Turkey vultures sunning their wings. Grey clouds. Garbage. Putrid mud. Trees growing through the roof. A decaying building. Just an all around vision of apocalyptic nastiness I pass by each morning on my way to the office here in Panama.
But the picture portrays something else as well: Fragility. At least man-made fragility. Because despite humanity’s arrogance that we are the masters of the universe, we aren’t.
Nature always has the last word. It will kick us in the nuts and then soldier on, adapt and thrive whether we’re part of the picture or not.
That building in the picture above was built only 5 years ago. It’s already a shell. And 5 years from now it will be completely gone and forgotten.
Nature thrives on uncertainty, chaos and disorder. Humans seek to master and control it… To our detriment.
This guy is Nassim Taleb.
He wrote a fantastic book recently called Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder.
He was also an incredibly successful options trader who made his fortune based on his understanding of fragility, chaos and complexity in markets.
He has a reputation as an asshole who doesn’t suffer fools easily… Mostly from his critics I gather. But his insights are brilliant.
Antifragile is basically about how centralized economic, political, medical and financial systems are always vulnerable to sudden collapse.
Such systems tend to be overseen by elites who have arrogant faith that ever-increasing complexity to master uncertainty is something that can be easily managed with a few tweaks of the dial, some number crunching or keystrokes.
Their confidence is an illusion.
Taleb believes that whether well intentioned or not, the modern human condition has a fatal conceit towards ever more centralized and complex systems — think Obamacare or the 14,000 pages of the Dodd-Frank Act to regulate financial markets — when what we should really be focusing our energy and attention on are solutions based on simplicity.
In the arcane field of decision theory (how humans arrive at optimal decisions) Taleb believes that less is always more.
Take health care as an example…
According to Taleb, at the individual, human level removing or subtracting some unnatural stressor from our lives through trial and error — gluten, fructose, medications, tranquilizers, nail polish — is almost always more robust than adding some miracle drug that promises to fix our problem.
At the societal level, the same theory applies: At least in part, Obamacare is an extraordinarily complex solution to a more fundamental problem — we’re unhealthy and overmedicated.
We don’t exercise, we don’t eat right, and we’re stressed to the max (because of complexity by the way). Consequently, we visit doctor’s offices and emergency rooms more than 1 billion times per year and in seven out of ten of those visits we walk out with some prescription for our ailments.
But the key to good health is actually reducing complexity — a simpler diet, occasional fasting, going for a walk, an occasional sprint, lifting really heavy things once in awhile, spending time with loved ones, laughter, getting a good night sleep, spending time outside in a natural environment. Really basic stuff.
Taleb’s fundamental point is that simple organic steps like the ones above are vastly superior to increasing levels of complexity because they are based on the laws of the most resilient system ever known… Nature.
Combining acute stressors (exercise or fasting for instance) with ample time for recovery (a good night’s sleep or a leisurely walk) is simply a facsimile of how the natural world has always operated to become more robust and resilient.
The acute stress/recovery cycle of a more simplistic, natural way of living is certainly superior to the the mild but chronic stressors of modern day civilization in all its complexity — a crappy boss, traffic, taxes, emails, forms to fill out, rushing the kids to daycare while simultaneously driving, texting and cramming McFranken Muffins in our pieholes — the things that make us feel trapped in life.
Doubling down on this complexity by adding even more complexity – prescription drugs, doctors visits, or at the societal level Obamacare — just doesn’t make sense.
In Taleb’s view, the hidden costs of health care today are largely a consequence of denying the benefits of antifragility. In other words, the “diseases of modern civilization” — obesity, diabetes, strokes, even many cancers — result from our attempts to make our lives as comfortable and abundant as possible.
And in doing so, he suggests, we are working against our own best interests.