January 2013 Book Review: Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder

A new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was published in November 2012 by Random House in the United States and Penguin in the United Kingdom, titled Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, at first stimulating, but ultimately a jumbled and flawed presentation of an interesting idea.

Has Taleb heard of the Feminist Revolution?

After reading dozens of reviews of Taleb’s new book Anti-Fragile, I don’t have much to add to the evaluations of anti-fragility itself. Many assessments are detailed and erudite, and it is clear that Taleb arouses and stimulates discussion. That alone is reason to be interested in his writing. Taleb uses colorful language and coins fanciful terms like ‘black swans,’ a continuation of earlier writing, and ‘anti-fragile,’ the subject of this volume.  Weaknesses pop up, however, early in the un-edited, verbose, flight of fancy pages, and grow larger as the book moves into middle chapters outlining the same concepts by drawing different pictures.

Reading the first chapters, the fresh concept and novel, anecdotal writing style drew me in. I was able to suspend the annoyance I felt with discrepancies and omissions. However, as I continued to read, I felt less able to focus on the concept and more thought: who is this bountifully opinionated, myopic, overly-confident guy? His personality overcomes the ideas so that Anti-fragile quickly becomes more about the author than the intended subject.

First, what I understand to be the subject. A person (or entity) who can weather a certain amount of bad times is what Taleb calls robust, which is good because it’s good to be strong. To improve on that, to be anti-fragile trumps robust because undergoing painful events—gaining from disorder—actually makes you stronger. What’s more, understanding and welcoming these events, will make you strongest. Since much of life is painful, this is a positive spin on the circumstance of most human life.  It’s appealing to read about how the pain in our lives is needed, that a certain amount of suffering and affliction is something to welcome, instead of dodge.

Taleb has what he calls logical papers and more mathematical writing; as I am not a scientist or a mathematician, nor have I read his technical papers, I can’t speak to that. But this book, aimed at being user-friendly, is less essay and more biography, with a strong leaning toward tirade. Flavorful, interesting, but based more on anecdote, even cult of personality, than laid out logic. I’d go so far as to say that good user-friendly writing is always sensible and logical, while this is not, although at times it can be. I wish for more of that, because these are worthy ideas.

However, Taleb’s ideas, like most, are not new. Yet he presents anti-fragile as such. the closest definition Taleb finds to anti-fragile is hormesis, which is defined as a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial result (improved health, stress tolerance) is gained from exposure to low doses of an agent that is toxic or lethal when given at higher doses.  Taleb outlines why the two concepts are not the same. His logic follows that anti-fragile is a unique and new concept. It’s true that this is a new definition; As he explains, no word has made its way into the English dictionary to define anti-fragile. Fragile breaks from disorder; anti-fragile gains from disorder.

Yet, the concept and practice of gaining from disorder, distress or pain is ancient and well-known in certain circles. This lack of awareness by Taleb leads me to read his writing with a grain of salt. For example, anti-fragility is one of the foundations of Buddhist practice. For those who have studied Buddhism, a good example can be seen in the Five Slogans of Machig Labdron (a Famous Tibetan Teacher who happens to be a woman):

1)  Confess your hidden faults. 2)  Approach what you find repulsive. 3)  Help those you think you cannot help (sometimes translated as those you do not want to help). 4)  Anything you are attached to, give that. 5)  Go to the places that scare you.

Without going further into Buddhist thoughts, these Edicts are clear: an anti-fragile being will thrive only by confronting the pain of living.

The other exasperating, foundational oversight in this peculiar book is that Taleb likes to note many revolutions and evolutions in history, but forgets a little phenomenon called the Feminist Revolution, sometimes called or connected to the Sexual Revolution. For most of the book, it’s as if the man is writing in a vacuum of time or from some hermetic back room where women barely exist. I recognize that many parts of the world, parts Taleb may have spent segments of his life in, have not had the benefit of this historical change. However, if you are going to be in print in English, and printed in New York of all places, the oversight is incredible. Taleb’s lack of ability to take women’s contribution and existence into his writing leaves a huge, indefensible—frankly suspect–hole.  For example, his one chapter where women’s contribution is noted is called:  The Touristification of the Soccer Mom, outlining in brief, puzzling strokes, how what he calls ‘soccer moms’ are the greatest hindrance to a child’s development.

Women are noted in less than a dozen sentences in a book of over 400 pages, and wow when he does make mention, his ignorance and bias is quite conspicuous. In the Soccer Mom chapter, he blames soccer moms for hindering their children, without any clarification for this assertion. Although later he makes a slight mention of a soccer pop, in this chapter it’s as if the males don’t exist, those men you hear about all the time in the news who become physically and verbally violent if their child is either a) hampered from participating or b) given what the father considers a bad call.

It’s as if Taleb has had no interaction with American families where the overwhelming opinion and historical evidence (news, print, popular media) is that mothers are the main nurturers of children, educational or otherwise. Although there has been an identified subgroup of people Americans call soccer moms, this is mostly for political delineation (as a voter group), and has little to do with the actual way American parents bring up their children. Soccer moms are defined more by the crazy driving schedules assigned to them in modern family life.  If you are going to ascribe the term Soccer Mom, as Taleb does, as a mother who is involved with their child’s scholastic and hobby practice, by what logic can one charge these mothers as hampering their children? Taleb’s writing could benefit greatly from more mindful judgments; Much of this writing is whimsical assumption.

Strange it would seem to Taleb that most first world parents consider it the role of both parents, mother and father, to raise and guide the education of to their children. In later pages, Taleb spends a lot of ink praising his father—disorderly, disvaluing education—as the main force behind his upbringing. He does not mention his mother in any direct way. From his personal experience there appears to be an extrapolation about families in general. I wonder, where included in the anti-fragile universe are the so-called non-soccer moms in the world? If you are not a soccer mom or a disorderly dad, where are you in Taleb’s spectrum of parenting? Non-existent? Quietly demurring in back rooms?

The chapter “How to Become Mother Teresa” reveals more jaundice. If Taleb wrote one word about how Mother Teresa was a positive force in the world that would have been great. Instead, in quite the opposite vein, Taleb paints a cautionary tale of a sweet-looking yet husband-swindling woman he knew to prove his argument that victims (sacrifices) create learning and anti-fragility for others (the men she didn’t marry). I know that when I think of the victims of this world, rich divorced men come to mind near last. How about you? Yet this is the major anecdote that comes to Taleb’s mind when wanting to portray victims.

Thoughts about economy and philosophy, however important, cannot exist in a bubble of masculine, platonic, hierarchical solitude. In the same chapter “A Lesson in Disorder” soon after, Taleb outlines what he calls his ‘barbell education’, further underscoring the problems with this book. Out of perhaps thirty writers he shares that he read when young, one was a woman, Anais Nin. I love Nin as much as the next person, but that style of authorship is but a small snippet of women’s writing—serious, deep, important writing that happens to be authored by women. Again, Taleb exhibits no attempt to acquaint himself with women’s impact, this time in literature. Taleb’s ideas, however erudite, need to reflect the modern world where women exist, took part in history, write and read books.

As a woman, a writer and editor and as a person who is part of the world (with husbands, kids, families), I found Taleb’s writing muddy and rocky. I wanted to forge ahead, but I kept tripping over flaws. How can I ponder the intricacies of an idea when its execution is so awkward? If you do not count the balance of all people in your readership that the modern view at least attempts to reflect, your ideas are going to be skewed, and thankfully outdated.

I’ve taken some time to look over the over 170 reviews on Amazon to test my theory and I find that I was right. There is nary one woman writer providing a review. Some reviewer names are “opaque” so I can’t tell about those. But the names that I could read were all men.

Most women are not patient enough to wade through a tome where they might as well be aliens—that is, if they are not prostitutes, gold-diggers or soccer moms, the major contributions Taleb attributes to women in history.

Taleb is obviously a brilliant guy, and it would make his writing far more readable if he recognized the other half of the human race who are in fact successful—anti-fragile—teachers, parents, bankers, economists, writers, thinkers and history-makers. I’d like to hear a point being made by a person who accedes that I am a person in the room with an opinion and a history that matters.

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