Smells like hell but taste like heaven, or as one writer aptly described the dual pleasure and pain of the durian fruit: “It’s like eating the most delicious custard out of a toilet bowl.”

It’s something I think about frequently: What if you really dislike an artist—or a thinker—in their real life form but you admire their work?

This morning the New York Times’ The Ethicist addressed the question, “Can I politically disagree with an artist and still love the art?” (In this case, posed by a political conservative who is troubled about liking the music of Bruce Springsteen.)

That’s an ongoing issue for me with the inimitable Nassim Nicholas Taleb*. His ideas provoke, excite and expand my thinking. I loved reading The Black Swan, and now I am winding my way through his latest, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.

Here’s a brief description of his latest all consuming theory from the Guardian‘s recent review:

The core idea behind this book is simple and quite enticing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb divides the world and all that’s in it (people, things, institutions, ways of life) into three categories: the fragile, the robust and the antifragile. You are fragile if you avoid disorder and disruption for fear of the mess they might make of your life: you think you are keeping safe, but really you are making yourself vulnerable to the shock that will tear everything apart. You are robust if you can stand up to shocks without flinching and without changing who you are. But you are antifragile if shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face. Taleb thinks we should all try to be antifragile.

While the ideas presented are provocative, the book itself does not offer a crisp delivery. I agree with reviewer David Runciman who describes it as a “big, baggy, sprawling mess.”

And it isn’t just the book structure that detracts from the content. It is that damn persistent Taleb personality thing. This is a game of whack-a-mole where that annoyance won’t stop showing up. The title of John Horgan‘s review for Scientific American says it well: Nassim Taleb Is Annoying, but ‘Antifragile’ Is Still Worth Reading.

This isn’t a new problem of course. Horgan offer up a list of similarly difficult but provocative thinkers, many of whom I too have found compelling:

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.

I have come to refer to this twosidedness as Durienism, named after that unforgettable Asian fruit that both delights and disgusts.

Even so, I am already aware of how much this book has shifted my thinking about the way things unfold in my studio. What ways of working are fragile and easily destroyed? What thrives on change and disruption? As Taleb writes, “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes a fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them.” I’m no fragilista, but I am also looking for even better ways to explore and play with that edge of uncertainty.

*Previous Slow Muse posts about Taleb:
Tinker Away
Kahneman, in the Studio

3 Comment

  1. I’m not familiar with Taleb’s work, but in terms of not liking a thinker politically (or otherwise), I think of continental philosophers who use Heidegger (whose Nazi sympathies are extremely troubling–and many have wondered if his thinking ends up leading to that type of worldview) in their work, but for other ends–learning and growing from him. I think of David Foster Wallace’s critique of Updike and Roth for their terrible insular egocentricity while still learning enormously from their writing. In my own life I have a love-hate relationship with Soren Kierkegaard, who I’ve learned tremendously from in terms of living fully and freely, while lamenting the fact that at times he’s simply a misogynist pig. I love Immanuel Kant, who is as against emotion as an input to moral choices (or even being an integrated human being–as we now think of it) as anyone. He’s wrongheaded in this, but he’s incredibly provocative in thinking about the imagination as well as notions of time and space. And notions of aesthetics.

    I think all human beings are complex and that we can learn from all of them. Many times the beauty and what it is we can learn is not immediately apparent. Sometimes when someone’s complexity is immediately apparent we can see what it is we resonate with faster. That being said, it still matters what type of “energy” one chooses to spend one’s time with, by which I mean its effect on you *at that time* (who we read and how can change over time). It sounds like reading Taleb is genuinely inspiring and that you are learning from him. It sounds like you are able to sort what is now for you the wheat and the chaff for your own life while being challenged by a different point of view. It sounds, in short, like you have a genuine dialogue with his thought. That type of “conversation” I think is almost always win-win. 🙂

  2. P. S. I LOVE the term Durienism. Can I steal it? I’ll credit you. 🙂

  3. Melissa, this is such a rich and rewarding commentary to what I posted this morning. Thank you for taking the time to add value and to share your points of view (many of which I share.) And of course you can use Durienism. I would be honored.

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