Barbells, birth and maturation

I was first introduced to barbells by Nassim Taleb. Not barbells that hold weight, but barbells as a risk management strategy. For example, in Antifragile, Taleb explains that of the two options…

– A portfolio made up entirely of medium risk investments
– A portfolio made up of mostly near-zero risk investments and a few high risk investments

…the latter is better. I’ll allow Taleb to elaborate:

“I initially used the image of a barbell to describe a dual attitude of playing it safe in some areas (robust to negative Black Swans) and taking a lot of small risks in others (open to positive Black Swans), hence achieving antifragility. That is extreme risk aversion on one side and extreme risk loving on the other, rather than just the “medium” or the beastly “moderate” risk attitude that is in fact a sucker game (because medium risks can be subjected to huge measurement errors). But the barbell also results, because of its construction, in the reduction of downside risk—the elimination of the risk of ruin.
Let us use an example from vulgar finance, where it is easiest to explain, but misunderstood the most. If you put 90 percent of your funds in boring cash (assuming you are protected from inflation) or something called a “numeraire repository of value,” and 10 percent in very risky, maximally risky, securities, you cannot possibly lose more than 10 percent, while you are exposed to massive upside. Someone with 100 percent in so-called “medium” risk securities has a risk of total ruin from the miscomputation of risks.”

Taleb goes on to say that “A barbell can be any dual strategy composed of extremes, without the corruption of the middle—somehow they all result in favorable asymmetries.” The finance example Taleb provides is just one manifestation of this idea. There are others.

Health and Fitness. Only undertake activities that require maximal exertion and minimal exertion. For example, walk lots, but lift heavy weights and sprint for a brief period three times a week. 

Nutrition. Small windows of eating a lot, and large periods of eating nothing, as opposed to the six-meals-a-day strategy. I like to call this “fast and feast”.

Daily Schedule. Work intensely for a few hours, then spend the rest of the day reading, relaxing with friends, exploring, playing and procrastinating.

Those are just three examples. But one that has become increasingly important in my life is the barbell strategy applied to writing. The spectrum of writing is pretty simple; you can write a lot, or you can write a little. “A lot” could be a book, or multiple books on the same topic. “A little” could be a few hundred words for a blog post or an email newsletter. The “beastly moderate”, as Taleb calls it, is longform blog posts, articles and op-eds of several thousand words a piece. With this spectrum in mind, we can formulate the barbell strategy for writing as follows:

Writing. Write a little about a lot, and a lot about a little.

This strategy is, at present, the one I myself am pursuing. This blog, Phronetic, is my way of writing a little about a lot. And the books I wish to write are how I intend to write a lot about a little.

Another way to consider the writing barbell is in terms of birth and maturation. The left hand side of the barbell allows me to birth many ideas, to have lots of them and explore them superficially. Or at least, to try and distill them down to their essence. The right hand side of the barbell allows me to focus on one idea, or a collective theme, and go in-depth on it. The former allows me to conceive ideas, the latter allows me to bring them to maturation.