We haven’t talked much yet in this series about the company we founded. This post will cover that.
The company is called Compass Coffee. We call ourselves that for two reasons:
First, the name comes from our time in the Marines. We became friends, and really started drinking coffee, while learning how to navigate with a map and compass. To us, that’s what coffee does for people — it brings them together. It creates community. It touches millions of lives around the world.
Second, we call ourselves Compass Coffee because a compass is a simple object with two essential functions: it helps you get your bearings and it points you in the right direction. We think about good coffee the same way, and we took our name to honor this profound simplicity and utility.
One of the cool things about the start of Compass Coffee is that Maura Judkis, of The Washington Post, is going to be following along throughout our journey. Here’s how that came about.
After the publication of Perfect Coffee at Home and our efforts at getting the word out, we decided it was best to keep quiet about the founding of Compass Coffee. Starting a new company is incredibly difficult and risky, with many setbacks and shortcomings along the way, and in addition to avoiding any news about failures we might have, we didn’t want to get press before our doors were open. It just didn’t seem like a good idea, so for the past six months, we’ve done our best to hide.
When Maura first reached out to us, our reaction can best be described as “oh fuck.” Our time in the Marines inculcated us with a pretty healthy skepticism toward all things media, we’re both working pretty hard to avoid the narcissism typical in our generation, and just like anyone, we aren’t perfect. The prospect of having this time of our lives captured indelibly in a very public way was more than a little concerning.
And it still is. But here’s why we agreed to have Maura along.
First and foremost, we hope it’s going to help small businesses learn from our journey, our successes, and our failures. America was founded on small business, it’s the real engine of job creation and growth, but as a country we often seem to forget that. Instead, we tend to focus on entrenched companies spending millions on lobbyists to buy politicians and create unfair advantages. It makes sense—outrage makes for a good story—but small business and large business are entirely different.
Second, with all the growth happening in the Washington, D.C., it can often seem like new companies just sprout from nowhere. Every week seems to feature a new restaurant, bar, café, or food truck, and people seem to take these openings for granted, without seeing all the work, all the risk, and all the people who come together to make a small business possible. We know this because we used to be those guys until embarking on this process ourselves.
The final reason is because we have a lot of faith in Maura. She calls it like she sees it. One of the first things she said to us was that this wasn’t going to be a puff piece, that if there’s negative aspects she’ll run them, that she has a responsibility to her readership.
We wrote once about taking note of things as they happen, how we were “doing it live.” Well, this isn’t what we expected. But that’s kind of the fun of it.
If you want to follow along, the series is called “From the Ground Up.” Here are the first three installments:
Talking to the media is a steep learning curve, and it’s a very different experience talking to a print journalist than on live television. In print, you have time to reflect and express your thoughts just right. On air, things happen much faster. It all feels like a blur, but the good news is that any quirky mannerisms you may have are painfully apparent and preserved online forever.
Fortunately, from our awkward first radio interview, we’ve gotten a lot better, but of course, we’re still learning. We had to figure out how not to step on each other while talking, how to speak concisely, how to avoid filler words, even simple things like where to look and when. (BTW, apparently you’re not supposed to look at the camera on morning television? This would have been really nice to know beforehand.)
In any case, since the National Coffee Association’s conference was held in New Orleans this year, we got on the morning show circuit as spokesmen for coffee in America. Visiting Good Morning New Orleans and Eyewitness Morning News was a pretty cool experience, and we brewed some great coffee on live TV.
We also got to present our story to the convention. We talked about how we became friends over coffee, how at the time we were helping each other master navigation with a map and compass, and how our experience reflects the broader American trend of getting into better coffee.
We’ll conclude this post with a full transcript of our remarks. It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough. We alternated back and forth, each covering different paragraphs, but for ease of reading and simplicity, we’ve combined everything here.
The series will conclude in part 4.
Transcript of Our Remarks at the 2014 National Coffee Association Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana
Before speaking at the National Coffee Association.
Our story, and our coffee adventure, really starts in the fall of 2009, at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, where all newly-commissioned Marine officers are trained. We had joined the Marines out of college looking for three things: service, self-improvement, adventure, and The Basic School would be a six-month crash course in what it takes to lead a platoon in combat.
It wasn’t an idle concept. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raging, we had joined with a pretty good understanding of what we were getting into, and The Basic School would be where we learned things like how to shoot, how to lead a convoy, and how to fight.
Marines call it brilliance in the basics, and one of the most important skills we learned is land navigation. You have to know where you are and where you’re going, and since you can’t always rely on GPS working, we train with a map and compass.
It’s at this point in training that our friendship really starts. We’re waking up early going to the field, we’re staying up late studying tactics in the library, and as the sleep deprivation sets in, we really start drinking coffee to stay awake. First thing in the morning when we wake up, during class, after class, at night—it becomes non-stop.
As the training progresses, we start doing more and more cool things. The guns get bigger, the explosions louder. And what powerpoint presentation about coffee would be complete without a picture of tanks?
When we graduate training, we end up assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. This infantry battalion is colloquially known as “The Walking Dead” because it participated in some of the bloodiest fighting in Vietnam. Obviously, our parents were thrilled to hear about this.
What’s particularly cool about this assignment is that again, we’ll be together. We’re each about to be taking command of weapons platoons of 48 Marines. We’ll be responsible for teaching them many of the tactics that they’ll use in Afghanistan, and it’s great to have someone there to bounce ideas off of.
One of the first things we do when we arrive in North Carolina is take our platoon sergeants, our seconds in command, out for coffee to begin developing a strong working relationship. It’s a piece of advice that we had been given back in Quantico, and what we find is that the military—or at least the Marine Corps—runs on coffee. We have an old percolator in the office that makes this thick, black, burnt, bitter, coffee that tastes like motor oil. But it doesn’t matter. We drink tons of it.
It’s the same in the field on training exercises. The weather is terrible, we’ll be caught in a blizzard, but as we discuss plans for the day we’ll take these little packets of instant coffee that come in our rations and just chew on them straight. It’s disgusting, but it’s perfect.
The fact that we’re eating coffee crystals—that instant just isn’t fast enough—is really a reflection of the pace of training. And within just a few months we’re on helicopters deploying into the Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
It’s a completely different world, and we’re assigned a completely non-standard mission. Michael and his Marines embed with the Afghan Police, Harrison and his Marines embed with the Afghan Army. And what that means is that in Afghanistan, which is mostly a tea culture, we’re going to be drinking a lot of tea with our Afghan partners to build up a rapport.
It also means that we’ll be doing just about the opposite of our training. As infantry officers, we’ve been trained to destroy things, but on embedded training teams, the idea is to build small pockets of community, join them together, and hopefully spread safety throughout our area of operations.
On the ground, the patrol bases we command are separated by about five miles. The roads aren’t very good, they’re often filled with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), but every so often we get a chance to meet up, discuss the mission, come up with plans, etc. And just like always, it’s over coffee.
Which begs the question: where’s all this coffee coming from? And the answer is care packages from friends and family. They’re a reminder of home and a much-needed break from realities of life on the ground.
It’s after one such meeting that we run our first major mission together. We receive intelligence that there’s a Taliban IED-making cell operating in our town, and the idea is that Michael, his Marines, and his Afghan Police partners will come from the east; that Harrison, his Marines, and his Afghan Army partners will come from the west; we’ll surround the compound under the cover of darkness; and at first light kick in the door and detain the enemy.
The mission goes off without a hitch. We’re elated. And even better we’re really proud of our Afghan partners. They coordinate seamlessly together and they professionally and successfully detain the enemy.
But before we know it, our deployment is over. The days drag on but the weeks fly by, and pretty soon we’re on a cargo plane back to America in the middle of the night, the green lights of the plane just adding to the surrealism. We’re very fortunate to have brought all our Marines home alive and without serious injury.
In one of our early weeks back in America, we’re in the car and we hear a radio show on NPR about America’s growing interest in gourmet coffee. At this point, as guys who can easily drink eight cups a day, we have to find out more.
So we start experimenting. And just like in the Marines, there are no half measures. We go at it with the same intensity. From a single French press, our coffee collection grows until it takes over the entire kitchen counter. With each new method we get sucked deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, to the point where we’re buying all sorts of books from Amazon, we’re scouring the internet, and we’re tracking our experiments in a notebook.
It’s a fun hobby, really unlike anything we’ve ever done before. It’s this rich, multi-sensory experience, and the difficulty of learning about it is an enjoyable challenge. As our collection of coffee tools expands, we become obsessed with chasing the perfect cup, so much so that we head to the metal shop to grind off the spouts on our portafilter and make it bottomless.
The results are amazing.
Like anything, it’s fun to share our progress as we get better. And it comes full circle: we’re preparing to head to the field one day on a training exercise, and instead of just resigning ourselves to awful instant crystals, we get the bright idea to make a military-grade coffee kit.
We think this is pretty cool—we’re using a jetboil to heat water, a pour over cone, even a hand-crank grinder—until later we’re reminded that earlier generations of Marines would have used C4 plastic explosive and a canteen cup to make their coffee. Theirs is certainly a much more impressive way of making coffee, but at least ours tasted really good.
And then our time in the Marines is up. It’s 2013, the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, we aren’t going to deploy again, and it’s time for us to start figuring out what we’re going to do next. We start making visits to our hometown of Washington, D.C., sitting in coffee shops, and reconnecting with friends we haven’t seen for a while.
It’s one day while we’re up there that a friend who runs a design studio tells us he wants to learn how to make coffee for his customers. So we teach him a simple process to make a really good cup of coffee, and what we find is that it’s immensely fulfilling to teach him.
That feeling inspires us to write a book about what we’ve learned. For all the difficulty of learning how to brew great coffee, at this point we’ve finally figured it out. And what we decide is this is going to be a fun project and a good way to give back to the coffee community. Our goal in writing Perfect Coffee at Home is to make really good coffee simple for people. So originally, it’s a step-by-step explanation of the most common methods set against the story of our own discovery.
But it quickly becomes more than that, and as we write, we realize a couple things.
First, the military and coffee are inextricably intertwined. We aren’t the first American servicemen to write about coffee; it’s actually a tradition going back as far as the Civil War. And second we realize that coffee is really about special moments across the table with family and friends. People want really good coffee, but even more than that, they want connection. The same way coffee was a ritual for us and the backdrop for our friendship, is the same way that it is for many people.
In the end, our book is a celebration of how really good coffee creates moments for human connection. And while that’s the conclusion to the first chapter to our coffee adventure, we think it’s also the future.
To us, that’s what makes coffee so exciting — that it has been, and will continue to be, a drink that makes life better in so many meaningful ways.
Thank you to the National Coffee Association. Thank you to the members in the audience for helping create those moments. And thank you very much for having us here today.
On November 20, 2013, we founded Compass Coffee. Like so many great American companies, we started in a basement.
(And yes, calling Compass Coffee “great” is a bit premature, but we act with that intent in the hopes of one day deserving the title.)
While we looked for a suitable home for our roastery and cafe, we started building a laboratory where we could work on all things coffee, everything from selecting the best green coffee importers to perfecting our roast profiles and brewing some amazing cups.
What we had realized in writing our book was that America is in the midst of a coffee renaissance. Americans are seeking out better coffee, they know it’s out there, but there are only a few places around the country which deliver on that promise. And the reason is because meeting that standard is incredibly difficult. It takes painstaking research, lots of trial and error, and a willingness to reexamine conventional wisdom–even stuff that became conventional just a few years ago. We spent hours and hours failing, testing over and over, marking our progress in the smallest increments.
It was around that time that we caught another break.
We received a call from the National Coffee Association (NCA), the trade organization which represents coffee businesses in America. Their mission is to promote coffee, educate people by facilitating research, and address key industry issues, and they were in the midst of a search for new spokespeople. They were looking for someone who was passionate about coffee, knowledgeable about its health benefits, and capable of expressing firsthand its role in creating human connection and community.
On the phone, we joked that we would need some help filing down our rough edges, but the good news was that it would be two for the price of one.
We were initially a bit skeptical about what the job would actually entail. It was like “what’s the catch?” Coffee in America is a multi-billion dollar business and we aren’t the type of guys who can just go on stage and deliver Orwellian talking points. If the NCA was just another lobbying firm covering up for corporate malpractice, our answer would have to be thanks but no thanks.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. The more we learned about the organization, the more things we found we liked. It turns out that the NCA is a collection of people from all throughout the coffee industry—small, medium, large, and enormous—who come together, put aside their company rivalries, and work to promote coffee.
When we accepted the role, we were told that the first thing we would do is present at the NCA annual convention being held in New Orleans. We would introduce ourselves to the membership and talk a little bit about our story. Additionally, we would do a couple of interviews about the most recent studies showing that Americans are seeking out better coffee, they’re drinking more of it, and the increasing body of evidence highlighting coffee’s health benefits. It was all stuff we believe in, and it was a natural fit.
This is part one of what will be a four part series on what we’ve learned and what we’ve been up to since publishing Perfect Coffee at Home.
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
Sometimes it’s better not to Tweet, Instagram, or post every little thing that happens. We both tend to be pretty decisive, but for the past few months it’s been better to take things slowly and truly understand the situation. It was the same with our book, with all that we realized in hindsight, and recent events have been the same. It has been a whirlwind couple of months.
Instead, we decided we would publish Perfect Coffee at Home on our own. In addition to the fun of writing about our passion for coffee, we saw it as a great experiment, and potentially an entry into the publishing industry. We would write the book, learn about the interactive technology offered by iBooks and the electronic format, and if all went well, we would then sign up other writers and teach them how to do it too.
When we published the book, the early days were pretty slow. Without the engine of a publishing house behind us, and without the marketing connections of a publicist, it was up to the two of us to figure it out. What we lacked in experience, we made up for with effort, enthusiasm, and the simple authenticity of our story.
Working between flights at Logan Airport a few months before transitioning back to civilian life.
We finally caught a break when The New York Times picked up an excerpt from our book about the military history of coffee. That article gave us a lot of credibility and allowed us to approach other outlets with a much higher chance of getting a response.
From there, things got easier. And next came Public Radio International (BBC/NPR). It was our first radio interview. It wasn’t great. We were kind of awkward. But fortunately there was enough material for the editors to piece together a coherent segment. We consider ourselves quite lucky because sounding like idiots in front of their syndicated audience of 300 million would have been rather embarrassing. Either way, it was a lot of fun when some of our friends called up and said things like “whoa, just heard you on NPR!”
The Atlantic was when things got crazy. It was our first time going viral. With more than 16,000 Facebook likes, we were the #1 article on the site for more than a week. We knew we had struck a chord, and we were proud because while it’s possible for large marketing companies to force a message on you, it’s impossible for two guys with no marketing budget to do that.
But then things kind of dwindled. We continued publicizing the book, and we’re grateful to Gawker, USA Today, and Washington Life for featuring our work. But, like all books, about two months after the release, interest returned to a steady state, and traffic to our site started coming from legacy pieces and Google searches like “how to make coffee.”
Finally having some time to focus on the publishing company we had formed, we started using our success as a catalyst to sign up other authors. But our hearts weren’t in it. We began to realize that publishing is more about hype and public relations than it is about creating great content. And while we succeeded with our book, hype and PR just aren’t our forte or our passion. We wanted to do something real, and the more we reflected, the more we realized that the answer about what to do after transitioning back to civilian life had been right in front of us the whole time.
It’s funny how life works.
Having researched extensively and then written a book, we knew a ton about coffee. We were unsure about our ability to start a coffee roasting company, and looking at the giants in the market (and even the smaller companies) we questioned whether there was an opportunity. But we just had this overwhelming belief that something in the industry wasn’t quite right, that coffee didn’t have to be burnt and bitter, or weak and watery, that there were people out there who wanted something better.
After visiting some of the companies that we respected around the country, and after meeting with several people to discuss the prospect of investing, it became clear to us that we had to strike out on our own. Our vision was unique, and while we weren’t sure how exactly we would pull it off, we had to stay true to it.
“Space I can recover. Time I cannot.” —Napoleon Bonaparte
The Afghans thought time was relative. Not in any sort of metaphysical sense. They believed it literally, that things would happen when they happened. As the saying went whenever we discussed schedules:
“You Americans have all the watches. But we Afghans have all the time.”
Different parts of the world have different ideas about time. It seems to be a reflection of the culture. The Germans and the Swiss, with their mechanical precision. The Mediterraneans with their relaxed pace. The Chinese with their regimented order.
And then, as with everything else, the Americans are the cultural melting pot of all others.
We’ve been thinking about time a lot lately. In structuring our days, we see time as our most precious resource. Money comes and goes. Popularity the same. Time is the only resource you can’t get back. For Napoleon, in war, he was talking about sacrificing territory in order to buy time for other actions. His view, which we’ve adopted, was that there’s always another move, there’s always another play, there’s always another opportunity—so long as you have the time to make it.
Through this lens, the world looks very different. Yes, everybody is busy. But that’s not what this is about. This is about valuing other people, respecting their time, expecting that they’ll value yours in the same way.
It follows that when somebody is habitually late, what they’re saying is they don’t value your time, or that they had something better to do. It might only be subconsciously, but it doesn’t change the reality.
Sure, there are margins for error. As we write this, we’re stuck on Rock Creek Parkway in Washington. A section of the road has been shut down for a triathlon. Traffic is practically at a standstill.
But again, that’s not what this is about, the time when you get caught, the time when it’s unavoidable.
This is about the times when you’re late, or you’re kept waiting, and what it says about you.
If you’re just coming to the site, welcome. And thank you for stopping by.
One of the questions we’ve been getting asked is whether Perfect Coffee at Home is available on another platforms besides iPad. Right now, it isn’t. The technology just doesn’t exist yet on other tablets to convey this experience properly.
As soon as Amazon catches up—hopefully this fall if reports are accurate—we’ll be making it available on the Kindle as well. And if you have suggestions for how to make this work on other platforms, please let us know. If you’re frustrated, so are we. But that’s just what happens when you push the envelope at the intersection of technology and storytelling.
If you’d like us to send you an e-mail when the book becomes available on other formats, sign up for our newsletter.
In the meantime, we’re pretty excited to be hitting #1 in cookbooks! Not bad for an entirely self-produced book by two former grunts.
Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing—it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.
One of the things that shines through in Feynman’s memoir is just how much pleasure he took in his work. He took it seriously, he dedicated himself, but he never lost the joy of figuring things out.
Actually, to be more accurate, at one point he did.
After the successful detonations of two atomic bombs—which Feynman had helped build—and the Allied Victory during World War II, he returned to Cornell. To hear him tell it, at that time in his life, he wasn’t finding any more pleasure in physics.
And what happened?
He stalled. One of the most brilliant minds of his generation, a man who would go on to win a Nobel in physics, and he was essentially on pause.
But eventually he got out of it. How? He bucked the pressure. He went back to doing things that interested him. “Why did I enjoy it?” he asks himself. “I used to play with it.”
If you pay attention to stories about great men, you’ll see this pattern all the time in their behavior. It’ll take different labels—something like a “willingness to experiment,” or the ability to embrace “the beginner’s mind”—but really it’s all the same. Because at their core, Feynman’s playfulness, or similar labels for it, are just a form of humility. The kind which you can lose if you aren’t careful, and if you don’t take time to remind yourself of it.
“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” ― George Bernard Shaw
Making mistakes is a critical part of life. You don’t know the market, the terrain, the product, the technology, whatever. You jump in and you try something new.
It’s inevitable that you make mistakes. It’s a good thing, in fact. It’s part of being human. No one is perfect.
The question is what do you do when you make a mistake. Do you learn from it? Or do you repeat it?
Sending pictures of your dick to a young woman who isn’t your wife: it’s definitely a mistake, especially when you’re a public figure. But America is all about second chances.
Sending more pictures of your dick, after you’ve apologized the first time and promised to change? You’re a flawed person. You have problems. You should be self-aware enough to recognize that you shouldn’t be leading. And the fact that you don’t have the judgment to make that call, to say “hey, I should probably sit this one out,” speaks volumes about your character.
Maybe we’re too idealistic, but we believe in the history of great American leaders who actually wanted to make a difference, who kept their private lives in order so they could focus on real challenges facing the country.
Is sexting illegal? No. Is it illegal to send pictures of your dick to a young woman who isn’t your wife? No. Should these actions be outlawed? No.
But this incident brings up the difference between legality and morality.
To be a leader, you have to lead by example. It sets the tone for your organization.
There should be a higher standard for people seeking public office.
We couldn’t be happier with the result. This is the definitive guide to coffee, told through the story of our own discovery as two Marines recently back from Afghanistan and in search of something new.
It’s unlike any other “how-to” book you’ve ever seen. We’ve designed it from the ground up to be interactive and to connect with how you learn best. With graphics and illustrations by Ben Blake, a soundtrack by jazz virtuosos Peter and Will Anderson, plus videos and text from the two of us, the whole story is an immersive experience.
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN…
Want to know the two simplest ways of quickly improving your coffee at home? We’ll tell you.
Want to understand the coffee world without wasting 10,000 hours learning about it? We make it easy.
Want to brew the perfect French press for yourself or your family and friends? We’ll literally show you how.
A sample of the topics we’ll cover…
Coffee Bean Basics, the difference between blade and burr grinders, and why you should use the all-important Golden Ratio
How to brew a perfect…French press, pour over, Moka Pot, Technivorm, Aeropress, cold brew and siphon pot
How to pick the right coffee beans, what factors play into the growing and roasting process, and what fair trade really means in the coffee world
How to store coffee beans to make sure your cups are fresh every time
How coffee beans are decaffeinated, our thoughts on caffeine, and how coffee affects your health
How to fine tune your brewing for the best results
How to take your coffee to the next level using science
What tools we recommend and the principles that go into our purchasing
How to measure the quality of your coffee extraction
How to fine tune your coffee to reach perfection
The spectrum of body and flavor clarity
Water hardness and calcium concentrations throughout the US and what to do about it
Why the Metric System is better and America needs to switch
…and why, in hindsight, it made perfect sense that two Marines would write a book about coffee.
THE NEXT CHAPTER BEGINS
The changing world of coffee and publishing
An offer to friends in the media
Right now, America is undergoing a coffee renaissance, what’s known in the coffee world as the “third wave.” It’s the rise of light roasts and coffees that have more flavors and nuance to them than red wine.
But if you’re like us before our adventure, no one ever explained it to you.
You’re stuck drinking—and overpaying—for burnt, bitter brews when you could be enjoying the sweet complexity of a Brazilian Daterra or the bright acidity of a coffee from Africa.
You’re missing out on what could be special moments with family and friends.
And, you’re being left behind as the world of coffee changes.
Perfect Coffee at Home will fix that.
But this book is about more than coffee: It’s also a foray into the changing world of publishing, as new ways of telling stories evolve and writers develop new ways to connect with their audiences.
In 2004, Clay Shirky famously made the point that “the cost and difficulty of publishing absolutely anything, by anyone, into a global medium, just got a whole lot lower.” It’s been a double-edged sword. There’s a lot of garbage out there.
Our philosophy goes back to a time when artists created works that they were proud of and with staying power. Can you imagine the Beatles trying to use a focus group on “Please Please Me?”
The point is that this is a new beginning. For us as former Marines. For us as authors. For us as publishers. And with the barriers to entry lower than ever, we can come to you directly.
Which leads us to…
If this book sounds interesting to you, please take a moment to order right now from iTunes and share our story with your friends.
Here’s the link to the book’s website: www.perfectcoffeeathome.com, which you can use to access iTunes and which you can post on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. Really any social media you can think of!
And since we’ve eschewed the standard publishing process, we’ve been able to price very aggressively at $4.99.
Coffee should be something accessible. It shouldn’t be pretentious. It shouldn’t be shrouded in mystery. It should be something that you can share with your friends.
Finally! To media, bloggers, and list owners
We’ve made very few media commitments thus far. Do you have a column, show, mailing list, or blog audience? Would you like to do a feature, an interview, or post an excerpt? Please let us know. There is a ton of material, including charts, graphs, videos, and pictures.
This is the first in a series of book reviews we’ll be writing. Going forward, when we find something particularly striking, we’ll share it.
Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is a special book, one of those works you come across only rarely. It grabs you by the shoulders. It shakes you violently. It turns your world upside down. It is a book that cannot possibly be encapsulated in a review, and yet we are going to try and express it in such a way that makes it accessible.
First, some definitions.
Antifragile is a term Taleb coins to describe things which have more upside than downside from random events or shocks. In other words, antifragile things are those that benefit from stress and disorder.
Humans, to a point, demonstrate antifragility. For example, if you go to the gym and lift weights, your muscles grow back stronger.
Beyond that point, humans are fragile. If you are squashed by a heavy rock, that’s it. There is no benefit.
This interplay between fragility and antifragility is where the book gets really interesting. Because as Taleb writes, our individual fragility at the extremes serves to make us antifragile as a species. And this is what he really wants to discuss: the degree to which systems are exposed to harm.
In his view of modernity, the steady march toward artificial stability makes us more vulnerable to large shocks. The banking crisis of 2008 is one such example. Taleb’s call is to embrace the chaos and the randomness of life, to suffer many small setbacks instead of massive breakdowns.
Antifragile is a new word to describe an old concept. In the months since the book’s release, it’s been fascinating to see the reception. Reviewers have critiqued Taleb’s style. They have used his professional background as fodder for pigeonholing the book. They have tried to divine what his ideas mean for national policy.
They have mostly missed the point.
Antifragile is Taleb’s philosophical manifesto. It is a way of organizing your life so as to benefit from the reality that we live in a chaotic, disordered, and uncertain world.
In every domain or area of application, we propose rules for moving from the fragile toward the antifragile, through reduction of fragility or harnessing antifragility. And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.
Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything … by suppressing randomness and volatility. Just as spending a month in bed (preferably with an unabridged version of War and Peace and access to The Sopranos’ entire eighty-six episodes) leads to muscle atrophy, complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions (dubbed “Soviet-Harvard delusions” in the book) which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems.
At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control. The chief ethical rule is the following: Thou shalt not have antifragility at the expense of the fragility of others.
Modernity has replaced ethics with legalese, and the law can be gamed with a good lawyer.
To summarize, the problem with artificially suppressed volatility is not just that the system tends to become extremely fragile; it is that, at the same time, it exhibits no visible risks. Also remember that volatility is information. In fact, these systems tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policy makers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to Black Swans. Such environments eventually experience massive blowups…catching everyone off guard and undoing years of stability or, in almost all cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state. Indeed, the longer it takes for the blowup to occur, the worse the resulting harm to both economic and political systems.
How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble. I hold—it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction—that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity (from the unintended side effects of, say, an initial invention or attempt at invention). Naturally, there are classical thoughts on the subject, with a Latin saying that sophistication is born out of hunger (artificia docuit fames). The idea pervades classical literature: in Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up the genius (ingenium mala saepe movent), which translates in Brooklyn English into “When life gives you a lemon …”
A midlevel bank employee with a mortgage would be fragile to the extreme. In fact he would be completely a prisoner of the value system that invites him to be corrupt to the core—because of his dependence on the annual vacation in Barbados. The same with a civil servant in Washington.
Look for optionality; in fact, rank things according to optionality, (ii) preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended, payoffs; (iii) Do not invest in business plans but in people, so look for someone capable of changing six or seven times over his career, or more (an idea that is part of the modus operandi of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen); one gets immunity from the backfit narratives of the business plan by investing in people. It is simply more robust to do so; (iv) Make sure you are barbelled, whatever that means in your business.
In a system, the sacrifices of some units—fragile units, that is, or people—are often necessary for the well-being of other units or the whole.
…the final lesson is that one should not expect laurels for bringing the truth
There’s a lot to unpack there, concepts dealing with optionality, iatrogenics, the use of heuristics, barbells, hormesis, and intervention. But it’s beyond the scope of this review to do that for you.
Ultimately, despite Taleb’s distaste for best-of lists, we’re comfortable saying Antifragileis the best book we’ve read so far this year. But no doubt if Taleb ever reads this he’ll tell us we’re a pair of idiots and that we misunderstood the entire thing.