Antifragility: How to be a Black Swan Whisperer

Black Swans are the New Sh!t – They Happen.

Unexpected stuff happens all the time. There’s a lot we don’t know. And according to physicists, disorder/chaos is only always increasing.

When the supposedly improbable/unthinkable occurs AND it has a big impact, Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubs it a Black Swan.

[Europeans believed swans were always and only white… because they’d never ever seen a black one – until they did. A Dutchman happened upon one in Australia in 1697. Logical Point #1: The exception disproves the rule. Logical Point #2: The lack of an exception does not prove the rule.]

“It may smell like Black Swan to you – but it’s bread and butter to me.”

My first few jobs involved long summer afternoons on the banks of sewage lagoons and early mornings down in live sewers. Each time she popped a manhole lid (impressively quickly for a 22 year-old,  5’2”, 110 lb, blonde Cali girl), my friend and fellow engineer Mary would take a deep breath and exhale the above aphorism. With the original 4-letter word of course.

Some people, places, things, and activities are easily undone by the world’s normal chaos. They’re fragile. Others rebound or are impervious to disorder – we call them resilient or robust. And then there are those that thrive on and even NEED sh!t. Taleb names this category of things “antifragile.” As described in the blurb for his new book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder:

“Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil.”

Black Swan Whisperers will inherit the earth

The antifragile’s relationship with chaos is most importantly demonstrated in its relationship with uncertainty. To decide if you’re antifragile ask:

“… is what you are missing from a model, or what you don’t know in real life, going to help you more than hurt you? … In expectation, anything that loves Black Swans will be present in the future. Anything that fears it will be eventually gone…”

~  Nassim Nicholas Taleb on

How to Be Antifragile #1

Combine the theory that Black Swans are what really shape our world with the fact that Black Swans are statistical outliers – not in the middle of the bell curve of what we can predict – and you realize it might be a good idea to engage in what Taleb calls barbell living.  Live on the edges of the curve, combining some of each end. In finances, for example, perhaps invest 80% of your portfolio hyper-aggressively and 20% hyper-cautiously. [But DON’T do it because I say so… because I was stretching my economics knowledge  just to use the word “portfolio!”] In exercise, Taleb reportedly advocates mostly easy walking with little spurts here and there of extreme exertion. [This IS likely how our cavewomen and cavemen ancestors lived and therefore how our bodies evolved.]

How to Be Antifragile #2

Looking at real examples of antifragility – Switzerland, self-organizing natural systems, cockroaches, fairy tales, the scientific method, evolution, artists – Taleb notes a pattern of stochastic tinkering which I would summarize like this:

  1. Observe.
  2. Have enough knowledge – and use it – to note when something’s unexpected.
  3. Have enough knowledge – and use it – to make small changes and adjust. Since the really important stuff is not predictable, lean into your own educated guesses, intuition, and common sense.
  4. Repeat.

This process is what many wise people advocate when they say preparation + opportunity  “harnesses luck” and turns it into serendipity.

Live curious.

Teach curious. Love curious.

Love mistakes rather than hating them (that’s very fragile) or even just tolerating them (which is robust). Look forward to the unexpected.

Here’s What I Want to Know:

I wonder if barbell living can really be applied in all areas of life — food, sex, money, relationships, spirituality, politics, housework, career, or my hairdo?

In some areas of life, I’m nervous to engage in even stochastic kinds of tinkering. Do you stochastically tinker anywhere? Where would you be scared to try it?

Any tips you have for me would be greatly appreciated. And hurry please – before I tinker my hair into a black swan dive.

This entry was posted in Anti-fragile, robust, resilient, Favorites. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Antifragility: How to be a Black Swan Whisperer

  1. Terry DeMeo says:

    Beautiful post, Betsy, about a fascinating concept. Looking forward to things screwing up, to making mistakes, to the unexpected is a powerful place to live. And interesting enough to devote a lifetime to it. I wish us both luck in the endeavor!

  2. Betsy says:

    Thank you Terry — I can’t wait for the whole book. I love your idea that the unexpected “is interesting enough to devote a lifetime to.” And obviously — from your own life — figuring that out is the best way to harness luck:)

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