Antifragile: Mediocristan and Extremistan

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Antifragile" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are Mediocristan and Extremistan? How can they help you understand the ideas of antifragility?

Mediocristan and Extremistan are two hypothetical countries in the book Antifragile. The author uses them to talk about how variations in systems happen, and why those variations may or may not cause failures.

Read more about Mediocristan and Extremistan below.

Extremistan and Mediocristan

We’ve said repeatedly that variations and randomness lead to stability, but the key to this is that the variations are small. Let’s consider two hypothetical countries: Extremistan and Mediocristan. In Mediocristan, there are constant, small variations in the economy, political parties, and so on. These changes might seem significant, even frightening, but over time they tend to average themselves out, and not much changes. 

You could consider various things in your own life to be “from” Mediocristan. One example might be your eating habits: While there are inevitably small (or large) variations in how many calories you eat in a day, on the whole they will average out to a reasonable number. Put another way, no one day’s calories will have a significant impact on your overall average calories. Even if you vastly overindulge one day—on Thanksgiving, perhaps, if you’re American—it’ll still be a tiny fraction of the calories you eat in a year. This is the core concept of Mediocristan: small variations that have little impact in the long run. 

Extremistan, on the other hand, has relatively few changes, but the changes that happen are extreme. The economy suddenly soars or plunges, or major political parties are overthrown and replaced. Between these events are periods of apparent peace and stability but, as with the bank clerk’s income, that stability is an illusion. It’s only a matter of time before another major event upends everything all over again.

One example of something “from” Extremistan would be novel sales. Over half of all sales come from 0.1 percent of novels. Therefore, if we consider each novel to be an “event,” we’ll see something that looks very stable until one of these exceptionally successful novels comes along and completely skews the data. 

The other problem with Extremistan is that it’s unpredictable. There’s no telling when an extreme event will happen, and they can be devastating when they do. Consider novels again—it’s often hard to say which novels will be the super-successful ones, and when such a book does come along, it pulls sales away from thousands of other books.

Therefore, when studying something that’s prone to sudden, extreme jumps, one can’t try to predict what will happen based on evidence—by the time you have that evidence, the event has already happened. Instead, you have to look at the potential damage such an event could cause. 

For perhaps the most extreme example of this, think about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Someone predicting the future based on evidence might say that nuclear weapons are quite safe—after all, they haven’t killed a single person in the better part of a century. In fact, that’s the crux of the “nuclear deterrence” argument: Nuclear weapons are safe because everyone has them and therefore, no one would dare to use them.

However, someone predicting the future based on potential damage will see quite a different picture: Never in history has the world been in so much danger. If those nuclear weapons are ever used, the damage would be incalculable—and it’s only a matter of time before they’re used. It’s the nature of Extremistan that the extreme events will happen sooner or later.

Antifragile: Mediocristan and Extremistan

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Here's what you'll find in our full Antifragile summary:

  • How to be helped by unforeseen events rather than harmed by them
  • Why you shouldn't get too comfortable or you'll miss out on the chance to become stronger
  • Why you should keep as many options available to you as possible

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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