Book of the Month/December 2017

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I really enjoyed Taleb’s book The Black Swan, and picked up his Antifragile shortly after it came out. I started it, and was enjoying it, but stalled out for some reason. I don’t remember. It was dark. They were big. His book found itself in my lamentably large and scattered collection of partly read books. But somewhere in my mind was the thought of finishing it, which I just did a short time ago. Really glad I did.

There are places here and there where you have to tolerate some dogmatic bombast from Taleb—he is the kind of guy, as the saying goes, who is “sometimes wrong, but never in doubt”—but the central thesis of this book is pure gold.

Some might want to dismiss his central thesis as a glib attempt to prove that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Taleb knows this, but so did your grandmother. The real point of the book has to do with what toughness actually looks like, how it behaves, how it configures itself before the going gets tough—in short, how does it anticipate the inevitable tough times? And this is where Taleb’s point gets really interesting and is entirely counterintuitive.

Institutions, corporations, management systems, biological organisms can be fragile, robust, or antifragile. According to Taleb, fragile systems require predictability. They want the environment to be placid, and they want as much protection as possible from external stressors. Robust systems do okay when they are in trouble; they are resilient. But antifragile systems are complicated, and they positively thrive in the midst of chaos. Chaos is the soil in which they grow and flourish.

In peaceful times, a fragile system can give out the appearance of stability, but this is just a mask for the fragility. And because it is easy to be foolish, many people strive for just that appearance. Not many people know that the house built on sand had a five-star rating.

“Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (Matt. 7:24–27).

That’s your fragile system, right there.

Two historical examples of fragile systems that did not appear to be at all fragile were the Soviet Union prior to its collapse, and medieval Christendom prior to the Reformation. When subsequent events overtook them—the kind of rare but extreme happening that Taleb calls a Black Swan—their fragility was exposed.

Fragile systems are cowardly, and function in a CYA mode much of the time. Because the world is filled with risk, the way that fragile systems manage this is by trying to outsource the risk. But the best way to cultivate an antifragile system is not through recklessness, but by means of a carefully thought-through “skin in the game” approach.

A lot of pastors could benefit from gleaning the principles found in this book. They want to build a peaceful church that is free of controversy, and so instead they build a fragile one that is entirely vulnerable to controversy. In the name of fighting off infections, they put their immune system under a ban. The elders issue a chin-stroking statement that antibodies are the troublers of the body.

In case anybody is still curious about it, the applications for the Reformed evangelical network in North America are numerous. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard pastors insisting on fragility as though it were one of the fruits of the Spirit. They demand cultivation of fragility as though it were a cardinal virtue. And because this is how the world works, what they have insisted upon they have certainly gotten. Fragility is our middle name.

“And he gave them their request; But sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15).

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Justin Parris
Justin Parris
3 years ago

I have two separate comments really, but for the sake of space I’ll address them both here. “Two historical examples of fragile systems that did not appear to be at all fragile were the Soviet Union prior to its collapse, and medieval Christendom prior to the Reformation. ” We have very different ideas of things that “don’t appear fragile”. Though, I would venture a guess that you did not mean that they appeared sturdy to you, or would if you stood in front of them at their respective times, but that they appeared sturdy to people at large. There are… Read more »

Ted Ryan
Ted Ryan
3 years ago
Reply to  Justin Parris

Justin,

Communism didn’t look fragile at the time. In hindsight, looking to there from here it looks fragile but at the time I don’t think the world saw the fragility in the way it is obvious now.

Justin Parris
Justin Parris
3 years ago
Reply to  Ted Ryan

The reason why communism looks fragile to me is not something specific to time perspective. Some people today cite China as the current greatest superpower and global threat. I strongly disagree. While I certainly can’t time travel to a different era, the fundamental underlying reason for seeing
the fragility is unchanged.

Andrew Lohr
3 years ago

Open churches (Jim Rutz, Frank Viola) and Plymouth Brethren type, with unscheduled contributions from every (brother) believer, can be falsely accused of chaos, but they do make us practice action in an active situation rather than following a schedule. A preacher who lets the 2nd prophet speak, as per scripture, strikes me as more robust (antifragile??) than one who does all the talking.

bethyada
bethyada
3 years ago

Well Skin in the Game is coming out next year. Here is a sample chapter.

I have Anti-Fragile on the shelf and am ordering in his Incerto series. Best get round to reading it.

Charles Williams
Charles Williams
3 years ago

“Fragile systems are cowardly, and function in a CYA mode much of the time. ”
“A lot of pastors could benefit from gleaning the principles found in this book. They want to build a peaceful church that is free of controversy, and so instead they build a fragile one that is entirely vulnerable to controversy. In the name of fighting off infections, they put their immune system under a ban. The elders issue a chin-stroking statement that antibodies are the troublers of the body.”

Interesting comments. Antibody or infection? that is the question…

prayersofadoration
3 years ago

I’ve got all his stuff on the shelf. It’s good stuff but I’ve only read two. Let me suggest the work of James Dolezal, particularly All That Is in God.

Justin W.
Justin W.
3 years ago

I have not read Antifragile, but I would highly recommend The Maneuver Warfare Handbook by Bill Lind as a primer on how to cultivate organizations that thrive in hard and unpredictable times, as warfare done well inherently is.

Eric Stampher
Eric Stampher
3 years ago

I wonder why we don’t rather see that Christendom robustly mutated to include Protestantism.
Do we deride the capacity of broken bone to heal, all because it’s now a bit lumpy?

Will
Will
3 years ago
Reply to  Eric Stampher

I think what you are saying is that the church ‘Universal’ is robust. I agree – it has lasted 2000 years and will last until Christ returns. But I think what Wilson was saying was that the Medieval Roman Catholic Church that looked like it had absolute robust power in Germany, England, and the rest of Northern Europe turned out to be much more fragile than it appeared and a few angry letters from Luther caused it to collapse like a house of cards in a hurricane.

My Portion Forever
My Portion Forever
3 years ago

The elders issue a chin-stroking statement that antibodies are the troublers of the body.
…nice
…and true!
It’s like the wolves got in at the leadership level and are leading the whole flock to the meat market while the flock accuses the alarmers as “crying wolf”

Will
Will
3 years ago

I highly recommend his other books (Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan) and I am looking forward to his upcoming “Skin in the Game.” But if you want a truly delightful and funny read, go to his twitter posts.

Barnie
Barnie
3 years ago

I’ll reserve full judgement for now but this model strikes me as being simplistic to the point of not being particularly useful.
https://bloodyshovel.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/biological-leninism/

Barnie
Barnie
3 years ago
Reply to  Barnie

Taleb’s model, I mean.

Will
Will
3 years ago
Reply to  Barnie

Yeah, you should reserve judgment. It is a very helpful and useful model. Check out the book. Maybe read Black Swan first though (they both have a similar theme).

Barnie
Barnie
3 years ago
Reply to  Will

I was pretty excited about The Collapse of Complex Societies until I figured out that understanding that it happens or even how it happens doesn’t really put you in a better position. What’s anti-complex, subsistence farming? Except farmers did terribly in examples such as Rome and besides, subsistence farming is apparently terrible. Trying to choose the anti-complex or antifragile option probably involves huge missed opportunity costs.

demosthenes1d
demosthenes1d
3 years ago
Reply to  Barnie

It’s still better to know… Speaking of, have you read Seeing Like a State? “Except farmers did terribly in examples such as Rome” I’m not sure this is true. As Rome slipped individual land owners became more and more autonomous and less beholden to, and cooperative with, the state. I have to think that life for the average ag slave/serf/peasant was less disrupted than for those who lived in major western cities. Some cities were decimated (Rome) and all experienced intense economic contraction. Also, the country gentry went right on doing what they had been doing and ended up as… Read more »

demosthenes1d
demosthenes1d
3 years ago
Reply to  Barnie

I haven’t read Taleb, or anything interacting with him seriously, so i don’t know if medieval Christendom and the USSR were his examples of fragility, or Doug’s attempt to apply the categories, but they are both terrible examples. They may not have been have been antifragile, but they were certainly robust.

Thanks for the interesting link. Some of his history is off… I may post more if I have time this week. Also, to reiterate from before, I think you should check out theworthyhouse.

Will
Will
3 years ago
Reply to  demosthenes1d

Demothenes1d, you really should read Taleb before talking about this stuff. First off, his first chapter is explaining that anti-fragile does not equal robust. Two different things. Second, although they are not Taleb’s examples, Doug Wilson’s use of them are excellent. The Medieval Catholic Church was super fragile. It only took a few angry letters by a German Monk (not even a bishop) and the church lost UK, Germany, Holland, and all of Northern Europe. It was ready to break and when the time came it broke. The USSR is similar. It was not able to handle a shake up.… Read more »

Will
Will
3 years ago
Reply to  Will

To explain the difference between robust and anti-fragile, let me expand. A robust thing is a strong fragile thing. In other words, your tea cups are fragile (they break the first time you drop them) and your kid’s plastic cups are robust (you would need to drop them from a very high height for them to break). But both would prefer to be left on the shelf. Drop your kid’s cup enough times or if the dog gets ahold of it and it breaks. It is robust but still doesn’t like disruption. An anti-fragile thing is a thing that likes… Read more »

demosthenes1d
demosthenes1d
3 years ago
Reply to  Will

Will, Thanks for the interaction. As I said, I haven’t read Taleb, he is on my long list but there is no guarantee I will ever at to him. I am just a guy bloviating in a blog comment section so my thoughts are probably worth what you paid for them (though I strive for a bit better than worthless). However, the way you (and Taleb?) are using fragile is basically worthless. what else would be a good example? Ancient Egypt, the Achaemenids, the Greek Cities, the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, Parthia, the Otoman Empire, etc. etc. Every order… Read more »

Will
Will
3 years ago
Reply to  demosthenes1d

Hey demosthenes1d, First off, let me highly recommend reading Taleb. We all have long reading lists and I read quite a bit (52 books a year) and his work stands out in a major way from almost everyone else. I read AntiFragile and then found myself going back and reading everything he ever wrote. He is funny, super-arrogant, brilliant, combative, and profound all in one and his concepts (whether you agree or disagree) will make you look at the world differently. One important thing about him that is very relevant to your question is that Taleb is the author of… Read more »

demosthenes1d
demosthenes1d
3 years ago
Reply to  Will

Thanks for your time, Will.

I am familiar with the thesis of Black Swan, and, to be honest, it seems so blatantly obvious that I was never interested in picking up the book.

I’ll keep it on my list, but I’m afraid I can’t keep up with your book a week pace, and lots on my short list are doozies.

JP Stewart
JP Stewart
3 years ago
Reply to  demosthenes1d

“I am familiar with the thesis of Black Swan, and, to be honest, it seems so blatantly obvious that I was never interested in picking up the book.”

I take it you don’t have much experience in the financial markets?

Jane
Jane
3 years ago
Reply to  demosthenes1d

The medieval institutional church was not robust at the time that Luther engaged with it. If it were, why on earth would a German monk taking one particular side in a debate that was already active in the church and had supporters on both sides, shake it to the core and splinter it?

The fact that it might have been robust enough in the past to endure up to that time, is beside the point. The point is that it had lost its robustness.

John Callaghan
John Callaghan
3 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Taking a long view, the Catholic Church is the most anti-fragile organization in the world.

It survived the government take-over and persecution in Northern Europe 500 years ago. It survived the efforts of Stalin and Hitler in the last century, of Napoleon and Bismark the century before, of Saracens for a millennium and of Roman emperors (both pagan and Arian) in the early centuries.

Last month, Doug quoted from a chapter of The Everlasting Man where Chesterton describes that anti-fragility:

The Five Deaths of the Faith

Will
Will
3 years ago
Reply to  John Callaghan

Hey John, I think often anti fragility is the result of a lot of breaks due to fragility. In other words, when we get sick, we develop a better immune system. But that does not change the fact that we were once fragile. I think that you are right that the Roman Catholic Church (broadly speaking) is pretty anti fragile. One of the ways they have been so anti fragile is their ability to work with reformers. Saint Francis, Saint Dominic, and countless others confronted the abuses of the church in a very similar way to Luther. The difference is… Read more »

John Callaghan
John Callaghan
3 years ago
Reply to  Will

Will,

You are correct that the Church today is much more patient with liberal ideas today than back in Luther’s day. There were some voices (such as Erasmus) who anticipated the damage a hard-line conservative reaction would cause – but they were ignored for too long.

Luther could have followed the path of St. Francis or St. Dominic. Unfortunately, unlike them, he was a university professor with a rather pugnacious personality who was exceptionally attached to his own theological notions.

That combination of an organization unwilling to provide much slack and an individual unwilling to budge proved disastrously brittle.

JP Stewart
JP Stewart
3 years ago
Reply to  demosthenes1d

I went to the former Soviet Union not long before it collapsed. On the street, people were trading Rubles for Dollars for a fraction of what you could get at the bank, and were doing everything they could to buy U.S. goods. East Germany was worse. “Fragile” is certainly a great description of the USSR (not just based on my anecdotal experience, but on many factors).

Jonathan
Jonathan
3 years ago
Reply to  Barnie

“Socialism works not only because it promises higher status to a lot of people. Socialism is catnip because it promises status to people who, deep down, know they shouldn’t have it. There is such a thing as natural law, the natural state of any normally functioning human society. Basic biology tells us people are different. Some are more intelligent, more attractive, more crafty and popular. Everybody knows, deep in their lizard brains, how human mating works: women are attracted to the top dogs. Being generous, all human societies default to a Pareto distribution where 20% of people are high-status, and… Read more »

John Callaghan
John Callaghan
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan

The actual author does not think of himself as Christian (anymore?).

From a previous post of his:

Many, I’d guess most of us here also come from Christian families; but we dropped out. However not everybody is willing to take that step, for many reasons. It’s not so easy to accept that everything your family, your schools, your friends has been telling you about is a lie.

Jane
Jane
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan

I find it hard to take seriously people who argue broad-sweeping theses about life, the universe, and everything, and don’t even want to tell me their name. It may be just a quirk of mine, but there it is.

john k
john k
3 years ago

pastors insisting on fragility as though it were one of the fruits of the Spirit. They demand cultivation of fragility

I never heard any pastor use the word “fragility.” How does this manifest? Is it in doctrinal and moral laxity, or rigor, or what?

Will
Will
3 years ago
Reply to  john k

Fragility just means that if something gets shaken, the whole thing falls apart. A controversy hits and the church splits. A pastor has a scandal and the church dissolves. Think of Driscol’s Mars Hill. He resigned and the church folded…. all locations. It was totally fragile. Compare that to a church I know of that had a pastor who shared the pulpit with a bunch of other pastors and leaders, he had a scandal and the church made a small statement on it, he resigned and everything went on as good as ever (probably better because they didn’t have an… Read more »

john k
john k
3 years ago
Reply to  Will

So Driscoll insisted on fragility, and intentionally built a fragile church?

Jane
Jane
3 years ago
Reply to  john k

Probably not intentionally, but as a side effect of his very intentional methodology, yes. He didn’t view it as being “fragile” in the sense, of, “Hey, everybody, this church needs to be fragile!” but he insisted on the conditions that made it fragile.

john k
john k
3 years ago
Reply to  Jane

It’s one thing to say pastors insist on what makes for fragility, and another to say they insist on fragility. It’s the difference between blindness and craziness.

There are limits to human anti-fragility, and events that no church or culture can withstand. “Let him who thinks he stands. . .”