The 10 Best Life Lessons from Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

Most people want to have a fully successful life. Not just in one aspect, but across everything: finances, fitness, relationships, career, and personal. Winning at everything at the same time is the ultimate goal.

That ultimate goal is a tough thing to achieve because succeeding in one aspect often comes at the expense of another. For example, doing well in a career and finances may come at the cost of relationships and family life due to time commitments. In order to overcome this challenge, what we need is a set of principles that can be applied everywhere, to live a full life of success.

One of the best collections of such universal principles is in a book called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Taleb. The book is packed with amazing life principles and lessons that can be applied to achieve success across all aspects of life. Here I will share the 10 best of them with you.

1. Make your life Antifragile

The ideal for building a successful life is to work towards becoming antifragile in all aspects.

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

When you workout, your body will adapt to get stronger and make your workout easier to do the next time. Thus, your body benefits from physical stressors and is therefore antifragile. Anything that grows or benefits from stressors is antifragile. We can apply this principle to other aspects of our lives to become resilient and even benefit from stressors.

Choose a job that is flexible and you can’t be fired from. A content creator can never be fired — if a hater tries to take you down or publicly hate on you, they end up giving you even more attention — free advertising. Always maintain extra cash in an emergency fund. Having spare money makes you resilient to economic recessions and allows you to take advantage of such conditions as you have the capital to buy into the market at cheap prices.

Look for ways to make yourself both resilient to stressors and in a position to take advantage of them, to thrive in any situation.

2. Challenges are fuel for growth

Challenges are mini stressors that are highly beneficial for keeping you strong and promoting growth. As long as you can strike a balance for the stressors being small enough to not hurt you but large enough to be challenging. This is exactly how vaccines typically work:

“Now consider a case when the poisonous substance, in some dose, makes you better off overall, one step up from robustness. Hormesis, a word coined by pharmacologists, is when a small dose of a harmful substance is actually beneficial for the organism, acting as medicine. A little bit of an otherwise offending substance, not too much, acts to benefit the organism and make it better overall as it triggers some overreaction.”

Find ways to challenge yourself in small ways that will make you stronger over time. Challenging exercises for your body, reading new books for your mind, pushing outside of your comfort zone for hobbies and activities. All of these things help to constantly keep you working and becoming stronger. Your mind and body adapt, resulting in your personal growth.

Find ways to inject some challenge and mini-stressors into your life to maintain your antifragility.

3. Small, fast, and flexible

For antifragility, a collection of small things is better than one large brittle thing. Consider the following example:

“John (employee) has one large employer, George (self-employed) many small ones — so he can select the ones that fit him the best and hence has, at any point in time, “more options.” One has the illusion of stability, but is fragile; the other one the illusion of variability, but is robust and even antifragile.

Further, for a self-employed person (George), a small (nonterminal) mistake is information, valuable information, one that directs him in his adaptive approach; for someone employed like John, a mistake is something that goes into his permanent record, filed in the personnel department”

In this example, John is totally fragile. Any recession, poor performance, or just bad luck could drop his income to zero, totally ruining him. George is self-employed, making his income a bit unsteady. But George’s income will not drop all at once, it’ll drop gradually as clients drop off. That slow loss in income even serves as information for improvement, so George can adapt and bring himself back up. George is also more exposed to the higher upside, as he can land some really big clients that pay a lot. John is stuck with the same salary until his boss decides otherwise.

Put yourself in a position where you are small, fast, and flexible rather than large, slow, and brittle. It gives you faster learning, better safety, and a higher upside. Multiple clients, multiple income streams, lots of connections, lots of skills, and maximum flexibility in your work are all antifragile.

4. The barbell strategy of investing

The barbell strategy is a method of investing that is antifragile. It can be applied to any area of life to maximize your chances of success while minimizing the chance of failure.

“I initially used the image of the barbell to describe a dual attitude of playing it safe in some areas and taking a lot of small risks in others, hence achieving antifragility. That is extreme risk aversion on one side and extreme risk loving on the other, rather than just the “medium” risk attitude that in fact is a sucker game (because medium risks can be subjected to huge measurement errors). But the barbell also results, because of its construction, in the reduction of downside risk — the elimination of the risk of ruin.

If you put 90 percent of your funds in boring cash (assuming you are protected from inflation) and 10 percent in very risky, maximally risky, securities, you cannot possibly lose more than 10 percent, while you are exposed to massive upside. Someone with 100 percent in so-called “medium” risk securities has a risk of total ruin from the miscomputation of risks.”

The key is making sure that you are fully stable and protected from total ruin by going 90% on sure bets. Then you can take big risks for big rewards with the last 10%. This strikes the perfect balance between maintaining your safety and taking risks for big wins.

Spend 90% of your time at your day job while using your 10% outside of work for starting a high-reward business — you get a stable income with the chance to win big. With your leisure time, spend 90% of it with your usual friends and family and the other 10% going to random events and meetups — you have a chance to meet a new best friend, business partner, or the love of your life. Invest 90% of your money in safe, long-term assets and use the other 10% for high return bets — you secure your retirement fund and get the chance to strike it rich.

Taleb gives several other examples in Chapter 11: Never Marry the Rock Star. I’ve written a whole article on barbell strategies too.

5. You don’t need to be smart if you have options

Optionality is another means of becoming antifragile. If you have options, then you can always take advantage of opportunities whenever they very obviously pop up, rather than trying to time things and be right 100% of the time.

“Centrally, we just don’t need to know what’s going on when we buy cheaply — when we have the asymmetry working for us. But this property goes beyond buying cheaply: we do not need to understand things when we have some edge. And the edge from optionality is in the larger payoff when you are right, which makes it unnecessary to be right too often.
All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur.”

If you have the flexibility of options, then you can take advantage of opportunities when they are brutally obvious to you. And because you have so many options, you can confidently ignore any of the ones that seem unappealing to you. This is much easier and more profitable than trying to be extremely intelligent to make perfect choices.

If you always have extra money coming in then it doesn’t matter what the market is doing, you’ll always have opportunities to buy more. You don’t need amazing timing to do well, you just keep buying. If you have many clients, then losing one isn’t a big problem because you have other options. You’re never forced to do anything special to keep a single client, if you don’t like one then you can just move on to another.

Doing things perfectly is hard — doing things decently well when you have the huge advantage of optionality is easy.

6. Learn through action

It is commonly thought that theories come before action and invention. But, as Taleb correctly argues, innovation actually comes before the theory.

“Scranton showed that we have been building and using jet engines in a completely trial-and-error experiential manner, without anyone truly understanding the theory. Builders needed the original engineers who knew how to twist things to make the engine work. Theory came later, in a lame way, to satisfy the intellectual bean counter. But that’s not what you tend to read in standard histories of technology: my son, who studies aerospace engineering, was not aware of this.”

The best learning always comes from action and direct experience. Experience gives you concrete evidence of what works and what doesn’t. You get that evidence right away as soon as you take your action. Thus, it is advantageous to have a bias for action and learn through those experiences rather than trying to plan out all of your endeavours.

Start working on your business today — you’ll learn how to make it successful by actually creating and selling products. Don’t sit around making grand plans about how to ask out that cute guy or girl, just walk up to them and ask. You’ll see if they want to go out or if you should just move on to someone else right away. It’s fast and valuable feedback.

In all aspects, get your own direct experience rather than just theorizing.

7. Trial and error is the best success strategy

The oldest and most time-tested success strategy is trial and error. It may seem simple but is in fact extremely powerful. It perfectly lines up with human nature.

“In many pursuits, every trial, every failure provides additional information, each more valuable than the previous one — if you know what does not work, or where the wallet is not located. With every trial one gets closer to something, assuming an environment in which one knows exactly what one is looking for. We can, from the trial that fails to deliver, figure out progressively where to go.”

As Taleb explains, each trial and error gives you new information about whether or not your actions are moving you in a positive direction. It’s real-world evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Over time, as you make adjustments based on feedback from your trials, your learning stacks up and your progress becomes faster and faster. That constant positive progress is what will make you massively successful.

Don’t just try one business idea, try 10, to give yourself the opportunity to see which one works the best. Stay broad and flexible early on in your career so you can sample several different paths; once you find something you love, you can confidently put all your effort into it. Read many different books. Hang out with many different types of people. Go to wildly different events. Test out different investment strategies. Try different hobbies.

To be successful, do as much trial as you can to give yourself the benefit of massive learning and experience.

8. Boredom is a guide for life

Taleb tells an insightful story of how he first developed boredom as a strategy for life. He hated reading in school since he was forced to read specific books, in specific subjects, assigned by his teachers.

The thing that saved him was when he started to pick out his own books from the local library on any subject that interested him. This led to his love for reading and thus a much more powerful learning experience.

I figured out that whatever I selected myself I could read with more depth and more breadth — there was a match to my curiosity…The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether — when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement.

The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research. It is exactly like options, trial and error, not getting stuck, bifurcating when necessary but keeping a sense of broad freedom and opportunism. Trial and error is freedom. (I confess I still use that method at the time of this writing). Avoidance of boredom is the only worthy mode of action. Life otherwise is not worth living.”

Your boredom is your guide. When you get bored, it means that your BS detector is functioning properly and your brain is telling you to move to something else. So if you want a compass for what to do with your life, use boredom to point the way.

Choose relationships with people that excite you. Focus your career on the things that you’re most passionate about. Invest your money in assets that you’re interested in learning about. Spend your time on the things that give you a feeling of purpose.

Your degree of interest in a subject drives how much passion, effort, and focus you’re going to be able to put into it. Use your feelings of boredom and interest as indicators for what to do and you will become successful because you always choose the perfect fit.

9. Apply the “Via Negativa” strategy

Taleb argues that life can be improved more consistently by removing things rather than adding them. This is called via negativa:

“In practice it is the negative that’s used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning of life is about what to avoid. You reduce most of your personal risks of accident thanks to a small number of measures.”

There are a couple of other great quotes by Warren Buffett:

“Rule No. 1: Never lose money.
Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No.1.”

And Buffet’s business partner Charlie Munger:

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Finding out the best strategy or the thing that will succeed is hard, but eliminating stupid things is easy. Combine this with optionality to become really antifragile. Eventually, your good picks will outweigh your bad ones, leading you to great success.

Stop hanging around toxic friends, eliminate unhealthy foods, don’t smoke, don’t lose money, and don’t let your business go completely bust. You don’t necessarily need the best friends or the best food, or to make loads of money, or to have your business be a killer hit. You just need to make sure you don’t do anything terrible with them. The compounding of your positive choices will make you successful.

10. Older things are usually better bets

Things that are older are typically better since they have gone through the years of evolution and extensive human trials.

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!

A thing that has been around for many years is more likely to stay around for many more years since it has been time-tested for so long. Time breaks fragile things and makes antifragile things much stronger. It doesn’t necessarily mean new things are weak. But it certainly is safer to pick older things rather than new ones because older things have a higher chance of success, otherwise, they wouldn’t have been around for so long.

Pick out older books rather than new ones — if the book has been in print for over 50 years, then it’s ideas are likely quite solid. Eat foods that have been around for long — fruits, veggies, and meats, rather than synthetic things like bleached white bread and microwaved fish sticks. Pick business and relationship partners that have a strong track record of high integrity, as they are certainly more reliable than someone who recently had a change of heart.

The age of a thing is an indicator of antifragility, proof that is has stood the brutal test of time.

In Summary

Nassim Taleb is one of the freshest thinkers of our time. The biggest key takeaway you can get from his works is to look at things from the perspective of strategic risk and based on that get to a position where your advantages firmly outweigh your disadvantages. This results in several strategies:

  1. Put yourself in a position where you are resilient to stressors and can even take advantage of them
  2. Create constant mini-challenges to become stronger and antifragile over time
  3. Maximize your ability to move fast and remain flexible
  4. Balance low and high-risk investments to maintain safety while grabbing the big opportunities
  5. Maximize your options to give yourself flexibility and room to take advantage of opportunities
  6. Always get direct evidence through massive action — experience is the best teacher
  7. Trial and error is the best long-term success strategy because it provides real evidence of what works and what doesn’t
  8. Follow your instincts — boredom and procrastination are BS indicators and guides for life
  9. Removing and avoiding bad things is a lot easier and more successful than trying to find the very best strategy
  10. Older things have been tested more and are therefore more likely to make you win

** Note: all quotes in this post unless otherwise stated are from Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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