How to build “a systematic and broad guide to nonpredictive decision making under uncertainty
Here is the context (in the Prologue) from which an excerpt serves as the title of this review: “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.” With meticulous care that is among the defining characteristics of his thinking and writing, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains what antifragility is…and isn’t.
I wish it were possible to eavesdrop on a conversation between him and Joseph Schumpeter because both of them see great potential value in what most people fear or at least try to avoid: destruction, of course, that can in fact be creative but also randomness and uncertainty “which also means — critically — a love of errors, a certain class of errors.” Taleb insists — and I agree — that antifragility is a property that helps to explain why some natural and complex systems survive and others do not. Moreover, he adds, depriving any systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them.
Recall what Taleb has to say about Black Swans — unexpected major upheavals such as hurricanes — in a previous book: “Black Swans hijack our brains, making us feel we ‘sort of’ or ‘almost’ predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable.” Black Swans challenge us to respond effectively to them and — more often than not — we overreact with fear. “Because of this fear and thirst for order, some human systems, by disrupting the invisible and 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.” Taleb explains how and why to do that.
He also includes hundreds of examples of infragility and its impact in all domains of human experience. He does everything humanly possible to help his reader to develop a new mindset, one that appreciates, embraces, and then leverages uncertainty, randomness, probability, disorder, “and what to do in a world we don’t understand, a world with unseen elements and properties, the random and the complex; that is, decision making under opacity.”
These are among the passages that caught my eye and were especially interesting as well as informative:
o The Antidote to the Black Swan (Pages 6-17)
o Proto-Antifragility (36-38)
o How to Win a Horse Race (43-48)
o Antifragility by Layers (65-71)
o In Praise of Procrastination — The Fabian Kind (121-124)
o The Soviet-Harvard Department of Ornithology(193-197)
o The Green Lumber Fallacy (207-211)
o The Industrial Revolution (226-229)
o Fat Tony versus Socrates (251-253)
o On the Importance of Attics (263-266)
o A Simple Rule to Detect the Fragile (268-271)
o Learning to Subtract (313-318)
o The Stiglitz Syndrome (388-391)
o The Professionals and the Collective (411-414)
o The Tyranny of the Collective (421-422)
Taleb views this book as the last in a series (a “triad”) during which he develops “one master idea, each time taken to its next step, [and now] the last step.” He allows his reader to accompany him during the completion of an intellectual journey that began with Fooled by Randomness and continued with The Black Swan. In this third volume, he explains how, “by grasping the mechanisms of antifragility, we can build a systematic and broad guide to nonpredictive decision making under uncertainty,” whenever and whatever the given circumstances may be.
I urge those who read my review to read and then re-read very carefully the book, of course, but also “Appendix: The Triad, or a Map of the World and Things Along the Three Properties.” They are FRAGILE, ROBUST, and ANTIFRAGILE. Previously, Taleb had explained why “the fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much.” He provides a brilliant briefing on Pages 23-27 that is invaluable to an understanding the material that follows, then best re-read several times by an antifragile mindset that Nassim Nicholas Taleb helps his reader to develop.
A rock-solid framework for “understanding how habits work and a guide for experimenting with how they might change”
This is not an easy book to describe because Charles Duhigg offers such a wealth of information in so many different areas. For example:
o What a habit is…and isn’t
o What the habit loop is and does
o How and why we form good and bad habits
o Why it is so difficult to sustain good habits and so easy to sustain bad ones
o Which external influences most effectively manipulate both good and bad habits
o How to defend good habits
o How to break bad habits
o How and why our habits reveal our values
In Part One, Duhigg focuses on how habits emerge within individual lives; in the next, he examines the habits of successful companies and organizations; and then in Part Three, he looks at the habits of societies. “We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics. We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications. We know how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives. Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick. It isn’t always simple. But it is possible. And now we know why.” Also how.
There in a brief passage is the essence of what motivated Duhigg to write this book and also perhaps, just perhaps, a sufficient reason for people who read it to then rebuild their habits to their expectations, based on what they have learned from the book.
One of Duhigg’s most valuable insights (among the several dozen he shares) is that organizations as well as individuals can develop bad habits or allow them to develop. For example, tolerating incivility and thus condoning it, conducting performance evaluations unfairly and/or inconsistently, and under-valuing employees and/or customers. However, in that event, only individuals can break those organizational bad habits and only if their habits are equal to that challenge. Duhigg devotes all of Part Two (Chapters 4-7) to a through explanation of how best to respond to that challenge. Stephen Covey also has much of value to say about what that requires of people in his classic, The 7 Habits 0f Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.
Over the last few weeks, you have undoubtedly heard the publicity surrounding the newsest revealed mistress during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Her name is Mimi Alford, and over the past three weeks, she has appeared on practically every news and talk program that you can access.
I read her book this weekend. It is entitled Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath (Random House, 2012). You can read one of many reviews of the book here, published in the Wall Street Journal on February 13, 2012.
I found the book to be very personal, reflective, and insightful. If you are looking for a “kiss-and-tell” book, it has those elements. You will read the details of her first sexual encounter with JFK in Jackie’s bedroom, and how months later, he pressured her to perform oral sex on his key aide, Dave Powers. But that is not what this book is about, nor does it focus on sex.
Instead, you will find a revealing narrative about key elements and events in the Kennedy administration through a different set of eyes. Those are the eyes of a naive, but bright 19-year old White House intern. I have read many books about Kennedy and his thousand days in office, and can honestly tell you that I read things here that I had not known before. This book covers 18 months, from 1962-1963, and then, shifts to the rest of her life through two marriages.
She is now 68. Her back cover picture makes her appear more attractive than what you see on talk shows. You can find many of those interviews on YouTube if you want to see them, including her appearance on ABC’s The View, with its illustrative panel.
Is this worth buying and reading? I think so. It is overpriced at $25, in that it is less than 200 pages long. But, I read enough. I finished satisfied that my time was well-spent.
Maybe we have finally met the last JFK mistress. At least, there are no other remaining footnotes or cryptically identified characters such as produced Mimi Alford. Maybe not. That’s not the point.
Her book gives us insight into an unsettling yet exciting time. And, this book makes it clear she found both.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it really soon.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Amy Schulman, executive vice president and general counsel at Pfizer. She says that just as good writers learn to “show, don’t tell” in their essays, she has learned to use real-life anecdotes about herself to convey her style to employees.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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A Blueprint for Leadership: Show, Don’t Tell
Bryant: Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?
Schulman: Well, I’ve been a baby sitter, and a camp counselor and a teacher. And in all of those jobs, you’ve got to get people to do what you want them to do, and not just by bossing them around.
Bryant: I’ve lost count of the number of executives I’ve interviewed who, it turns out, have teaching backgrounds.
Schulman: Actually, I think that’s not surprising. People who are drawn to teaching really like to help people. I think of teaching as teasing out what’s already inside of people, and helping them to get better. Teaching has a lot to do with getting other people enthusiastic about something, and feeling that you want to create that spark. When I was a little kid, about 7 or so, the first present I remember asking for was a blackboard — not the kind of easel kids have for painting and drawing, but a big teacher’s blackboard. I would actually make up assignments, hand them out to imaginary students, grade them and teach classes.
Bryant: What are some of the biggest leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Schulman: One of the biggest lessons I’m learning now is having a better feel for when to step out of a situation and when to step in. I do think that is actually one of the hardest things to balance correctly. People want to hear from you. They want your opinion. And if you don’t ever speak up and weigh in, then I think the people you lead will feel frustrated, wondering why you’re hanging back and not saying what you think. But if you’re constantly giving direction and speaking, then you’re really not encouraging conversation. And no matter how democratic you’d like to think you are as a boss, you learn that your voice is louder than others’. I respond best to people who challenge me, and I like being challenged, and I tend to reward people who are appropriately challenging. I think learning to refrain from speaking — without making people feel that you’re trying to frustrate them by being opaque — has been an inflection point for me. Q. How did you learn that?
Bryant: It was just watching the room, and being puzzled if I thought there should be conversation, and wondering why there wasn’t more conversation. I also saw how quickly people tended to agree with me, so I thought, it can’t be that I’m right all this time. And so I learned to really try to deliberately reward people in a conversation for challenging me. I don’t mean being insubordinate. I mean really following up on other people’s ideas. One of the marks of a good speaker is actually being a great listener.
So I remind myself that no matter how quick I think I am, that I have to show that I’m listening, and show people how I’ve gotten to the endpoint, or else I run the risk of squelching conversation. So I will deliberately slow myself down so that the room catches up to where I am. I know how I feel when I get cut off, and so shame on me if I do that to other people.
Bryant: What else?
Schulman: Another thing is realizing that people impute motives to you if you’re not clear. It’s important not to be ambiguous or vague about what you want, because then people waste a lot of energy trying to figure out, well, what is she thinking? What does she want? Why is she reacting this way? And so there is a certain kind of clarity and an absence of ambiguity about goals that I think is critical. And I think one of the marks of being a more mature boss is finding that perfect balance between clarity about goals and purpose, so that people aren’t wasting time trying to sense what’s in the ether, and not being so direct that you’ve cut off conversation prematurely and your voice is the only voice in the room. How do you get that magic right? I don’t know. But when it happens, that’s a great meeting.
Bryant: What are some other lessons you’ve learned?
Schulman: One of the things that I’ve really come to respect is that everybody who works for me needs something different in terms of how I tease out what’s really on their mind. Are you somebody who is going to get anxious if you haven’t heard from me in a few weeks and therefore you’re going to start sending me a lot of self-serving e-mails telling me every great thing you’ve done? Are you somebody who I have to invite in because otherwise I’m going to miss half of what you’re doing, and could do? And so I think recognizing and deliberately responding to the different things that people need has been something that I’ve learned over time.
Bryant: Do you have the equivalent of a first-day speech you use in new jobs — in effect, these are the rules of the road if you’re going to work with Amy Schulman?
Schulman: I do give people the rules of the road for working with me. But I think one of the things we all have to recognize is that on the first day of any job you can say to people, “Here’s who I am and here’s what I like,” and nobody will absolutely believe you. Have you ever met a leader who doesn’t say, “I want to hear feedback openly. I tend to be very straightforward. I know how to laugh at myself. I’m not afraid of criticism. My door is always open.”
Bryant: Good point.
Schulman: It would almost be funny to say, “Look, my door is closed, don’t bother me.” And so you can say all these things, but the proof is in the pudding. So what I try and do is tell real-world stories about my family, my background. After all, how many times did your English teacher write on your paper, “Show, don’t tell?” And so I always think about that — show, don’t tell.
Bryant: Can you give me an example of one of those stories?
Schulman: A story I often tell is about the first time I took a deposition. I got there early, and I thought that the most important thing was to control the witness. I didn’t realize the first time around that the way you control somebody is not by intimidating them. But I adjusted the chair that I was sitting on so that I’d be really tall, and could look down imposingly on the witness. But I raised it so high that as soon as I sat down, I toppled over and fell backward. I tell that story for a few reasons. I want people to know I’m not afraid to laugh at myself. And the best way to show people that you’re not afraid to laugh at yourself is to actually laugh at yourself and tell a story of a time that you’ve been embarrassed.
Bryant: What else?
Schulman: I think it’s very important as a new leader not to claim things that people might have a reason to believe are not true. There’s nothing worse than a first-day speech that sounds like every other speech that came before it. So I think less is more as a new leader. People are going to hear the content. But what they’re really doing is reading the person. Is she comfortable? Is she having fun? Does she seem like somebody who I want to follow? Is she going to be fair to me? When somebody asks her a question, is she flustered? Does she seem curious? I think those are the things that people take away from a first-day speech.
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his brilliant book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.
Those who read Bryant’s interview of Amy Schulman and wish to develop or improve their storytelling skills are urged to check out these outstanding books:
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Random House (2007)
The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience
Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work
The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative (Revised and Updated)
A rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the evolution of a creative idea
Others have their own reasons for praising this book. Here are two of mine. First, David Kord Murray immediately states his core thesis and then develops it with original (rather than borrowed) brilliance throughout the narrative that follows. Here it is, in composite form: “Ideas are constructed out of other ideas, there are no original thoughts, you can’t make something out of nothing, you have to make it out of something else. It’s the law of cerebral physics. Ideas are born of other ideas, built in and out of the ideas that came before. That’s why I say that brilliance is borrowed…An idea is like a house or a building. Your business problem is the foundation of that house. In other words, you build your idea on a foundation of well-defined problems. Once defined, you borrow ideas from places with a comparable problem…Then, you take these borrowed ideas and start combining them to form the overall structure of your house, to form the structure of your new solution.”
I also admire the scope and depth of primary and secondary sources that Murray cites within the framework of the six steps to innovation. For example, Step One involves defining the problem to be solved. Murray advises that the foundation for solving the problem be on “solid ground” and that the problem is viewed in context (e.g. scope) rather than in isolation. His sources include Sergey Brin and Larry Page (“the Google Guys”, Isaac Newton, and James Maxwell. If you have a search problem, as Brin and Page once did, ask “Who else has a search problem?” The answer probably includes librarians, rescue teams, sailors, hunters, archeologists, and explorers.
Step Two involves borrowing ideas from wherever there is or has been a similar problem: “borrowing brilliance is the search for ideas” and what Murray calls “creative combinations” are the result of borrowing from competitors, observations, other people, while traveling away from home, from what Murray calls “the opposite place” (i.e. the opposite of what is popular), a similar place, and/or a distant place (e.g. ancient Rome). His sources include Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and John Nash. They and others used one or more existing idea as material to construct a new idea, one that would then become a new (for now) “creative combination.” That is what Johannes Gutenberg did in the 1440s when he combined materials that already existed: a wine press, an adjustable undertable, movable typeface of lead-based alloy, a matrix (i.e. hand mould), and oil-based ink.
Murray also provides a convincing reassurance to all who claim they are “not creative” that innovation is a never-ending process that, over extended time, it may involve thousands (millions?) of individuals who “build on the ideas of others,” some of whom – many centuries ago — also built on the ideas of others who preceded them. Almost anyone is capable of making a valuable contribution to this process on continuous improvement. The value of some contributions will be greater than others, obviously, but all are essential.
The best recently published account of this process, at least that I am aware of, is provided by William Rosen in his book about the development of steam-driven power, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, published by Random House (2010).
Who knew that when the Royal Patent Office in London in 1698 issued a patent for “Raising Water by the Impellent Force of Fire” (the idea to which the title of this book refers) it would set in motion a chain of events whose impact was unprecedented in human history? The scope and depth of William Rosen’s narrative embrace a number of separate but interdependent disciplines that include law, natural science, economics, anthropology, history (i.e. of people, societies, events, and ideas), mathematics, physics, and politics. I cannot recall a non-fiction book I have read in recent years that I enjoyed more than this one. There are so many reasons. Where to begin?
Here are three. First, I greatly appreciate the scope and depth of his coverage not only of a subject (the development of steam-powered machines) but of an entire era prior to and throughout the Industrial Revolution. His narrative tells a riveting story, replete with a cast of memorable characters (e.g. Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, James Watt, Abraham Darby, Richard Arkwright, George Stephenson and son Robert, and John Allen and Charles Porter. If most/all of those names are unfamiliar, all the more reason to read this book.) Rosen’s story also as dramatic conflicts, plot developments on multiple levels and in multiple areas, and a brilliant analysis of an on-going process of industrial innovation in the 19th century, sustained failure-driven discovery.
I also appreciate Rosen masterful explanation of the interdependence of steam-powered machines with coal, iron, and cotton. Machines made of iron pumped water out of coal mines to produce the fuel the machines needed to transport it to steam-power ships so they could transport cotton that would finance the entire enterprise. There are passages in the narrative when key multi-disciplinary issues embrace history, economics, sociology, history, psychology, and commerce.
My third reason is personal: Prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing about – nor had much (if any) interest in – most of the subjects that Rosen discusses with eloquent rigor. I had the same reaction when reading two of Steven Johnson’s books, The Ghost Map (2006) and The Invention of Air (2008). I am grateful to both Rosen and Johnson for writing books that are, for me, magic carpets that transport me back in time to experience (albeit vicariously) not only what would be otherwise be inaccessible but also, more to the point, to experience would otherwise be unknown to me.