Nassiim Nacholas Taleb

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durian_main
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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It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. A man who has never experienced that has missed something important. He must sense that he lives in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.

–Carl Jung

For the last few weeks my view of the world has been shifted significantly by reading The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Written in 2007 but recently released with updated footnotes, the book has been provoking and inspiring shifts in thinking in a variety of disciplines. It has a horizontality that reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, that landmark book that appeared in 1962 and introduced the brand new concepts of paradigms and paradigm shifts to science, history, sociology, psychology et al.

Taleb’s “Black Swan Events” theory is offered up to explain the following:

1) The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations
2) The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to their very nature of small probabilities)
3) The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs.

It’s a great name. There are no black swans in the Northern Hemisphere so whiteness was assumed to be an essential quality of swanness. When a Dutch explorer spotted a black one on an expedition to Australia in 1697, that concept had to be restated. It is a simple but useful analogy for how fragile a system of thought actually can be. Our assumptions, whether they result from reason, logic, falsifiability and/or evidence, can be undone in a moment.

From a review of the book by Will Self:

The Black Swans of the title aren’t simply known unknowns; there are unknown unknowns – events, or inventions, or runaway successes, or indeed contingencies of any kind – for which no statistical analysis, or inductive reasoning can possibly arm us. They are events like 9/11, or Black Monday, or publishing phenomena like the Harry Potter books, or inventions such as the internet, all of which alter the human world.

And from Taleb himself:

Black Swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them.) There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans (of the positive kind) by maximizing your exposure to them. Indeed, in some domains—such as scientific discovering and venture capital investments—there is a disproportionate payoff from the unknown, since you typically have little to lose and plenty to gain from a rare event…the strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves…The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.

It is not surprising that a number of venture capitalists have embraced Taleb’s approach as their investment modus operandi. Taleb was a Wall Streeter at one point (don’t hold it against him although he certainly has no shortage of tonal arrogance) so his examples are primarily in the financial/economic realm. But I read this book as an artist’s manifesto, correlating with another variation on the value of tinkering that came up in the conversation between technologists Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson (and written about here.) As Kelly colloquially put it, “to create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap.” Or as Johnson phrased it, “You need error to open the door to the adjacent possible.”

So tinker away. Be willing to err, to fail, to “set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans.” And Emily Dickinson’s take on the adjacent possible seems right in line with Taleb, Kelly and Johnson:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

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