durien fruit

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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.

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

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