December 8, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 46: Antifragility, Black Swans, and the composition of character

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  Becoming 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 antifragile.

"And 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 antifragile; the reverse is fragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

"We can simplify the relationships between fragility, errors, and antifragility as follows. When you are fragile, you depend on things following the exact planned course, with as little deviation as possible—for deviations are more harmful than helpful. This is why the fragile needs to be very predictive in its approach, and, conversely, predictive systems cause fragility. When you want deviations, and you don’t care about the possible dispersion of outcomes that the future can bring, since most will be helpful, you are antifragile." — From Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Antifragility exists on a spectrum. Fragile is on the left, robust (or resilient) is in the middle, and antifragile is on the right. They differ in how they respond to randomness. When faced with uncertainty, fragile breaks, robust stays the same, but antifragile strengthens.

This triad is explained by Taleb using three ancient myths.

The first is the sword of Damocles. Damocles was a courtier who made light of the responsibilities of his king. To prove he was wrong, the king arranged for them to swap places. The luxury, power, and prestige Damocles received from the king came with an unexpected caveat; a sword hanging by a single horse hair above the throne. The blade illustrated the perils of power and the constant fear of assassination.

The fragile faces a silent danger; any uncertainty will result in irreversible damage.

Next is the Phoenix. When the Phoenix dies, it is reborn from the ashes, thus remaining unaffected by uncertainty.

Lastly is the Hydra. When the Hydra loses a head, two more grow back. Hydras grow stronger from uncertainty (harm), making them antifragile.

This triad is beautifully illustrated by The Art of Manliness:

II. Seeking the antifragile

A Black Swan is a random event that possesses three characteristics:

  1. The event lies outside the realm of expectations.
  2. The event produces extreme impact.
  3. The event results in hindsight bias, in which we invent explanations for its occurrence or perceive that it could have been predicted.

"Consider the fate of Ioannis (John) and Georgios (George), two identical twin brothers, born in Cyprus (both of them), currently both living in the Greater London area. John has been employed for twenty-five years as a clerk in the personnel department of a large bank, dealing with the relocation of employees around the globe. George is a taxi driver.

"John has a perfectly predictable income (or so he thinks), with benefits, four weeks’ annual vacation, and a gold watch every twenty-five years of employment. Every month, £3,082 is deposited in his local Nat West checking account. He spends a portion of it for the mortgage on his house west of London, the utilities, and feta cheese, and has a bit left for his savings. He used to wake up on Saturday morning, the day when people stretch and linger in bed, anxiety free, telling himself 'life is good'—until the banking crisis, when he realized that his job could be 'made redundant.' Unemployment would seriously hit him hard. As a personnel expert, he has seen the implosions of long careers, with persons who, laid off at the age of fifty, never recovered.

"George, who lives on the same street as his brother, drives a black taxi—meaning he has a license for which he spent three years expanding his frontal lobes by memorizing streets and itineraries in Greater London, which gives him the right to pick up clients in the streets. His income is extremely variable. Some days are 'good,' and he earns several hundred pounds; some are worse, when he does not even cover his costs; but, year after year, he averages about the same as his brother. To date, he has only had a single day in his twenty-five-year career without a fare. Because of the variability of his income, he keeps moaning that he does not have the job security of his brother—but in fact this is an illusion, for he has a bit more.

"This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing—and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.

"Artisans, say, taxi drivers, prostitutes (a very, very old profession), carpenters, plumbers, tailors, and dentists, have some volatility in their income but they are rather robust to a minor professional Black Swan, one that would bring their income to a complete halt. Their risks are visible. Not so with employees, who have no volatility, but can be surprised to see their income going to zero after a phone call from the personnel department. Employees’ risks are hidden.

"Thanks to variability, these artisanal careers harbor a bit of antifragility: small variations make them adapt and change continuously by learning from the environment and being, sort of, continuously under pressure to be fit. Remember that stressors are information; these careers face a continuous supply of these stressors that make them adjust opportunistically.

"John has one large employer, George many small ones—so he can select the ones that fit him the best and hence has, at any point in time, “more options.” One has the illusion of stability, but is fragile; the other one the illusion of variability, but is robust and even antifragile. The more variability you observe in a system, the less Black Swan–prone it is." From Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Reputation Antifragility

John, the banker, relies on his reputation to climb the corporate ladder since having a bad one is career suicide. On the contrary, self-employed taxi driver George is robust. If a client has a bad experience, George still has thousands of potential new customers. Online reviews and services like Uber and Lyft are changing this, but a few unflattering reviews are relatively harmless. Apart from extreme events, like being accused of a crime, George's reputation can withstand a few blows.

A YouTuber's reputation is antifragile. They gain traffic, gossip, and customers from bad press, criticism, or hate. Although no reputation damage can hurt them (even crimes in some cases), their career is not antifragile since YouTube can remove them from the platform.

Information Antifragility

"Information is antifragile; it feeds more on attempts to harm it than it does on efforts to promote it. For instance, many wreck their reputations merely by trying to defend it.

"We all learn early on in life that books and ideas are antifragile and get nourishment from attacks—to borrow from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (one of the doer-Stoic authors), 'fire feeds on obstacles.'

"Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it is not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book. Consider the Ayn Rand phenomenon: her books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have been read for more than half a century by millions of people, in spite of, or most likely thanks to, brutally nasty reviews and attempts to discredit her."  — From Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

When the news reported that some American prisons had banned Robert Greene's book, The 48 Laws of Power, what do you think happened? I have no idea. But I'd guess people flocked to read it. If not, now they know its name, giving Greene free publicity.

Health Antifragility

According to Taleb, hormesis and hypertrophy are two antifragile approaches to health.

Hormesis refers to exposing ourselves to intermittent amounts of stress to become stronger. Exercise is a great example, an activity that Anna Lembke, MD notes in Dopamine Nation, is immediately toxic to cells. Weight lifting, for instance, causes microtears in muscle fibers that the body will repair with added protection (strength/size). To continue this cycle of overloading the muscle, the stress in each workout needs to be gradually increased, a principle known as progressive overload. Hormesis is covered in more detail in my book summary of  Dopamine Nation  by Anna Lembke, MD.

Hypertrophy is the process of increasing the size of muscle cells. Sticking with our weightlifting example, bodybuilders train for hypertrophy (muscle size), while powerlifters train for strength. Muscle size is not directly correlated with strength, but is a reasonable proxy as training one will improve the other. Outside the world of sport, hypertrophy becomes important for preventing early mortality as we age. One study showed that "muscle atrophy is associated with reduced quality of life, chronic disease and higher mortality." Many people rightly focus on reducing their fat mass; however, this is only one part of the body composition equation. According to another study, not maintaining muscle mass as we age increases early mortality risk by 30% due to Sarcopenia, the age-related loss of strength and muscle mass that begins in our fifties. Sarcopenia causes the average person to lose between 0.5 to 1.2% of their muscle mass and approximately 3% of their strength each year. Failing to intervene could result in losing more than a quarter of our muscle mass and 75% of our strength by age 75.

The studies referenced and information above come from  Dr. Rhonda Patrick's conversation with Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., on 'Building Muscle with Resistance Exercise and Reassessing Protein Intake.'

Quotes to Ponder

I. Michel de Montaigne on the composition of character.

“To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.”

II. Dr. Albert Schweitzer on observation without judgment.

"An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while the pessimist sees only the red stop-light. The truly wise person is color-blind."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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