your house. Tired? Take the elevator. Need to write a user story? Use ChatGPT. Not sure what to watch? Software will recommend something. 

I now think that convenience is not always a good thing. 

I used to always default to that which was easiest or most convenient, without thinking about it further. Now, I don’t automatically do that. I try to consider other options and often purposely choose what is inconvenient. 

I also think differently about volatility in my job. As a freelancer, I have months with more and months with less work. I have embraced this volatility.

Humans are antifragile. They thrive in slight discomfort. It feels good to sustain slight discomfort. I feel like it makes you grow. 

Antifragile is worth reading

More than anything else, Antifragile is a way of thinking about life. It reframed how I viewed volatility, uncertainty, and slight stress. These are not just something to endure but potential sources of growth. For me, this means less interventions, more calculated risks, and viewing uncomfort as an opportunity. 

The style may be unorthodox but I do recommend the book. You may find some interesting ideas that resonate. In an ever changing world it can’t hurt to be in a position to benefit from this volatility.