In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the bestselling author of The Black Swan and one of the foremost thinkers of our time, reveals how to thrive in an uncertain world.
The random element in trial and error is not quite random, if it is carried out rationally, using error as a source of information
If every trial provides you with information about what does not work, you start zooming in on a solution–so every attempt becomes more valuable, more like an expense than an error. And of course you make discoveries along the way.
Learning from the mistakes of others
For the antrifagile, harm from errors should be less than the benefits. We are talking about some, not all, errors, of course; those that not destroy a system help prevent larger calamities.
The story of the Titanic illustrates the difference between gains for the system and harm to some of its individual parts.
The engineer and historian of engineering Henry Petroski presents a very elegant point. Had the Titanic not had that famous accident, as fatal as it was, we would have kept building larger and larger ocean liners and the next disaster would have been even more tragic. So the people who perished were sacrified for the greater good; they unarguably saved more lives than were lost.
Every plane crash brings us closer to safety, improves the system, and makes the next flight safer–those who perish contribute to the overall safety of others. Swiss flight 111, TWA flight 800, and Air France flight 447 allowed the improvement of the system. But these systems learn because they are antifragile and set up to exploit small errors; the same cannot be said of economic crashes, since the economic system is not antifragile the way it is presently built.
Why? Because there are hundreds of thousands plane flights every year, and a crash in one plane does not involve others, so errors remain confined and highly epistemic–whereas globalized economic systems operate as one: errors spread and compound.
Variability causes mistakes and adaptations; it also allows you to know who your friends are.
Both your failures and your successes will give you information. But, and this is one of the good things in life, sometimes you only know about someone’s character after you harm them with an error for which you are solely responsible.
And of course you learn from the errors of others. You may never know what type of person someone is unless they are given opportunities to violate moral or ethical codes. I remember a classmate, a girl in high school who seemed nice and honest and part of my childhood group of anti-materialistic utopists.
I learned that against my expectations (and her innocents looks) she didn’t turn out to be Mother Teresa or Rosa Luxemburg, as she dumped her first (rich) husband for another, richer person, whom she dumped upon his first financial difficulties for yet another richer and more powerful (and generous) lover.
Some members of society–those who did not marry her–got valuable information while others, her victims, paid the price.
Further, my characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on.