Black swans and the ‘antifragile’ edge
The COVID-19 pandemic we are experiencing is sometimes referred to as a “black swan” event: an unexpected, unforeseen catastrophic event. We have heard from many self-help practitioners and so-called experts who teach us how to cope and how to be more resilient, but recently, we’ve heard a new, intriguing concept called “antifragility.” We interviewed Philip Te, who is a senior banker, risk expert, author, professor and financial markets practitioner based in Singapore. He enlightened us about black swan events and this new way of thinking. So, what are black swan events and why should we worry about it?
Nassim Taleb, one of the most original and provocative risk management and social philosophers of our time defined black swan events as events that are unexpected because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility, and these events have extreme impact. Many catastrophic events in history can be classified as black swan events.
The problem is we human beings tend to think that we have become more sophisticated in quantifying things—that we have mastered risk and have relied on predictive models to guide our most important decisions in life. I have contributed to this problem too, having written a two-volume book on bank risk management discussing predictive risk management models. And that is the danger—as Niels Bohr said: “forecasting is difficult especially if it’s about the future.” Black swan events teach us to be humble and learn that catastrophic events are rarely knowable in advance. It may be obvious in hindsight, but not in advance.
If black swan events are not predictable, does that mean that we could do nothing about it? On the contrary, accepting that black swan events are not predictable and knowable is the first step in the right direction: that is, adopting a nonpredictive view of the world leads us to the right path.
Let me explain. One of my favorite stories to illustrate it is this: let’s say you have this precious vase from the Ming Dynasty—worth millions of dollars. You are organizing a children’s party and we know how kids behave during parties. What would you do? Where will you focus your risk management effort on? On the vase or on the kids?
As a parent of two very young kids, I know intuitively the answer to this question. I should focus on the vase and not the kids.
Unfortunately, most risk management models that are being used, whether in companies or in our personal lives, are focused on the kids. The great investor Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital said it best when he said that risk is not entirely “quantifiable, objective and absolute” both prospectively and retrospectively and that it is “largely a matter of opinion.”
Adopting a nonpredictive view of the world means that we focus on something that is knowable and quantifiable, i.e. the vase, or fragility.
What is antifragility? How is this different from resilience?
Antifragility, surprisingly, is a word that is nonexistent in the English language—this is an original term coined again by Taleb. Antifragility goes beyond resilience.
The objective of resilience is stability—that despite the occurrence of catastrophic events, one stays the same, unmoved and stable. Antifragility does not only resist shocks but something that loves shocks. It is a situation or a mindset where one benefits from disorders and gets better as one is exposed to these black swan events.
In the world of black swans, the antifragile mindset allows one to gain from disorders. Antifragile is what allows us to thrive in a world we don’t understand.
Can you give concrete examples of antifragility?
Sure. Antifragility is everywhere. You look at the companies that thrived during the pandemic—you have Amazon, Netflix1who benefited from the chaos and disorder brought by pandemic. If we focus on what they have done, you would find out that they have adopted a different kind of mindset. The startup mindset of failing small, fast and frequent is a concrete example of this. The practice of moving fast, breaking things, and tinkering are all examples of antifragile practices.
You can also see that in biological organisms that have thrived. Our traditional notion of strength based on size and power is flawed. Look at dinosaurs and the gigantic prehistoric animals—how they are now all extinct—because of negative black swans. In contrast, look at cockroaches—they have survived millions of years and countless catastrophes. Cockroaches are antifragile: they are small, simple and adaptive.
How do we apply antifragility in our daily life?
I will keep it short. Avoid negative black swans. Be exposed to positive black swans. How? By changing your mindset and routines such that one should always be in the habit of constant learning and tinkering. Jeff Bezos, in his recent interview with David Rubenstein, sums it best when he said that he has seen small things, very small things go big. One should always experiment and continuously learn. That’s on the positive black swan. On the negative black swan, I am a big believer of what the legendary hedge fund manager Ray Dalio said: “keep your risk of ruin at zero.” In other words, build buffers upon buffers to protect yourself against negative black swans.
Te will conduct a free webinar titled “Antifragile: Going Beyond Resilience in Life, Work and Investing” on Feb. 27; 2pm-5pm through Inquirer Academy. He will discuss the importance of having a strong risk management philosophy and understand why traditional approaches no longer works in this environment. INQ
For more information about the webinar and schedule of online courses offered by Inquirer Academy, please email [email protected], or send SMS at these numbers 0945.2158935 / 0998.9641731. Registration is needed to attend this highly-rated webinar.
The author is the Executive Director of Inquirer Academy.
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