Read The Bed of Procrustes Online

Authors: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Bed of Procrustes (4 page)

BOOK: The Bed of Procrustes

Just as no monkey is as good-looking as the ugliest of humans, no academic is worthier than the worst of the creators.

If you want to annoy a poet, explain his poetry.


If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends.

My biggest problem with modernity may lie in the growing separation of the ethical and the legal.

Life’s beauty: the kindest act toward you in your life may come from an outsider not interested in reciprocation.

We are most motivated to help those who need us the least.

To value a person, consider the difference between how impressive he or she was at the first encounter and the most recent one.

Meditation is a way to be narcissistic without hurting anyone.

True humility is when you can surprise yourself more than others; the rest is either shyness or good marketing.

We find it to be in extremely bad taste for individuals to boast of their accomplishments; but when countries do so we call it “national pride.”

You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.

Greatness starts with the replacement of hatred with polite disdain.

Trust people who make a living lying down or standing up more than those who do so sitting down.
The tragedy of virtue is that the more obvious, boring, unoriginal, and sermonizing the proverb, the harder it is to implement.

Even the cheapest misers can be generous with advice.

If you lie to me, keep lying; don’t hurt me by suddenly telling the truth.

Don’t trust a man who needs an income—except if it is minimum wage.

You may outlive your strength, never your wisdom.

Weak men act to satisfy their needs, stronger men their duties.

Religions and ethics have evolved from promising heaven if you do good, to promising heaven while you do good, to making you promise to do good.

Avoid calling heroes those who had no other choice.

There are those who will thank you for what you gave them and others who will blame you for what you did not give them.

Ethical man accords his profession to his beliefs, instead of according his beliefs to his profession. This has been rarer and rarer since the Middle Ages.

I trust everyone except those who tell me they are trustworthy.

People often need to suspend their self-promotion, and have someone in their lives they do not need to impress. This explains dog ownership.

Pure generosity is when you help the ingrate. Every other form is self-serving.

I wonder if crooks can conceive that honest people can be shrewder than they.

In Proust there is a character, Morel, who demonizes Nissim Bernard, a Jew who lent him money, and becomes anti-Semitic just so he can escape the feeling of gratitude.

Promising someone good luck as a reward for good deeds sounds like a bribe—perhaps the remnant of an archaic, pre-deontic pre-classical morality.

The difference between magnificence and arrogance is in what one does when nobody is looking.

The nation-state: apartheid without political incorrectness.

In a crowd of a hundred, 50 percent of the wealth, 90 percent of the imagination, and 100 percent of the intellectual courage will reside in a single person—not necessarily the same one.

Just as dyed hair makes older men less attractive, it is what you do to hide your weaknesses that makes them repugnant.

For soldiers, we use the term “mercenary,” but we absolve employees of responsibility with “everybody needs to make a living.”

English does not distinguish between arrogant-up (irreverence toward the temporarily powerful) and arrogant-down (directed at the small guy).

Someone from your social class who becomes poor affects you more than thousands of starving ones outside of it.

Former U.S. Treasury secretary “bankster” Robert Rubin, perhaps the biggest thief in history, broke no law. The difference between legal and ethical increases in a complex system … then blows it up.

The flip side: the worst pain inflicted on you will come from someone who at some point in your life cared about you.

Those in corporate captivity would do anything to “feed a family.”

Kantian ethics.


You are only secure if you can lose your fortune without the additional worse insult of having to become humble.

To test someone’s robustness to reputational errors, ask a man in front of an audience if he is “still doing poorly” or if he is “still losing money” and watch his reaction.

Robustness is progress without impatience.

When conflicted between two choices, take neither.

Nation-states like war; city-states like commerce; families like stability; and individuals like entertainment.

Robust is when you care more about the few who like your work than the multitude who dislike it (artists); fragile when you care more about the few who dislike your work than the multitude who like it (politicians).

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one.

Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (say, as in mathematics and philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful.

For the robust, an error is information; for the fragile, an error is an error.

The best test of robustness to reputational damage is your emotional state (fear, joy, boredom) when you get an email from a journalist.

The main disadvantage of being a writer, particularly in Britain, is that there is nothing you can do in public or private that would damage your reputation.

Passionate hate (by nations and individuals) ends by rotation to another subject of hate; mediocrity cannot handle more than one enemy. This makes warring statelings with shifting alliances and enmities a robust system.

I find it inconsistent (and corrupt) to dislike big government while favoring big business—but (alas) not the reverse.

How often have you arrived one, three, or six hours late on a transatlantic flight as opposed to one, three, or six hours early? This explains why deficits tend to be larger, rarely smaller, than planned.

My great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s rule.


Sports are commoditized and, alas, prostituted randomness.

When you beat up someone physically, you get exercise and stress relief; when you assault him verbally on the Internet, you just harm yourself.
Just as smooth surfaces, competitive sports, and specialized work fossilize mind and body, competitive academia fossilizes the soul.

They agree that chess training only improves chess skills but disagree that classroom training (almost) only improves classroom skills.

Upon arriving at the hotel in Dubai, the businessman had a porter carry his luggage; I later saw him lifting free weights in the gym.

Games were created to give nonheroes the illusion of winning. In real life, you don’t know who really won or lost (except too late), but you can tell who is heroic and who is not.

I suspect that IQ, SAT, and school grades are tests designed by nerds so they can get high scores in order to call each other intelligent.

They read Gibbon’s
Decline and Fall
on an eReader but refuse to drink Château Lynch-Bages in a Styrofoam cup.

My best example of the domain dependence of our minds, from my recent visit to Paris: at lunch in a French restaurant, my friends ate the salmon and threw away the skin; at dinner, at a sushi bar, the very same friends ate the skin and threw away the salmon.

Fragility: we have been progressively separating human courage from warfare, allowing wimps with computer skills to kill people without the slightest risk to their lives.

is Latin for “related to games”; the fallacy prevalent in
The Black Swan
about making life resemble games (or formal setups) with crisp rules rather than the reverse. Domain dependence is when one acts in a certain way in an environment (say, the gym) and a different way in another.

Smart and wise people who score low on IQ tests, or patently intellectually defective ones, like former U.S. president George W. Bush, who score high on them (130), are testing the test and not the reverse.


Since Plato, Western thought and the theory of knowledge have focused on the notions of True-False; as commendable as it was, it is high time to shift the concern to Robust-Fragile, and social epistemology to the more serious problem of Sucker-Nonsucker.

The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.

The perfect sucker understands that pigs can stare at pearls but doesn’t realize he can be in an analog situation.

It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own.

Knowledge is subtractive, not additive—what we subtract (reduction by what does not work, what
to do), not what we add (what to do).

They think that intelligence is about noticing things that are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns).

Happiness; we don’t know what it means, how to measure it, or how to reach it, but we know extremely well how to avoid unhappiness.

The imagination of the genius vastly surpasses his intellect; the intellect of the academic vastly surpasses his imagination.

The ideal
education, and the least harmful one to society and pupils, would be mathematics, logic, and Latin; a double dose of Latin authors to compensate for the severe loss of wisdom that comes from mathematics; just enough mathematics and logic to control verbiage and rhetoric.

The four most influential moderns: Darwin, Marx, Freud, and (the productive) Einstein were scholars but not academics. It has always been hard to do genuine—and nonperishable—work within institutions.

The best way to spot a charlatan: someone (like a consultant or a stockbroker) who tells you what to do instead of what
to do.


A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.

For the ancients, forecasting historical events was an insult to the God(s); for me, it is an insult to man—that is, for some, to science.

The ancients knew very well that the only way to understand events was to cause them.

Anyone voicing a forecast or expressing an opinion without something at risk has some element of phoniness. Unless he risks going down with the ship this would be like watching an adventure movie.

They would take forecasting more seriously if it were pointed out to them that in Semitic languages the words for forecast and “prophecy” are the same.

For Seneca, the Stoic sage should withdraw from public efforts when unheeded and the state is corrupt beyond repair. It is wiser to wait for self-destruction.


To become a philosopher, start by walking very slowly.

Real mathematicians understand completeness, real philosophers understand incompleteness, the rest don’t formally understand anything.

In twenty-five centuries, no human came along with the brilliance, depth, elegance, wit, and imagination to match Plato—to protect us from his legacy.

Why do I have an obsessive Plato problem? Most people need to surpass their predecessors; Plato managed to surpass all his successors.

To be a philosopher is to know through long walks, by reasoning, and reasoning only,
a priori
, what others can only potentially learn from their mistakes, crises, accidents, and bankruptcies—that is,
a posteriori

Engineers can compute but not define, mathematicians can define but not compute, economists can neither define nor compute.

Something finite but with unknown upper bounds is epistemically equivalent to something infinite. This is epistemic infinity.

Conscious ignorance, if you can practice it, expands your world; it can make things infinite.

For the classics, philosophical insight was the product of a life of leisure; for me, a life of leisure is the product of philosophical insight.

It takes a lot of intellect and confidence to accept that what makes sense doesn’t really make sense.

A theological Procrustean bed: for the Orthodox since Gregory Palamas and for the Arabs since Algazel, attempts to define God using the language of philosophical universals were a rationalistic mistake. I am still waiting for a modern to take notice.

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Victoria & Abdul by Shrabani Basu
Gold Mountain by Karen J. Hasley
Below Unforgiven by Stedronsky, Kimberly
Frontier Wife by Margaret Tanner
Snow Jam by Rachel Hanna
The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño
The Haunted by Bentley Little