December 5, 2012 | 5
Nassim Nicholas Taleb can be a pain in the ass. After I invited him to speak at Stevens Institute of Technology a year ago, he made all kinds of demands about where, when and how the event should take place and be publicized—or rather, not publicized. He loathes journalists so much that he almost backed out of his talk after learning that local media might attend. Of the 40-plus speakers I’ve brought to Stevens, none gave me nearly as much agita as Taleb.
I put up with Taleb’s prima donna antics because—as I explained in a post last year–he’s brilliant, funny and fearless and tackles consequential topics. What are the limits of science? Of understanding and prediction? Given our limited ability to know and control the world, how should we live our lives? How can we prosper in spite—and even because—of life’s vicissitudes? A former derivatives trader, Taleb made his reputation by bashing conventional economics and finance, but his scope has always ranged far beyond Wall Street. His Big Idea is that life inevitably serves up surprises, or “black swans”–from AIDS and nuclear weapons to the 9/11 attacks and the internet—that our necessarily retrospective models of reality cannot foresee.
Unlike writers who have big personalities on the page but not in in the flesh (like incendiary blogger PZ Myers, who was surprisingly mild-mannered when I interviewed him for Bloggingheads.tv), Taleb is just what you’d expect in person, if not more so. The first time I met him, for lunch at a café in Manhattan, he spoke with manic intensity, as if he had a hard time keeping up with his own epiphanies. You could almost see the light bulbs flashing around his head.
At Stevens, Taleb previewed a book he was still working on, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, which has just been published by Random House. A common criticism of Taleb has been that he harps on life’s unpredictability without telling us what we should do about it. In other words, he offers us a diagnosis but no treatment. Antifragile represents Taleb’s response to that complaint.
Here is how he sums up his message in The Wall Street Journal: “We should try to create institutions that won’t fall apart when we encounter black swans—or that might even gain from these unexpected events… To deal with black swans, we instead need things that gain from volatility, variability, stress and disorder.” That is what Taleb means by “antifragile.” He offers some suggestions for achieving antifragility in government, business and other spheres: “Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.” “Favor businesses that learn from their own mistakes.” “Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.” “Trial and error beats academic knowledge.” “Decision makers must have skin in the game.”
Reading Taleb, I am reminded of other big-egoed thinkers: The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who like Taleb emphasized life’s randomness, or “contingency,” as Gould put it. (I summed up Gould’s view of life as “shit happens.”) The mystical philosopher Ken Wilber, who fashions his neologisms into grandiose diagrams of existence. The anarchist Kirkpatrick Sale, who rails against the tyranny and corruption of big governments and corporations. The journalist Kevin Kelly, who extols the chaos and freedom of decentralization over top-down control. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who cherished his status as a cross-disciplinary maverick and had a knack for gnomic aphorisms. The psychedelic visionary Terence McKenna, who shared Taleb’s obsession with novelty.
In short, Taleb resists categorization. If I had to pigeonhole him, I’d call him an anti-guru guru. That is, he mercilessly bashes other gurus, pundits and prophets and warns you not to fall for them. He depicts himself as a brave, lonely truth-teller in a world of fools and frauds. In so doing, he becomes a guru himself, with a cult-like following. Many gurus—from Socrates to Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the most successful gurus of the 1960s—have successfully employed this anti-guru schtick.
Like Taleb’s 2007 bestseller The Black Swan, Antifragile brims with bluster, mean-spirited diatribes and chest-thumping self-congratulation. I nonetheless recommend it, because the book is entertaining and provocative in the best sense. That is, even if you question what Taleb is saying—and you certainly should—he forces you to examine your own biases and assumptions. Yes, he can be irritating, but so are many of our most original thinkers.