Knowledge to do good enough

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb distinguishes “nerdified” classroom learning from the kind done in the real world. So-called nerdified learning leans the learner toward perceiving the world as more stable than it really is, and seeking academic perfection versus success in the more complex real world.

In one or two paragraphs, he talks about how this relates to learning languages. Does he learn from a program or textbook, by learning the rules and then attempting to apply them? No, he learns by trial and error.

Thus it was that when I walked into a store this morning, I was thrilled to (mostly) understand what the clerks were saying in Spanish. I was disappointed in myself for not trying to interject, but reassured myself there’s only so much that can be learned from 32 half-hour Pimsleur lessons on disc.

Outside, an old lady sat in a wheelchair. She didn’t have a sign, so I walked right past her. A few feet past her, I paused and backtracked.

“Do you need money?” I asked.

“Habla espanol?” she asked in turn.

“Solo un poco,” I replied.

“Poquito!” she said with a smile.

“Si, un poquito.”

She said something really fast. I replayed it in my brain to see if I could make sense of it.

I couldn’t. “No entiendo.” I paused, trying to remember the right verb form, before continuing, “necessita dinero?”

“Poquito,” she replied.

I handed her a couple of dollars. She thanked me, to which I replied, “De nada! Buenos dias!”

As I got back in my car, I was fairly well beaming. I hadn’t said much, and I’d probably made mistakes anyway, but I’d had a conversation that couldn’t have happened in English. Did I need to use the right verb forms this conversation to get the point across? Not so much.

I’ll aim for getting it right, to be sure. I just won’t let fear of not getting it right stop me when I have enough knowledge to do good enough.



Reading my way back to giggles

As my kids wrapped up their screen time yesterday evening, I read further in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. While I already listened to the book a few weeks back, I was so delighted by it that I bought the four-book Incerto¬†series that it concludes.

With minutes left to read it last night, I burst out laughing. My husband, Anthony, called from the kitchen, “Laughing? You don’t usually laugh reading such [non-fiction] books!”

I replied, “I laugh a lot when I’m reading Taleb! I’ll have to read this passage to you in a few minutes.”

After I finished reading the chapter, I found ¬†Anthony and read him the excerpt that inspired my laughter. Before you read it, you should know that (1) a “fragilista” is one who “defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist” and (2) Taleb loathes this quality in so-called experts, who harm the world by confidently fragilizing it.

I was in Milan trying to explain antifragility to Luca Formenton, my Italian publisher (with great aid from body language and hand gestures). I was there partly for the Moscato dessert wines, partly for a convention in which the other main speaker was a famous fragilista economist. So, suddenly remembering that I was an author, I presented Luca with the following thought experiment: if I beat up the economist publicly, what could happen to me (other than a publicized trial causing great interest in the new notions of fragilita¬†and antifragilita)? You know, this economist has what is called a¬†t√™te √† baffe,¬†a face that invites you to slap it, just like a cannoli invites you to bite into it. Luca thought for a second … well, it’s not like he would like me to do it, but, you know, it wouldn’t hurt book sales. Nothing I can do as an author that makes it to the front page of Corriere Della Sera would be detrimental for my book. Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer.

By way of contrast, I read the beginning of the next paragraph to Anthony, too:

Now let’s say I were a midlevel executive employee of some corporation listed on the London Stock Exchange, the sort who never take chances by dressing down, always wearing a suit and tie (even on the beach). What would happen to me if I attack the fragilista? My firing and arrest record would plague me forever. I would be the total victim of informational antifragility.

So, yes, I laughed. The pages of my Taleb books are filled with scrawled “LOL”s, so that I can find them and read my way back to giggles whenever grumpiness is upon me.


Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash¬†is an engaging audiobook, but not what I wanted to hear this morning. In the wee, dark hours, then, I perused other audiobooks available through my library.

Nothing caught my eye, at first. It was only when I peeked at the Business section that I found anything I wanted to check out. One book, Antifragile, really jumped out at me.

I started the book as I began my 70-minute drive to work. Within a couple of minutes, my sense of openness to hearing the author was replaced by one of ebullience. By the time I reached the freeway maybe ten minutes later, I had to restrain myself from pulling over and doing a dance on the side of the freeway.

Many times over the last many months, I’ve come up against invisible walls when trying to explain certain things. Some of those walls are my own; I try to explain something, but so narrowly understand that I can’t find the words.

There’s something still invisible to me that bars me from tying together threads of understanding, or hoping to express myself successfully. And so, I search, hoping to circumnavigate invisible walls, pressing up against things I can hear but not quite touch.

Other times, other folks’ walls are the critical barrier.¬†Since it’s much easier to see someone else’s blind spots than my own, I can see huge portions of the world they’re choosing to avoid, because they’re distressing or uncomfortable or inconsistent with prior understandings. I struggle with how to converse around these walls, but I’m not giving up.

While the author has already said a few things I contest–for now, anyway–he’s already given me words to express ideas I thought might be years to decades beyond my reach. He is describing these walls, and, beyond that, pointing to them on a map.

I love my job, but I’m annoyed I have to do it right now. I’d much rather sit and continue soaking up Antifragile.