Think for Yourself
Like most bestsellers, Antifragile takes one interesting idea and stretches it like taffy. As Taleb admits, “I’ve had only one master idea.”
So here it is:
Some things are fragile, like wineglasses or an economy built on subprime mortgages. They tend to be harmed by volatility, so they need shielding from the world to survive. The wineglasses go in the China cabinet; the economy goes in the toilet. Over time everything passes, but the fragile is particularly vulnerable.
Other things are robust, like bank vaults or Mount Everest or The Bachelor. They are relatively impervious to volatility, so they’re not going anywhere or changing much anytime soon. Over time, the robust tends to survive in roughly the same state.
Taleb’s key contribution is identifying a third category: the antifragile. Bacteria develop antibiotic resistance; ideas like freedom grow in influence and sophistication. Where the robust is indifferent to volatility, the antifragile tends to benefit from it. So over time, the antifragile is disposed not just to survive but to thrive.
Now that you have the vocabulary, you can begin trying to reduce fragility and promote antifragility in your own life.
You should probably start by doing some philosophy.
I’ve mentioned my favorite definition of philosophy as the project of understanding how things hang together. Philosophy aims to construct what Kitcher calls a synthetic perspective that unites our understandings of distinct domains (scientific, ethical, social...) and makes sense of them together. By doing philosophy, we develop a more considered worldview.
You already have a worldview. (That’s what makes you a philosopher already.) But most people haven’t subjected their worldview to real, sustained scrutiny yet. And it’s not their fault—our educational infrastructure is centered on memorizing and regurgitating information rather than reflecting on and developing our worldviews.
But having an unconsidered worldview makes you fragile. When volatility comes, you won’t know where you stand on the key issues or why you stand there, which makes it hard to respond effectively in novel circumstances. And so you’ll be reactive, going off the dictates of situational cues and cultural osmosis. You’ll probably be most dangerous to yourself.
So here are three question to help you think more clearly and deeply for yourself, and to be willing to change your life as a result:
1) What do you think?
We have to start here, but figuring out what you initially think is a lot trickier than it seems. Many students don’t seem to recognize that they have a worldview until they start doing some philosophy. Then, they’re often surprised by their own deep commitments.
To figure out what we think, we’ll have to pay much closer attention than we usually do. We’ll have to learn to listen and read much more carefully, to distinguish between what people say and what we assume they must be saying. But we’ll also have to learn to pay attention to ourselves and our reactions to other’s words, which can help clarify exactly where we agree and disagree. Learning to do both at the same time is a crucial skill for self-reflection.
Even once you know what you think, you’re still fragile until you figure out—
2) Why do you think that?
We’re not looking for a causal history (“My parents always taught me...”), but an account of the strongest reasons we can come up with.
Usually, the first step to identifying these reasons is just pouring out what we think in speech or writing and discovering where we turn to. We want to get to the root of our own thinking. So we’ll have to learn to speak and write much more clearly, to head off potential confusions not only by others but also by ourselves.
Once you know what you think and why, you’ve gone from fragile to robust. (If you’ve been paying attention to our political discourse, being able to shout why you think you're right often mires people in their own positions.) But to become antifragile, we need to ask one more question:
3) How should you think (and live) now?
Here we look for the best reasons we can find that tell against what we think, and compare them to the reasons for. It’s only by honestly assessing the relative strength of our opponents’ objections and our replies that we can really get a handle on how we should think and live going forward.
And who knows how that investigation will go? On reflection, we might affirm our initial way of thinking, perhaps in a modified or clarified form. Then, we can live with greater conviction, throwing ourselves behind our commitments now that they have passed the test of careful reconsideration.
Or, we might overhaul our initial way of thinking dramatically. But then, so long as we're willing to change how we live going forward, we'll be doing better by our own lights.
Philosophical inquiry can shift or transform what we think in unpredictable ways. But when we scrutinize our worldviews clearly, deeply, and with a willingness to change, this volatility can only make us better off. Wherever our worldviews end up, we gain greater understanding and confidence in the reflective beliefs we can now fully claim and live by as our own.
This is what antifragility of thought looks like.
So think for yourself, or someone else will do it for you.