Author : Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Genre : Philosophy

Who doesn’t know Nassim Taleb. Voted the “Hottest thinker in the world” (The Times), included in “Most Influential management gurus” (Forbes), he is one of the very few to have accurately predicted the 2008 financial crises. He is the famous author of the 5 book Incerto (Italian -> uncertain) series: Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan etc. some of which sold more than 3 million copies (for perspective, a typical bestseller sells 10,000 copies) and were included in “one of the smartest 75 books known” (Fortune). The Bed of Procrustes is part of the series.

Taleb is one of the few who has experience in writing but also in practise (ran a hedge fund). He is also controversial. He asked for cancellation of the nobel prize in economics saying that “the damage from economic theories can be devastating”; publicly lambasted the black-scholes-merton model (treated as bible for option pricing) and had an ugly spat with 75 year old nobel laurate scholes himself; repeatedly calls journalists and academicians as “naïve or foolish, mostly foolish”; and had very uncharitable words to say about his contemporary Steven Pinker (bull shit operator posing as a scientist).

This book is a collection of perhaps 500 aphorisms, or one line self evident truths. [e.g. “humans are imperfect”, is an aphorism]. While witty, hilarious, crisp, they also clearly articulate a deep thought. Kind of like dark comedy. Procrustes in Greek mythology had a bed in which, after impeccable hospitality, he would offer his guests to sleep. He wanted the guests to fit perfectly to the bed, and so would stretch the limbs of the shorter guests and chop off the legs of the taller ones! The macabre tale is used for the book title because it serves to highlight two serious errors we all habitually make in the world:

  • Putting everything “in a box” even when it does not fit. Taleb’s entire work is on how we try to squeeze real life scenarios into existing models, by simply ignoring the things we don’t know (“amputating the unknown”).
  • Changing the wrong variable. The bed should have fit the human, not the other way round (imagine we give medicines to kids to cope up with the pace and load of school education).

The aphorisms are vintage Taleb, irreverent but wise. Summing up the contradictions in our lives. Here are my favourite ones from the book (verbatim):

  • Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases
  • To bankrupt a fool, give him information.
  • Academia is to knowledge what prostitution is to love; close enough on the surface but, to the nonsucker, not exactly the same thing.
  • In science you need to understand the world; in business you need others to misunderstand it.
  • I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating, and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity.
  • Education makes the wise slightly wiser, but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous.
  • Modernity’s double punishment is to make us both age prematurely and live longer.
  • An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite.
  • If your anger decreases with time, you did injustice; if it increases, you suffered injustice.
  • I wonder if those who advocate generosity for its rewards notice the inconsistency, or they call generosity an attractive investment strategy.
  • Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working.
  • Using, as an excuse, others’ failure of common sense is in itself a failure of common sense.
  • Don’t talk about “progress” in terms of longevity, safety, or comfort before comparing zoo animals to those in the wilderness.
  • Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.
  • Nobody wants to be perfectly transparent; not to others, certainly not to himself.
  • When we want to do something while unconsciously certain to fail, we seek advice, so we blame someone else for the failure.
  • Your reputation is harmed the most by what you say to defend it.
  • The only objective definition of aging is when a person starts to talk about aging.
  • They will envy you for your success, for your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks, for your status- but rarely for your wisdom.
  • The characteristic feature of the loser is bemoan, in general terms, mankind’s flaws, biases, contradictions, and irrationally— without exploiting them for fun and profit.
  • The opposite of manliness isn’t cowardice; it’s technology.
  • 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”.
  • When she shouts that what you did was unforgivable, she has already started to forgive you.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • Asking science to explain life and vital matters is equivalent to asking a grammarian to explain poetry.
  • 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, journalist, and those in similarly depraved pursuits; I then feel and act purified from the profane until the next episode.
  • 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.
  • Many people said the unbribable are just too expensive.
  • Restaurants get you in the 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.
  • Quite revealing of human preferences that more suicides come from shame or loss of financial and social status than medical diagnoses.
  • “Wealth” is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use instead the subtractive measure “unwealth,” that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have.
  • I went to a happiness conference; researchers looked very unhappy.
  • Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.
  • The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor; the fastest way to become a poor is to socialize with the rich.
  • The difference between slaves in Roman and Ottoman days and today’s employees is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss.
  • For most, success is the harmful passage from the camp of the haters to the hated.
  • Charm is the ability to insult people without offending them; nerdiness the reverse.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Men destroy each other during war; themselves during peacetime.
  • 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 salves are fully aware that they are not free.
  • Decomposition, for most, starts when they leave the free, social uncorrupted college life for the solitary confinement of professions and nuclear families.
  • For pleasure, read one chapter by Nabokov. For punishment, two.
  • 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.
  • What we call “business books” is an eliminative category invented by bookstores for writing that have no depth, no style, no empirical rigor, and no linguistic sophistication.
  • Some books cannot be summarized (real literature, poetry); some can be compressed to about ten pages; the majority to zero pages.
  • 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 calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than is benefits.
  • Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way around.
  • Fine men tolerate others’ small inconsistences though not the large ones; the weak tolerate others’ large inconsistencies though not small ones.
  • 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.
  • Wit seduces by signaling intelligence without nerdiness
  • My biggest problem with modernity may lie in the growing separation of the ethical and the legal.
  • The worst pain inflicted on you will come from someone who at some point in your life cared about you.
  • 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.”
  • Trust people who make a living lying down or standing up more than those who do so sitting down.
  • If you lie to me, keep lying; don’t hurt me by suddenly telling the truth.
  •  Avoid calling heroes those who had no other choice.
  • 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.
  • 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 intellectual courage will reside in a single person, not necessarily the same one.
  • Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (say, as mathematics and philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful.
  • When you beat up someone physically, you get exercise and stress relief; when you assault him verbally on the internet, you just harm yourself.
  • 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.
  • They read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall on an eReader but refuse to drink Chateau Lynch-Bages in a Styrofoam cup.
  • 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).
  • To become a philosopher, start by walking very slowly.
  • The worst damage has been caused by competent people trying to do good. The best improvements have been brought by incompetent ones not trying to do good.
  • It is much easier to scam people for the billions than for just millions.
  • The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the practical, business; the leftover become an economist.
  • Mediocre men tend to be outraged by small insults but passive, subdued, and silent in front of very large ones.
  • The weak shows his strength and hides his weakness; the magnificent exhibits his weakness like ornament.
  • How superb to become wise without being boring; how sad to be boring without being wise.
  • A verbal threat is the most authentic certificate of impotence.
  • The classic man’s worst fear was inglorious death; the modern man’s worst fear is just death.
  • You know you have influence when people start noticing your absence more than the presence of others.
  • At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge, or love; sometimes for two, never for three.
  • Marriage is the institutional process of feminizing men and feminizing women.

Why should you read this book: To become wiser! “Taleb, like Twain and Oscar Widle, eats paradox for breakfast!” (review in Independent). On days when I am frustrated (with corporate life or more generally with some aspect of life), I take a wine and open a random page of The Bed of Procrustes. And very soon find myself smiling. In one simple sentence, each exposes a delusion and illusion we have all readily accepted in life. After reading a few masterpieces, you put the book down and keep thinking about it. Then start reading again for more. A great stress buster, you come out saying, “who cares!” (I remember the old song “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai!”.. how does it matter even if we are successful in this strange world). Well, what is witty is also cynical. Just so many complaints on how we live, all with an air of intellectual superiority. But very little solutioning (as former finance, I know black scholes is not perfect, but what should we use?). I was in Lebanon having dinner with my colleagues and the topic came to the two great Lebanese writer-philosophers (Khalil Gibran and Taleb), both mystical, poetic, flaneur (observer of human life) and rebel. But one so soft, generous and loved, and the other…


Goodreads Link: Procrustes by Larry Niven | Goodreads


6 replies
  1. Anukrati Sable
    Anukrati Sable says:

    The review itself is giving a new perspective on how to deal with issues that we all have and how to place problems in perspective.

  2. Shubhashish Saha
    Shubhashish Saha says:

    Definitely going to read this collection of thought provoking aphorisms by Mr. Taleb. Who does not want to become wiser. Hehe


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