Book VI, titled “Via Negativa,” is one of the most insightful sections of Antifragile. In it, Taleb points out that our knowledge of what does not work is often greater than our knowledge of what does work. In addition, as a forecast reaches farther into the future, it is easier to predict what won’t survive than to predict what will survive. He also explains that when it comes to perishable things (like people), the young can be expected to outlive the old. But with nonperishables (like ideas), the situation is reversed: The older they get, the longer they can be expected to persist. So, if we are seeking a lasting education, we should give more weight to the classics, because the ideas they contain have proven useful over many generations, as opposed to new ideas, which are more likely to fall by the wayside as time passes.
In the final analysis, Taleb’s perspective is fundamentally sound. Life itself is antifragile, evolving in response to volatility. Perhaps that is the most compelling reason to be wary of abstractions and rely on experiential and practical evidence as the most reliable guides to action. As Yogi Berra put it: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.”
- David K. Hurst is a contributing editor of strategy+business. His latest book is The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2012).