Read The Bed of Procrustes Online

Authors: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Bed of Procrustes (3 page)

BOOK: The Bed of Procrustes

People are so prone to overcausation that you can make the reticent turn loquacious by dropping an occasional “why?” in the conversation.

I need to keep reminding myself that a truly independent thinker may look like an accountant.


The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill.

I wonder if a lion (or a cannibal) would pay a high premium for free-range humans.

If you need to listen to music while walking, don’t walk; and please don’t listen to music.

Men destroy each other during war; themselves during peacetime.

Sports feminize men and masculinize women.

Technology can degrade (and endanger) every aspect of a sucker’s life while convincing him that it is becoming more “efficient.”

The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.

You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits.

With terminal disease, nature lets you die with abbreviated suffering; medicine lets you suffer with prolonged dying.

We are satisfied with natural (or old) objects like vistas or classical paintings but insatiable with technologies, amplifying small improvements in versions, obsessed about 2.0, caught in a mental treadmill.

Only in recent history has “working hard” signaled pride rather than shame for lack of talent, finesse, and, mostly,

Their idea of the sabbatical is to work six days and rest for one; my idea of the sabbatical is to work for (part of) a day and rest for six.

What they call “play” (gym, travel, sports) looks like work; the harder they try, the more captive they are.

Most modern efficiencies are deferred punishment.

We are hunters; we are only truly alive in those moments when we improvise; no schedule, just small surprises and stimuli from the environment.

For everything, use boredom in place of a clock, as a biological wristwatch, though under constraints of politeness.

Decomposition, for most, starts when they leave the free, social, and uncorrupted college life for the solitary confinement of professions and nuclear families.

For a classicist, a competitive athlete is painful to look at; trying hard to become an animal rather than a man, he will never be as fast as a cheetah or as strong as an ox.

Skills that transfer: street fights, off-path hiking, seduction, broad erudition. Skills that don’t: school, games, sports, laboratory—what’s reduced and organized.

You exist in full if and only if your conversation (or writings) cannot be easily reconstructed with clips from other conversations.

The English have random Mediterranean weather; but they go to Spain because their free hours aren’t free.

For most, work and what comes with it have the eroding effect of chronic injury.

Technology is at its best when it is invisible.

The difference between true life and modern life equals the one between a conversation and bilateral recitations.

When I look at people on treadmills I wonder how alpha lions, the strongest, expend the least amount of energy, sleeping twenty hours a day; others hunt for them.
Caesar pontem fecit

Every social association that is not face-to-face is injurious to your health.

Literally, “Caesar built a bridge,” but the subtlety is that it can also suggest that “he had a bridge built for him.”


Writing is the art of repeating oneself without anyone noticing.

Most people write so they can remember things; I write to forget.

What they call philosophy I call literature; what they call literature I call journalism; what they call journalism I call gossip; and what they call gossip I call (generously) voyeurism.

Writers are remembered for their best work, politicians for their worst mistakes, and businessmen are almost never remembered.

Critics may appear to blame the author for not writing the book they wanted to read; but in truth they are blaming him for writing the book they wanted, but were unable, to write.

Literature is not about promoting qualities, rather, airbrushing (your) defects.

For pleasure, read one chapter by Nabokov. For punishment, two.

There is a distinction between expressive hypochondria and literature, just as there is one between self-help and philosophy.

You need to keep reminding yourself of the obvious: charm lies in the unsaid, the unwritten, and the undisplayed. It takes mastery to control silence.

No author should be considered as having failed until he starts teaching others about writing.

Hard science gives sensational results with a horribly boring process; philosophy gives boring results with a sensational process; literature gives sensational results with a sensational process; and economics gives boring results with a boring process.

A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting a conversation.

Just as there are authors who enjoy having written and others who enjoy writing, there are books you enjoy reading and others you enjoy having read.

A genius is someone with flaws harder to imitate than his qualities.

With regular books, read the text and skip the footnotes; with those written by academics, read the footnotes and skip the text; and with business books, skip both the text and the footnotes.

Double a man’s erudition; you will halve his citations.

Losers, when commenting on the works of someone patently more impressive, feel obligated to unnecessarily bring down their subject by expressing what he is not (“he is not a genius, but …”; “while he is no Leonardo …”) instead of expressing what he is.

You are alive in inverse proportion to the density of clichés in your writing.

What we call “business books” is an eliminative category invented by bookstores for writings that have no depth, no style, no empirical rigor, and no linguistic sophistication.

Just like poets and artists, bureaucrats are born, not made; it takes normal humans extraordinary effort to keep attention on such boring tasks.

The costs of specialization: architects build to impress other architects; models are thin to impress other models; academics write to impress other academics; filmmakers try to impress other filmmakers; painters impress art dealers; but authors who write to impress book editors tend to fail.

It is a waste of emotions to answer critics; better to stay in print long after they are dead.

I can predict when an author is about to plagiarize me, and poorly so when he writes that Taleb “popularized” the theory of Black Swan events.

Newspaper readers exposed to real prose are like deaf persons at a Puccini opera: they may like a thing or two while wondering, “what’s the point?”

Some books cannot be summarized (real literature, poetry); some can be compressed to about ten pages; the majority to zero pages.

The exponential information age is like a verbally incontinent person: he talks more and more as fewer and fewer people listen.

What we call fiction is, when you look deep, much less fictional than nonfiction; but it is usually less imaginative.

It’s much harder to write a book review for a book you’ve read than for a book you haven’t read.

Most so-called writers keep writing and writing with the hope to, some day, find something to say.

Today, we mostly face the choice between those who write clearly about a subject they don’t understand and those who write poorly about a subject they don’t understand.

The information-rich Dark Ages: in 2010, 600,000 books were published, just in English, with few memorable quotes. Circa
zero, a handful of books were written. In spite of the few that survived, there are loads of quotes.

In the past, most were ignorant, one in a thousand were refined enough to talk to. Today, literacy is higher, but thanks to progress, the media, and finance, only one in ten thousand.

We are better at (involuntarily) doing out of the box than (voluntarily) thinking out of the box.

Half of suckerhood is not realizing that what you don’t like might be loved by someone else (hence by you, later), and the reverse.

It is much less dangerous to think like a man of action than to act like a man of thought.

Literature comes alive when covering up vices, defects, weaknesses, and confusions; it dies with every trace of preaching.

It is also an indicator that he will imitate, “me, too” style, my business.


What I learned on my own I still remember.

Regular minds find similarities in stories (and situations); finer minds detect differences.

To grasp the difference between Universal and Particular, consider that some dress better to impress a single, specific person than an entire crowd.

We unwittingly amplify commonalities with friends, dissimilarities with strangers, and contrasts with enemies.

Many are so unoriginal they study history to find mistakes to repeat.

There is nothing deemed harmful (in general) that cannot be beneficial in some particular instances, and nothing deemed beneficial that cannot harm you in some circumstances. The more complex the system, the weaker the notion of Universal.

The fool generalizes the particular; the nerd particularizes the general; some do both; and the wise does neither.

You want to be yourself, idiosyncratic; the collective (school, rules, jobs, technology) wants you generic to the point of castration.

True love is the complete victory of the particular over the general, and the unconditional over the conditional.


Unless we manipulate our surroundings, we have as little control over what and whom we think about as we do over the muscles of our hearts.

Corollary to Moore’s Law: every ten years, collective wisdom degrades by half.

Never rid anyone of an illusion unless you can replace it in his mind with another illusion. (But don’t work too hard on it; the replacement illusion does not even have to be more convincing than the initial one.)

The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and, what’s worse, the opposite.

The fool views himself as more unique and others more generic; the wise views himself as more generic and others more unique.

What made medicine fool people for so long was that its successes were prominently displayed and its mistakes (literally) buried.

The sucker’s trap is when you focus on what you know and what others don’t know, rather than the reverse.

Medieval man was a cog in a wheel he did not understand; modern man is a cog in a complicated system he thinks he understands.

The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.

The role of the media is best seen in the journey from Cato the Elder to a modern politician.
Do some extrapolation if you want to be scared.

Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way around.

Most info-Web-media-newspaper types have a hard time swallowing the idea that knowledge is reached (mostly) by removing junk from people’s heads.

Finer men tolerate others’ small inconsistencies though not the large ones; the weak tolerate others’ large inconsistencies though not small ones.

Randomness is indistinguishable from complicated, undetected, and undetectable order; but order itself is indistinguishable from artful randomness.

Moore’s Law stipulates that computational power doubles every eighteen months.

Say, Sarah Palin.

The biggest error since Socrates has been to believe that lack of clarity is the source of all our ills, not the result of them.


Art is a one-sided conversation with the unobserved.

The genius of Benoît Mandelbrot is in achieving aesthetic simplicity without having recourse to smoothness.

Beauty is enhanced by unashamed irregularities; magnificence by a façade of blunder.

To understand “progress”: all places we call ugly are both man-made and modern (Newark), never natural or historical (Rome).

We love imperfection, the right kind of imperfection; we pay up for original art and typo-laden first editions.

Most people need to wait for another person to say “this is beautiful art” to say “this is beautiful art”; some need to wait for two or more.

Almutanabbi boasted that he was the greatest of all Arab poets, but he said so in the greatest of all Arab poems.

Wit seduces by signaling intelligence without nerdiness.

In classical renderings of prominent figures, males are lean and females are plump; in modern photographs, the opposite.

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