Read The Bed of Procrustes Online

Authors: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Bed of Procrustes (2 page)

BOOK: The Bed of Procrustes

The characteristic feature of the loser is to bemoan, in general terms, mankind’s flaws, biases, contradictions, and irrationality—without exploiting them for fun and profit.

The test of whether you really liked a book is if you reread it (and how many times); the test of whether you really liked someone’s company is if you are ready to meet him again and again—the rest is spin, or that variety of sentiment now called self-esteem.

We ask “why is he rich (or poor)?” not “why isn’t he richer (or poorer)?”; “why is the crisis so deep?” not “why isn’t it deeper?”

Hatred is much harder to fake than love. You hear of fake love; never of fake hate.

The opposite of manliness isn’t cowardice; it’s technology.

Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with skillfully polished indifference.

It is the appearance of inconsistency, and not its absence, that makes people attractive.

You remember emails you sent that were not answered better than emails that you did not answer.

People reserve standard compliments for those who do not threaten their pride; the others they often praise by calling “arrogant.”

Since Cato the Elder, a certain type of maturity has shown up when one starts blaming the new generation for “shallowness” and praising the previous one for its “values.”

It is as difficult to avoid bugging others with advice on how to exercise and other health matters as it is to stick to an exercise schedule.

By praising someone for his lack of defects you are also implying his lack of virtues.

When she shouts that what you did was unforgivable, she has already started to forgive you.

Being unimaginative is only a problem when you are easily bored.

We call narcissistic those individuals who behave as if they were the central residents of the world; those who do exactly the same in a set of two we call lovers or, better, “blessed by love.”

Friendship that ends was never one; there was at least one sucker in it.

Most people fear being without audiovisual stimulation because they are too repetitive when they think and imagine things on their own.

Unrequited hate is vastly more diminishing for the self than unrequited love. You can’t react by reciprocating.

For the compassionate, sorrow is more easily displaced by another sorrow than by joy.

Wisdom in the young is as unattractive as frivolity in the elderly.

Some people are only funny when they try to be serious.

It is difficult to stop the impulse to reveal secrets in conversation, as if information had the desire to live and the power to multiply.


It is a very recent disease to mistake the unobserved for the nonexistent; but some are plagued with the worse disease of mistaking the unobserved for the unobservable.

Asking science to explain life and vital matters is equivalent to asking a grammarian to explain poetry.

You exist if and only if you are free to do things without a visible objective, with no justification and, above all, outside the dictatorship of someone else’s narrative.


You cannot express the holy in terms made for the profane, but you can discuss the profane in terms made for the holy.

Atheism (materialism) means treating the dead as if they were unborn. I won’t. By accepting the sacred, you reinvent religion.

If you can’t spontaneously detect (without analyzing) the difference between sacred and profane, you’ll never know what religion means. You will also never figure out what we commonly call art. You will never understand anything.

People used to wear ordinary clothes weekdays and formal attire on Sunday. Today it is the exact reverse.

To mark a separation between holy and profane, I take a ritual bath after any contact, or correspondence (even emails), with consultants, economists, Harvard Business School professors, journalists, and those in similarly depraved pursuits; I then feel and act purified from the profane until the next episode.

The book is the only medium left that hasn’t been corrupted by the profane: everything else on your eyelids manipulates you with an ad.

You can replace lies with truth; but myth is only displaced with a narrative.

The sacred is all about unconditionals; the profane is all about conditionals.

The source of the tragic in history is in mistaking someone else’s unconditional for conditional—and the reverse.

Restaurants get you in with food to sell you liquor; religions get you in with belief to sell you rules (e.g., avoid debt). People can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics.

One categorical: it is easier to fast than diet. You cannot be “slightly” kosher or halal by only eating a small portion of ham.

To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.

A comment here. After a long diet from the media, I came to realize that there is nothing that’s not (clumsily) trying to sell you something. I only trust my library. There is nothing wrong with the ownership of the physical book as a manifestation of human weakness, desire to show off, peacock tail–style signaling of superiority, it’s the commercial agenda outside the book that corrupts.

For instance, many people said to be unbribable are just too expensive.


Success is becoming in middle adulthood what you dreamed to be in late childhood. The rest comes from loss of control.

The opposite of success isn’t failure; it is name-dropping.

Modernity needs to understand that being rich and becoming rich are not mathematically, personally, socially, and ethically the same thing.

You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master.

Fortune punishes the greedy by making him poor and the very greedy by making him rich.

Quite revealing of human preferences that more suicides come from shame or loss of financial and social status than medical diagnoses.

“Wealthy” is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use intead the subtractive measure “unwealth,” that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have.

Older people are most beautiful when they have what is lacking in the young: poise, erudition, wisdom, phronesis, and this post-heroic absence of agitation.

I went to a happiness conference; researchers looked very unhappy.

What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.

Decline starts with the replacement of dreams with memories and ends with the replacement of memories with other memories.

You want to avoid being disliked without being envied or admired.

Read nothing from the past one hundred years; eat no fruits from the past one thousand years; drink nothing from the past four thousand years (just wine and water); but talk to no ordinary man over forty. A man without a heroic bent starts dying at the age of thirty.

Some pursuits are much duller from the inside. Even piracy, they say.

Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.

Catholic countries had more serial monogamy than today, but without the need for divorce—life expectancy was short; marriage duration was much, much shorter.

The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor; the fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich.

You will be civilized on the day you can spend a long period doing nothing, learning nothing, and improving nothing, without feeling the slightest amount of guilt.

Someone who says “I am busy” is either declaring incompetence (and lack of control of his life) or trying to get rid of you.

The difference between slaves in Roman and Ottoman days and today’s employees is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss.

You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.

For most, success is the harmful passage from the camp of the hating to the camp of the hated.

To see if you like where you are, without the chains of dependence, check if you are as happy returning as you were leaving.

The difference between love and happiness is that those who talk about love tend to be in love, but those who talk about happiness tend to be not happy.

Modernity: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur.

You can tell how uninteresting a person is by asking him whom he finds interesting.

The Web is an unhealthy place for someone hungry for attention.

I wonder if anyone ever measured the time it takes, at a party, before a mildly successful stranger who went to Harvard makes others aware of it.

People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.

It is a good practice to always apologize, except when you have done something wrong.

Preoccupation with efficacy is the main obstacle to a poetic, noble, elegant, robust, and heroic life.

Some, like most bankers, are so unfit for success that they look like dwarves dressed in giants’ clothes.

Don’t complain too loud about wrongs done you; you may give ideas to your less imaginative enemies.

Most feed their obsessions by trying to get rid of them.

It is as difficult to change someone’s opinions as it is to change his tastes.

I have the fondest memories of time spent in places called ugly, the most boring ones of places called scenic.

Fitness is certainly the sign of strength, but outside of natural stimuli the drive to acquire fitness can signal some deep incurable weakness.

Charm is the ability to insult people without offending them; nerdiness the reverse.

Those who do not think that employment is systemic slavery are either blind or employed.

They are born, then put in a box; they go home to live in a box; they study by ticking boxes; they go to what is called “work” in a box, where they sit in their cubicle box; they drive to the grocery store in a box to buy food in a box; they go to the gym in a box to sit in a box; they talk about thinking “outside the box”; and when they die they are put in a box. All boxes, Euclidian, geometrically smooth boxes.

Another definition of modernity: conversations can be more and more completely reconstructed with clips from other conversations taking place at the same time on the planet.

The twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one.

Efforts at building social, political, and medical utopias have caused nightmares; many cures and techniques came from martial efforts.

The Web’s “connectedness” creates a peculiar form of informational and pseudosocial promiscuity, which makes one feel clean after Web rationing.

In most debates, people seem to be trying to convince one another; but all they can hope for is new arguments to convince themselves.

Versions of this point have been repeated and rediscovered throughout history—the last convincing one by Montaigne.


The most depressing aspect of the lives of the couples you watch surreptitiously arguing in restaurants is that they are almost always unaware of the true subject of argument.

It seems that it is the most unsuccessful people who give the most advice, particularly for writing and financial matters.

Rumors are only valuable when they are denied.

Over the long term, you are more likely to fool yourself than others.

There are two types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same.

People usually apologize so they can do it again.

Mathematics is to knowledge what an artificial hand is to the real one; some amputate to replace.

Modernity inflicts a sucker narrative on activities; now we “walk for exercise,” not “walk” with no justification; for hidden reasons.

Social media are severely antisocial, health foods are empirically unhealthy, knowledge workers are very ignorant, and social sciences aren’t scientific at all.

For so many, instead of looking for “cause of death” when they expire, we should be looking for “cause of life” when they are still around.

It is those who use others who are the most upset when someone uses them.

If someone gives you more than one reason why he wants the job, don’t hire him.

Failure of second-order thinking: he tells you a secret and somehow expects you to keep it, when he just gave you evidence that he can’t keep it himself.

Social networks present information about what people like; more informative if, instead, they described what they don’t like.

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