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The Best Books of 2014: Your Overall Favorites

From how to read books and raise kids to philosophy and finance.

best reads 2014

The third annual (2012, 2013) look at your favorite reads featured on Farnam Street. You’re a well-read bunch.

In no particular order:

Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader

FIASCO is the shocking story of one man’s education in the jungles of Wall Street. As a young derivatives salesman at Morgan Stanley, Frank Partnoy learned to buy and sell billions of dollars worth of securities that were so complex many traders themselves didn’t understand them. In his behind-the-scenes look at the trading floor and the offices of one of the world’s top investment firms, Partnoy recounts the macho attitudes and fiercely competitive ploys of his office mates.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

Since its original publication nearly thirty years ago, Getting to Yes has helped millions of people learn a better way to negotiate. One of the primary business texts of the modern era, it is based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, a group that deals with all levels of negotiation and conflict resolution.

It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone

Despite the age-old saying, individuals everywhere still have a hard time realizing that it’s not all about them. Robin Dreeke uses his research and years of work in the field of interpersonal relations and behavior to help readers focus on building relationships with others in “It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone”. As the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program within the Counterintelligence Division, Dreeke has used the techniques listed in “It’s Not All About Me” with skilled professionals within the FBI as well as with sales professionals, educators and individuals across the country and world.

Collected Maxims and Other Reflections

Deceptively brief and insidiously easy to read, La Rochefoucauld’s shrewd, unflattering analyses of human behavior have influenced writers, thinkers, and public figures as various as Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

A must read.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Why do some children succeed while others fail? The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs. But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter more have to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control. How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators, who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character.

Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience

This spectacular collection of more than 125 letters offers a never-before-seen glimpse of the events and people of history—the brightest and best, the most notorious, and the endearingly everyday.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition

You’ll learn the six universal principles, how to use them to become a skilled persuader—and how to defend yourself against them. Perfect for people in all walks of life, the principles of Influence will move you toward profound personal change and act as a driving force for your success.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Meditations: A New Translation

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style.

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition

Seeking Wisdom is the result of Bevelin’s learning about attaining wisdom. His quest for wisdom originated partly from making mistakes himself and observing those of others but also from the philosophy of super-investor and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger. A man whose simplicity and clarity of thought was unequal to anything Bevelin had seen.

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

Confessions of a Sociopath takes readers on a journey into the mind of a sociopath, revealing what makes them tick and what that means for the rest of humanity. Written from the point of view of a diagnosed sociopath, it unveils these men and women who are “hiding in plain sight” for the very first time.

Warnings From Sleep: Nightmares and Protecting The Self

“All of this is evidence that the mind, although asleep,
is constantly concerned about the safety and integrity of the self.”

***

Rosalind Cartwright — also known as the Queen of Dreams — is a leading sleep researcher. In The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives, she explores the role of nightmares and how we use sleep to protect ourselves.

When our time awake is frightening or remains unpressed, the sleeping brain “may process horrible images with enough raw fear attached to awaken a sleeper with a horrendous nightmare.” The more trauma we have in our lives the more likely we are to experience anxiety and nightmares after a horrific event.

The common feature is a threat of harm, accompanied by a lack of ability to control the circumstances of the threat, and the lack of or inability to develop protective behaviors.

The strategies we use for coping effectively with extreme stress and fear are controversial. Should we deny the threatening event and avoid thinking about it better than thinking about it and becoming sensitized to it?

One clear principle that comes out of this work is that the effects of trauma on sleep and dreaming depend on the nature of the threat. If direct action against the threat is irrelevant or impossible (as it would be if the trauma was well in the past), then denial may be helpful in reducing stress so that the person can get on with living as best they can. However, if the threat will be encountered over and over (such as with spousal abuse), and direct action would be helpful in addressing the threat, then denial by avoiding thinking about the danger (which helps in the short-term) will undermine problem-solving efforts and mastery in the long run. In other words, if nothing can be done, emotion-coping efforts to regulate the distress (dreaming) is a good strategy; but if constructive actions can be taken, waking problem-solving action is more adaptive.

What about nightmares?

Nightmares are defined as frightening dreams that wake the sleeper into full consciousness and with a clear memory of the dream imagery. These are not to be confused with sleep terrors. There are three main differences between these two. First, nightmare arousals are more often from late in the night’s sleep, when dreams are longest and the content is most bizarre and affect-laden (emotional); sleep terrors occur early in sleep. Second, nightmares are REM sleep-related, while sleep terrors come out of non-REM (NREM) slow-wave sleep (SWS). Third, sleepers experience vivid recall of nightmares, whereas with sleep terrors the experience is of full or partial amnesia for the episode itself, and only rarely is a single image recalled.

Nightmares abort the REM sleep, a critical component of our always on brain, Cartwright explains:

If we are right that the mind is continuously active throughout sleep—reviewing emotion-evoking new experiences from the day, scanning memory networks for similar experiences (which will defuse immediate emotional impact), revising by updating our organized sense of ourselves, and rehearsing new coping behaviors—nightmares are an exception and fail to perform these functions.

The impact is to temporarily relieve the negative emotion. The example Cartwright gives is “I am not about to be eaten by a monster. I am safe in my own bed.” But because the nightmare has woken me up, the nightmare is of no help in regulating my emotions (a critical role of sleep). As we learn to manage negative emotions while we are awake, that is, as we grow up, nightmares reduce in frequency and we develop skills for resolving fears.

It’s not always fear that wakes us from a nightmare. We can also be woken by anger, disgust, and grief.

Cartwright concludes, with an interesting insight, on the role of sleep in consolidating and protecting “the self.”:

[N]ightmares appear to be more common in those who have intense reactions to stress. The criteria cited for nightmare disorder in the diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR (DSM IV-TR), include this phrase “frightening dreams usually involving threats to survival, security, or self-esteem.” This theme may sound familiar: Remember that threats to self-esteem seem to precede NREM parasomnia awakenings. All of this is evidence that the mind, although asleep, is constantly concerned about the safety and integrity of the self.

The Twenty-four Hour Mind goes on to explore the history of sleep research through case studies and synthesis.

Carl Sagan: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

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Carl Sagan’s timeless and humbling Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, based on the photograph above.

Here’s an excerpt:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

And here is an animated version by Adam Winnik:

Counterinsurgency: Fighting Back

The Basics

For an accurate definition of counterinsurgency (and the flipside, insurgency), we can look to one of the definitive texts on the topic.

In Counterinsurgency, David Kilcullen writes:

An insurgency, according to the current US military field manual on the subject is ‘an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict…Stated another way, an insurgency is an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power or other political authority while increasing insurgent control.’ The same field manual defines counterinsurgency as the ‘military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.’ Counterinsurgency therefore is an umbrella term that describes the complete range of measures that governments take to defeat insurgencies…there is no template, no single set of techniques for countering insurgencies. Counterinsurgency is simply whatever governments do to defeat rebellions.

In essence, counterinsurgency involves the attempts governments make to restore peace. The aim is to minimize civilian deaths while strengthening the influence of governments.

No rulebook or particular strategy exists-counterinsurgent forces combine psychological, military, economic and political techniques. In the end, counterinsurgents try to create stability in the least harmful way possible, allowing a country to return to normal functioning.

How Counterinsurgency Works

Counterinsurgency is complex and delicate, full of metaphorical minefields.

Combat can be viewed as a sped up evolutionary process, wherein both sides adapt constantly in response to the behavior of the other. Each learns to defend themselves and to predict risks to their agenda.

One critical, omnipresent element is the effort to forge partnerships with civilian populations.

We often see photographs of soldiers handing out toys and sweets to children in war zones. What seems like a simple act of kindness is actually a clever military tactic. Small efforts like that compound to create trust and subsequent cooperation. The more a population sides with counterinsurgents, the less power insurgents have.

Kilcullen writes:

Insurgents cannot operate without the support…of the local population…violence against noncombatant civilians by security forces, whether intentional or accidental is almost always entirely counterproductive.

One common method is to force the population to move to a different area, making insurgents easier to identify. Civilians may be forced to carry ID and have it checked at regular intervals. Food supplies for insurgents can be cut off, such as through the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam to kill crops.

In Counterinsurgency Warfare, David Galula expands upon this key component of counterinsurgent efforts:

The population represents this new ground. If the insurgent manages to dissociate the population from the counterinsurgent…he will win the war…Thus the battle for the population is a major characteristic of the revolutionary war.

Other theorists have explained that the objective is to gain support, not terrain. Another typical technique is the restoration of as much stability as possible to reduce the power of insurgents.

Galula writes:

Prompting disorder is a legitimate objective for the insurgent. It helps disrupt the economy, hence to produce discontent; it serves to undermine the strength and the authority of the counterinsurgent. Moreover, disorder- the normal state of nature- is cheap to create and very costly to prevent.

Populations of people tend towards entropy without coherent political, economic, social and educational structures. Insurgents aim to disrupt these, while counterinsurgents aim to rebuild them.

Looking at conflicts he has experienced, Galula considers the perspectives of both sides. Despite the liquid nature of counterinsurgency, he outlines the key principles. Firstly, the goal is to gain support rather than control. Once a population supports its governing bodies, conflict becomes unlikely. Even an uncooperative population must be kept safe while mutual trust builds. Galula advocates starting in one location and spreading out, using it as a safe base until the surrounding areas can be controlled. This is known as the ‘oil spot’ strategy. He sums up his attitude thus: “Build (or rebuild) a political machine from the population upwards.”

Counterinsurgency techniques tend to be formed through trial and error, based on our understanding of a particular location and feedback loops. As David Morris, a former Marine, put it: “In order to learn a lesson, you had to lose somebody.”

According to Dr. Lorenzo Zambernardi, counterinsurgency involves three main goals:

1. The protection of counterinsurgent forces. A classic rule for firefighters states that the safety of the rescuer is always more important than that of the person being rescued. The same applied to counterinsurgents.
2. The formation of a separation between insurgents and non-combative civilians. Counterinsurgents must create a physical or mental barrier. Sometimes this is done by moving noncombatants to a different location or providing them with ID cards. Separation can also be psychological – teaching people that they should not side with insurgents and are not part of the conflict. Understanding of the ‘human terrain’ is required
3. The destruction or conversion of insurgents. This might involve undermining power structures, cutting off resources or strategic assassinations.

The Origin of Counterinsurgency: Santa Cruz de Marcenado

We can trace the roots of counterinsurgency back to the 18th century when Santa Cruz de Marcenado wrote of the concept in Reflexiones Militaires.

Santa Cruz wrote that a leader must win the trust of a population, rather than battering them into submission with physical force- a somewhat modern attitude for the early 1700s.

Recognizing that rebellion is a risky endeavor, he cautioned leaders to realize that people do not revolt without strong logic.

Santa Cruz’s writing was based on his own experiences during the war of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714.) The conflict occurred both within Spain and with rival nations. He would ultimately lose his life in a Spanish colonial war.

Santa Cruz’s principles, outlined in the text, are still relevant today. He encouraged leaders to take preventative measures against insurgencies, namely the fair treatment of all. People must be respected and allowed to continue their traditions and cultural practices wherever possible. Counterinsurgent forces must behave according to strict protocol, with punishments for anyone who express cruelty. However, Santa Cruz did still advocate cutting off food supplies to a population and using intense military force to end insurgencies in the shortest time possible.

The Impact of Frank Kitson on Counterinsurgency

The works of Frank Kitson have foundational importance in counterinsurgent doctrine. Kitson is a controversial figure, due to his role in assassinations and the Bloody Sunday massacre during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He was not adverse to discarding legal and ethical considerations for the sake of his goals as a leader.

Expanding upon the ancient writings of Sun Tzu, he advocated mirroring insurgent behavior in order to understand them. Kitson also made use of spies within insurgent groups to garner information. His strategies created uncertainty and confusion amongst rival power structures, as well as destabilizing their public image.

One soldier summed up the tactics used under Kitson’s guidance: “We were not there to act like an Army unit, we were there to act like a terror group.” His theories stress the importance of the media in counterinsurgency.

Kitson’s theories formed the basis of the way the British counterinsurgents handled the Northern Irish conflict. A counterinsurgent group (the MRF) targeted the insurgents (the IRA) by essentially using enhanced versions of their own tactics against them. Many of their strategies were morally repugnant.

Civilians were killed to show the population that the IRA could not protect them. Innocent people were shot at random to create further unrest.

As this illustrates, counterinsurgency is a complex, delicate technique which often leads to moral dilemmas. It is undeniable that Kitson’s strategies led to many innocent deaths. However, the risk was high at the time of unrest spreading to the rest of the UK, with the potential for huge numbers of casualties. Counterinsurgents in Northern Ireland aimed to quell this risk as soon as possible before the situation worsened. Kitson saw the transgression of legal boundaries as necessary during counterinsurgency.

There are always going to be controversies surrounding counterinsurgency. In part, this is due to the confused relationship between cause and effect during the conflict.

No one can quite say what lead to or ended a period of unrest. Consequently, the efficacy of counterinsurgency is difficult to gauge. Individuals such as Kitson often come under fire, as the public seeks to blame someone for the loss of lives. Removed from the situation, we cannot expect to understand counterinsurgent motivations. We also cannot know what the consequences of acting differently (or not at all) would have been.

Examples Of Counterinsurgency in Action- Malaya

Between 1948 and 1960, an insurgency broke out in Malaya. The causes brewed for a while- British taxes lead to a rise in poverty and tension between Malays and Chinese people working in traditional industries. Japanese occupation during the Second World War further complicated matters, forcing Malays to focus on subsistence farming (rather than exporting goods.) By the time the Japanese withdrew, severe famine-wracked the country and the economy was at its historic worst. Protests broke out from 1946 onwards as a result.

The British were motivated to protect Malaya, due to the tin and rubber industries. As occurs all too often, the British administration attempted to counteract protests with violence which only worsened the tension. Eventually, a critical mass of rebellious people formed.

The tipping point occurred in June 1948, when insurgents killed 3 European plantation managers. British counterinsurgents were brought in to undermine Malayan Communist and left-wing groups. Once again, this further aggravated insurgents who clustered in rural areas to plan attacks on mines and plantations.

The British counterinsurgents attempted gentler measures, offering money to insurgents who agreed to surrender. Even so, over 4000 insurgents refused to disband and went into hiding. Echoing Santa Cruz’s statement that people only rebel for a good reason, Chinese people in Malaya were treated as second class citizens and denied rights. Supporters (mostly Chinese immigrants) assisted them and many joined the insurgents, who organized themselves into ranks, with their own media, education and supply chains. Even so, they were never able to establish any real control over the nation due to British counterinsurgency. This consisted of a number of strategies. Locations which were probable targets received protection, food supplies were cut off and civilians were encouraged not to join the uprising. Large numbers of people relocated to newly built, guarded camps.

Over several years, counterinsurgents restored order by degrees. This conflict illustrates Galula’s point – disorder is easy to create and difficult to resolve. It took 40,000 counterinsurgents to defeat 8000 insurgents. It is believed that the most effective strategies used in Malaya were:

  • Minimizing the deaths of noncombatant civilians and counterinsurgents.
  • Building support from the population of Malaya, making them less likely to join the uprising.
  • Enforcing an understanding that the insurgents were a risk to everyone.
  • Creating organised political strategies and undermining those of insurgents.
  • Reducing the incentives to rebel by providing Chinese citizens with fairer rights.
  • Offering enticing sums of money to those who provided useful information and supported counterinsurgent efforts to locate insurgents.
  • Giving insurgents the opportunity to surrender, without the risk of punishment. Although few actually opted for this, it created a sense of the government as trustworthy.

The Issues With Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency is never perfect and mistakes are always made. There are a number of key issues:

  • Counterinsurgent efforts usually attempt to enforce Western attitudes and values. Most nations have a clear, although not always accurate, sense of their own equilibrium. Ignoring the importance of cultural relativism, counterinsurgents force round pegs into square holes. We think that our own way is the best, but who can decide what is best for a different country? Who says that modernization is the preferable route?
  • Counterinsurgency is costly in terms of both human life and resources. In order to kill insurgents, civilian lives must be risked, while protecting civilians means more counterinsurgent casualties. Insurgents are often decentralised and spread out over large areas, meaning they have the advantage of surprise attack.
  • Counterinsurgency is often ineffective. The solution for unrest is usually political changes, not military intervention. Combat alone cannot solve fundamental instability. There is also a lack of clear information as to the long term results. In some cases, it can backfire and worsen a situation.
  • Counterinsurgency often lacks a clear end goal, or objectives may differ. The concepts of ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ are objective.

Counterinsurgency is part of the Farnam Street Latticework of Mental Models.

John Keats on the Quality That Formed a Man of Achievement: Negative Capability

John Keats coined the term negative capability to describe the willingness to embrace uncertainty, mysteries and doubts.

The first and only time Keats used the phrase was in a letter on 21 December 1817 to his brothers in reference to his disagreement with the English poet and philosopher Coleridge, who Keats believed “sought knowledge over beauty.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

From Wikipedia:

Keats understood Coleridge as searching for a single, higher-order truth or solution to the mysteries of the natural world. He went on to find the same fault in Dilke and Wordsworth. All these poets, he claimed, lacked objectivity and universality in their view of the human condition and the natural world. In each case, Keats found a mind which was a narrow private path, not a “thoroughfare for all thoughts.” Lacking for Keats were the central and indispensable qualities requisite for flexibility and openness to the world, or what he referred to as negative capability.

This concept of Negative Capability is precisely a rejection of set philosophies and preconceived systems of nature. He demanded that the poet be receptive rather than searching for fact or reason, and to not seek absolute knowledge of every truth, mystery, or doubt.

The origin of the term is unknown, but some scholars have hypothesized that Keats was influenced in his studies of medicine and chemistry, and that it refers to the negative pole of an electric current which is passive and receptive. In the same way that the negative pole receives the current from the positive pole, the poet receives impulses from a world that is full of mystery and doubt, which cannot be explained but which the poet can translate into art.

Although this was the only time that Keats used the term, this view of aesthetics and rejection of a rationalizing tendency has influenced much commentary on Romanticism and the tenets of human experience.

For the twentieth-century British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, negative capability “was the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.”

If you’re still curious, I recommend reading this thesis on Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness.

Nassim Taleb: A Definition of Antifragile and its Implications

"Complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors."
“Complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors.”

I was talking with someone the other day about Antifragility, and I realized that, while a lot of people use the word, not many people have read: Antifragile, where Nassim Taleb defines it.

Just as being clear on what constitutes a black swan allowed us to better discuss the subject, so too will defining antifragility.

The classic example of something antifragile is Hydra, the greek mythological creature that has numerous heads. When one is cut off, two grow back in its place.

From Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder:

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. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.

The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means— crucially—a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them— and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.

It is easy to see things around us that like a measure of stressors and volatility: economic systems , your body, your nutrition (diabetes and many similar modern ailments seem to be associated with a lack of randomness in feeding and the absence of the stressor of occasional starvation), your psyche. There are even financial contracts that are antifragile: they are explicitly designed to benefit from market volatility.

Antifragility makes us understand fragility better. Just as we cannot improve health without reducing disease, or increase wealth without first decreasing losses, antifragility and fragility are degrees on a spectrum.

Nonprediction

By grasping the mechanisms of antifragility we can build a systematic and broad guide to nonpredictive decision making under uncertainty in business, politics, medicine, and life in general— anywhere the unknown preponderates, any situation in which there is randomness, unpredictability, opacity, or incomplete understanding of things.

It is far easier to figure out if something is fragile than to predict the occurrence of an event that may harm it. Fragility can be measured; risk is not measurable (outside of casinos or the minds of people who call themselves “risk experts”). This provides a solution to what I’ve called the Black Swan problem— the impossibility of calculating the risks of consequential rare events and predicting their occurrence. Sensitivity to harm from volatility is tractable, more so than forecasting the event that would cause the harm. So we propose to stand our current approaches to prediction, prognostication, and risk management on their heads.

In every domain or area of application, we propose rules for moving from the fragile toward the antifragile, through reduction of fragility or harnessing antifragility. And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry : anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

Deprivation of Antifragility

Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything … by suppressing randomness and volatility. … stressors. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions (dubbed “Soviet-Harvard delusions” in the book) which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems. This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most (see iatrogenics)

Antifragile is the antidote to Black Swans. The modern world may increase technical knowledge but it will also make things more fragile.

… Black Swans hijack our brains, making us feel we “sort of” or “almost” predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable. We don’t realize the role of these Swans in life because of this illusion of predictability. Life is more, a lot more, labyrinthine than shown in our memory— our minds are in the business of turning history into something smooth and linear, which makes us underestimate randomness. But when we see it, we fear it and overreact. Because of this fear and thirst for order, some human systems, by disrupting the invisible or not so visible logic of things, tend to be exposed to harm from Black Swans and almost never get any benefit. You get pseudo-order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness.

Complex systems are full of interdependencies— hard to detect— and nonlinear responses. “Nonlinear” means that when you double the dose of, say, a medication, or when you double the number of employees in a factory, you don’t get twice the initial effect, but rather a lot more or a lot less. Two weekends in Philadelphia are not twice as pleasant as a single one— I’ve tried. When the response is plotted on a graph, it does not show as a straight line (“linear”), rather as a curve. In such environments, simple causal associations are misplaced; it is hard to see how things work by looking at single parts.

Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable.

An annoying aspect of the Black Swan problem— in fact the central, and largely missed , point —is that the odds of rare events are simply not computable.

Robustness is not enough.

Consider that Mother Nature is not just “safe.” It is aggressive in destroying and replacing, in selecting and reshuffling . When it comes to random events, “robust” is certainly not good enough. In the long run everything with the most minute vulnerability breaks, given the ruthlessness of time— yet our planet has been around for perhaps four billion years and, convincingly, robustness can’t just be it: you need perfect robustness for a crack not to end up crashing the system. Given the unattainability of perfect robustness, we need a mechanism by which the system regenerates itself continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.

Fragile and antifragile are relative — there is no absolute. You may be more antifragile than your neighbor but that doesn’t make you antifragile.

The Triad is FRAGILE — ROBUST — ANTIFRAGILE.

Here’s an example
Antifragile

All of this can lead to some pretty significant conclusions. Often it’s impossible to be antifragile, but falling short of that you should be robust, not fragile. How do you become robust? Make sure you’re not fragile. Eliminate things that make you fragile. In an interview, Taleb offers some ideas:

You have to avoid debt because debt makes the system more fragile. You have to increase redundancies in some spaces. You have to avoid optimization. That is quite critical for someone who is doing finance to understand because it goes counter to everything you learn in portfolio theory. … I have always been very skeptical of any form of optimization. In the black swan world, optimization isn’t possible. The best you can achieve is a reduction in fragility and greater robustness.

If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to read Antifragile.


Read Next

10 Principles to Live an Antifragile Life

Footnotes

Promoting People In Organizations

In their 1978 paper Performance Sampling in Social Matches, researchers March and March discussed the implications of performance sampling for understanding careers in organizations. They came to some interesting conclusions with implications for those of us working in organizations.

Considerable evidence exists documenting that individuals confronted with problems requiring the estimation of proportions act as though sample size were substantially irrelevant to the reliability of their estimates. We do this in hiring all the time. Yet we know that sample size matters.

On how this cognitive bias affects hiring, March and March offer some good insights including the false record effect, the hero effect, the disappointment affect.

False Record Effect

A group of managers of identical (moderate) ability will show considerable variation in their performance records in the short run. Some will be found at one end of the distribution and will be viewed as outstanding; others will be at the other end and will be viewed as ineffective. The longer a manager stays in a job, the less the probable difference between the observed record of performance and actual ability. Time on the job increased the expected sample of observations, reduced expected sampling error, and thus reduced the chance that the manager (of moderate ability) will either be promoted or exit.

Hero Effect

Within a group of managers of varying abilities, the faster the rate of promotion, the less likely it is to be justified. Performance records are produced by a combination of underlying ability and sampling variation. Managers who have good records are more likely to have high ability than managers who have poor records, but the reliability of the differentiation is small when records are short.

Disappointment Effect

On the average, new managers will be a disappointment. The performance records by which managers are evaluated are subject to sampling error. Since a manager is promoted to a new job on the basis of a good previous record, the proportion of promoted managers whose past records are better than their abilities will be greater than the proportion whose past records are poorer. As a result, on the average, managers will do less well in their new jobs than they did in their old ones, and observers will come to believe that higher level jobs are more difficult than lower level ones, even if they are not.

…The present results reinforce the idea that indistinguishability among managers is a joint property of the individuals being evaluated and the process by which they are evaluated. Performance sampling models show how careers may be the consequences of erroneous interpretations of variations in performance produced by equivalent managers. But they also indicate that the same pattern of careers could be the consequence of unreliable evaluation of managers who do, in fact, differ, or of managers who do, in fact, learn over the course of their experience.

But hold on a second before you stop promoting new managers (who, by definition, have a limited sample size).

I’m not sure that sample size alone is the right way to think about this.

Consider two people: Manager A and Manager B who are up for promotion. Manager A has 10 years of experience and is an “all-star” (that is great performance with little variation in observations). Manager B, on the other hand, has only 5 years of experience but has shown a lot of variance in performance.

If you had to hire someone you’d likely pick A. But it’s important not to misinterpret the results of March and March and dig a little deeper.

What if we add one more variable to our two managers.

Manager A’s job has been “easy” whereas Manager B took a very “tough” assignment.

With this in mind, it seems reasonable to conclude that Manager B’s variance in performance could be explained by the difficulty of their task. This could also explain the lack of variance in Manager A’s performance.

Some jobs are tougher than others.

If you don’t factor in degree-of-difficulty you’re missing something big and sending a message to your workforce that discourages people from taking difficult assignments.

The importance of measuring performance over a meaningful sample size is the key to distinguishing between luck and skill. When in doubt go with the person that’s excelled with more variance in difficulty.

Jared Diamond: How to Get Rich

We’re constantly asked for examples of the “multiple mental models” approach in practice. Our standard response includes great books like Filters Against Folly and Will Durant’s The Lessons of History.

One of the well-known examples of this brand of thinking is Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book that opened thousands of eyes to the power of leaping across the walls of history, sociology, biology, geography and other fields to truly understand the world. (If you haven’t read it yet, why are you still here? Go order it and read it!)

Jared Diamond, the book’s author, is a great master of synthesis across many fields — works like The Third Chimpanzee and Collapse show great critical thinking prowess, even if you don’t come to 100% agreement with him.

Lesser known than Guns, Germs, and Steel is a follow-up talk Diamond gave entitled How to Get Rich:

… probably most lectures one hears at the museum are on fascinating but impractical subjects: namely, they don’t help you to get rich. This evening I plan to redress the balance and talk about the natural history of becoming rich.

The talk is a great, and short, introduction to “multiple mental models” thinking. Diamond, of course, does not literally answer the question of How to Get Rich. He’s smart enough to know that this is charlatan territory if answered too literally. (Three steps to surefire wealth!)

But he does effectively answer an interesting part of the equation of getting rich: What conditions do we need to set up maximal productivity, learning, and cooperation among our groups? 

Diamond answers his question through the same use of inter-disciplinary synthesis his readers would be familiar with: As you read it, you’ll see models from biology, military history, business/economics, and geography.

His answer has two main parts: Optimal group size/fragmentation, and optimal exposure to outside competition:

So what this suggests is that we can extract from human history a couple of principles. First, the principle that really isolated groups are at a disadvantage, because most groups get most of their ideas and innovations from the outside. Second, I also derive the principle of intermediate fragmentation: you don’t want excessive unity and you don’t want excessive fragmentation; instead, you want your human society or business to be broken up into a number of groups which compete with each other but which also maintain relatively free communication with each other. And those I see as the overall principles of how to organize a business and get rich.

Those are wonderful lessons, and you should read the piece to see how he arrives at them. But there’s another important reason we bring the talk to your attention, one of methodology.

Diamond’s talk offers us a powerful principle for our efforts to understand the world: Look for and study natural experiments, the more controlled, the better.

I propose to try to learn from human history. Human history over the last 13,000 years comprises tens of thousands of different experiments. Each human society represents a different natural experiment in organizing human groups. Human societies have been organized very differently, and the outcomes have been very different. Some societies have been much more productive and innovative than others. What can we learn from these natural experiments of history that will help us all get rich? I propose to go over two batches of natural experiments that will give you insights into how to get rich.

This wonderfully useful approach, reminiscent of Peter Kaufman’s idea about the Three Buckets of Knowledge, is one we see used effectively all the time.

Judith Rich Harris used the naturally controlled experiment of identical twins separated at birth to solve the problem of human personality development. Michael Abrashoff had a naturally controlled experiment in leadership principles when he had to turn around the USS Benfold without hiring or firing, or changing ships or missions, or offering any financial incentive to his cadets. Ken Iverson had a naturally controlled experiment in business principles by succeeding dramatically in a business with massive headwinds and no tailwinds.

And so if we follow in the steps of Diamond, Peter Kaufman, Judith Rich Harris, Ken Iverson, and Michael Abrashoff, we might find natural experiments that help illuminate the solutions to our problems in unusual ways. As Diamond says in his talk, the world has already tried thousands of things: All we have to do is study them and then align with the way the world works.

How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape our Reality

“We can select truths that engage people and inspire action, or we can deploy truths that deliberately mislead. Truth comes in many forms, and experienced communicators can exploit its variability to shape our impression of reality.”

***

The truth is not as straightforward as it seems. There are many truths, some of them more honest than others. “On most issues,” writes Hector Macdonald in his book Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, “there are multiple truths we can choose to communicate. Our choice of truth will influence how those around us perceive an issue and react to it.”

We are often left with several truths, some more flattering to us than others. What we choose to see, and what we share with others, says a lot about who we are.

“There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.”

— William James

Competing Truths

According to MacDonald, there are often many legitimate ways of describing a situation. Of course, it’s possible for anyone to cherry-pick the facts or truths they prefer, shaping the story to meet their needs. MacDonald offers an apt demonstration.

A few years ago, I was asked to support a transformation programme at a global corporation that was going through a particularly tough patch. … I interviewed the corporation’s top executives to gather their views on the state of their industry and their organization. After consolidating all the facts they’d given me, I sat down with the CEO in a plush Manhattan executive suite and asked him whether he wanted me to write the ‘Golden Opportunity’ story or the ‘Burning Platform’ story of his business.

These two phrases, “Golden Opportunity” and “Burning Platform,” describe two different approaches to telling the same story, or in this case promoting the same plan. The first describes the incredible potential the client company can realize by transforming itself to meet growing demand. The profit is out there for them if they work together to make the necessary changes! The second phrase refers to internal struggles at the company and a potential downward spiral that can only be arrested if the company transforms itself to correct the problems. Both stories are true and both are intended to create the same outcome: supporting a painful and difficult transformation. Yet they can create very different impressions in the minds of employees.

MacDonald illustrates how when we interact with someone, especially someone who knows more than we do, they have an opportunity to shape our reality. That is, they can shape how we think, our ideas and opinions about a subject. Our perception of reality changes and “because we act on the basis of our perceptions” they change not only our thinking but our actions.

Spin Masters

I remember watching ads on TV when I was a kid claiming that 80 percent of dentists recommended Colgate-Palmolive. I wondered if my mom was trying to kill me by giving me Crest. I wasn’t the best in math, but I reasoned that if 80% of dentists were recommending Colgate, at most 20% were recommending Crest.

Of course, that’s exactly what Colgate wanted people to think—the survey was in comparison to other brands. But that wasn’t the whole story. The survey actually asked dentists which brands they would recommend, and almost all of them listed several. Colgate wasn’t lying—but they were using a very distorted version of the truth, designed to mislead. The Advertising Standards Authority eventually banned the ad.

People use this sort of spin all the time. Everyone has an agenda. You can deceive without ever lying. Politicians get elected on how effective they are at “spinning truths in a way that create a false impression.” It’s only too easy for political agendas to trump impartial truth.

The Three Types of Communicators

“It’s not simply that we’re being lied to; the more insidious problem is that we are routinely misled by the truth.”

In Truth, Macdonald explores the effects of three types of communicators: advocates, misinformers, and misleaders.

Advocates select competing truths that create a reasonably accurate impression of reality in order to achieve a constructive goal.

Misinformers innocently propagate competing truths that unintentionally distort reality.

Misleaders deliberately deploy competing truths to create an impression of reality that they know is not true.

We may feel better believing there is one single truth, and thinking everyone who doesn’t see things the way we do simply doesn’t have the truth. That’s not…true. Everyone, including you and me, has a lens on the situation that’s distorted by what they want, how they see the world, and their biases. The most dangerous truths are the credible ones that we convince ourselves are correct.

One idea I find helpful when faced with a situation is perspective-taking. I construct a mental room that I fill with all the participants and stakeholders around a table. I then put myself into their seats and try to see the room through their eyes. Not only does this help me better understand reality by showing me my blind spots, but it shows me what other people care about and how I can create win-wins.

Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, goes on to explore partial truths, subjective truths, artificial truths, and unknown truths. It’s a terrific read for checking your own perspective on truth, and understanding how truth can be used to both inform and mislead you.

Pride and Prejudice Turns 200

Jane-austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice

Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of one of the most loved—and hated—books in the English language, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The book has spawned film adaptations, zombie parodies, and even naughty updates.

Sheila Heti, writing in the Globe, commemorates the anniversary by reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time.

[T]he plot revolves around the efforts of the Bennets, a relatively well-off rural family, to marry off their five daughters, the only way then to secure their futures. By this time, we have a good idea of the characters of the Bennets and of their daughters, especially Elizabeth and Jane.

The Bennets admire their wealthy new neighbour, Mr. Bingley, and praise him for his attentions to Jane, but are sore over the aristocratic, snobbish treatment of their younger daughter, Elizabeth.

Seeing the world differently because of Austen

I know from writing fiction that we don’t see the world and record it; we invent a world from the one we inhabit – which has few innate characteristics of its own. But it was impossible to deny the patterns Jane Austen painted, everywhere I looked. Did she hold the master key to the truth?

Or perhaps this is the gift of the greatest artists: Their vision is so fascinating that when you’re not in their book (or painting, or film) you still want to be there, so you look at everything through their eyes – the same way we look through the eyes of the person we most love.

Austen’s vision is just so convincing that I may be encountering my world differently; am seeing it through her eyes.

Commenting on the appeal of Jane Austen, Sarah Marian Seltzer writes:

From its very first pages, this novel engages not merely with love, sex, family and money, but with the notion of reading—how we read each other, how we read art, and how pathetically encumbered by our own egos we are in both endeavors.

Have you ever looked differently at a job prospect or a acquaintance after you found out how they felt about you, knowledge that swung your own feelings violently one way or the other? If so, you’re probably human, and Jane Austen knew you well.

Still curious? Throwing out the latest best-seller on your nightstand and replacing it with Pride and Prejudice is not the stupidest thing you can do today.