As I have mentioned before, I have been reading the works of Nassim Taleb, beginning
with his book Anti-Fragile, part of the Incerto series.
Since I plan on writing a series of commentaries on this author’s work, let me begin by giving a quick version of his biography.
Taleb is a polyglot (i.e., French, Arabic, English, etc.) and graduate of Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He was born and raised in a small francophone village in Lebanon to a well-connected Greek Orthodox family. Through most of his later childhood, he was surrounded by the Lebanese Civil War. After coming to America he has been a floor trader in the commodities exchange and worked on derivatives trading. He eventually received his doctorate and served as a distinguished professor at NYU’s School of Engineering and Dean’s Professor at University Massachusetts at Amhearst.
He is deep. He is thorough. He is just damn funny.
Being a francophone, he takes many inspirations from the likes of Montaigne and La Rochefaucaulde. Taleb is less dark than Rochefaucaulde, but Taleb has the uncanny ability to change writing styles between these two in a way that makes him seem born to the task.
Taleb is professionally hard to describe. He is demonstrably capable in mathmatics, probability, and other STEM fields. He has an uncanny eye for problem identification and description that makes him unique as a writer. He has the humility of monk in his inability to predict the future. He has the fierce wit to cut down pompous, self-aggrandizing fools. He has little patience for tom-foolery, yet he has clear love of the joie de vivre.
Yet he has the desire to be a flaneur, a man who strolls (strolling may be too fast a pace for what he wishes) through the park with a brilliant and witty friend discussing the problems of the world. Discussing not news events but the problems of the human condition.
Basically, he strikes me as a person whom I would find the highest compliment he could give me is “friend.”
From Taleb’s time as a child in war-torn Lebanon to his time on the trading floor, he has found a way to thrive amidst turmoil. Such chaotic environment has taught to love the peace and joy of a life well lived. It is from these life experiences that he derives so many of his profound thoughts.
Incerto is a collection of four (soon to be five) books that deal with the randomness life. It is written as an “essay,” in the French sense. Essayer (pronounced “essay-yea”) is the verb for “to try or to attempt.” Michel de Montaigne is the famous originator of this genre. His writings were his attempts to describe the world and the human condition. They were free form ambulations through thoughts. Taleb has adopted this style in a very human and humane style.
The first book of the series is Anti-Fragile, which is the focus of this article.
Taleb has a poignant vignette in the book describing the problem of the English language. He asks you to imagine a raw egg sitting on the edge of a table. Now imagine pushing that egg off the edge of the table. What happens? It smashes into the floor, leaving yolk and shell shards strewn across the floor.
How would you describe the key characteristics of that egg? Most would include the word “fragile.” What do we mean by fragile? It is highly susceptible to catastrophic and irrepairable damage when faced with a traumatic event. The shell breaks on impact. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men type stuff.
Taleb asks two key questions, paraphrased here, “What is the opposite of fragile? What characteristics does an object have if it is the opposite of fragile?”
Those questions do not seem very profound, until you think about it. So, I will do you a favor. I am going to cut off this article at this point. It will give you some time to consider the answer to his questions (or buy his books to cut to the chase faster). I will revisit this article in Part 2 next Saturday morning.
For now consider, are your scouts, parents, or scouters fragile? Are they susceptible to catastrophic and irreparaible physical or psychological damage when facing a traumatic event? What are our duties as scout leaders to overcome that?