Tag Archives: Aphorisms

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Taleb

Summary

  1. Every aphorism here is about a Procrustean bed of sorts – we humans, facing limited knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences. Further,w e seem unaware of this backward fitting, much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fitting suit – but do so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers. For instance, few realize that we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse. (My use of the metaphor of the Procrustes bed isn’t just about something in the wrong box; it’s mostly that inverse operation of changing the wrong variable, here the person rather than the bed. Note that every failure of what we call “wisdom” (couple with technical proficiency) can be reduced to Procrustean bed situation.)

Key Takeaways

  1. Bed of Procrustes – fit person/model to the situation rather than the other way around. 
  2. Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions
  3. Using, as an excuse, others’ failure of common sense is in itself a failure of common sense
  4. Life is about execution rather than purpose
  5. The ultimate freedom lies in not having to explain why you did something
  6. 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
  7. The source of the tragic in history is in mistaking someone else’s unconditional for conditional – and the reverse
  8. What fools call “wasting time is most often the best investment
  9. You want to avoid being disliked without being envied or admired
  10. The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor; the fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich
  11. 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
  12. There are 2 types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same
  13. Social networks present information about what people like; more informative if, instead, they described what they don’t like
  14. My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill
  15. Only in recent history has “working hard” signaled pride rather than shame for lack of talent, finesse, and, mostly, sprezzatura
  16. Life is about early detection of the reversal point beyond which your own belongings (say, a house, country house, car, or business) start owning you
  17. In any subject, if you don’t feel that you don’t know enough, you don’t know enough
  18. Regular minds find similarities in stories (and situations); finer minds detect differences
  19. The more complex the system, the weaker the notion of Universal
  20. Just as dyed hair makes older men less attractive, it is what you do to hide your weaknesses that makes them repugnant
  21. Robustness is progress without impatience
  22. Failure-resistant is achievable; failure-free is not
  23. For a free person, the optimal – most opportunistic – route between two points should never be the shortest one
  24. Knowledge is subtractive, not additive – what we subtract (reduction by what does not work, what not to do), not what we add (what to do). The best way to spot a charlatan: someone (like a consultant or stockbroker) who tells you what to do instead of what not to do)
  25. 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).
  26. They would take forecasting more seriously if it were pointed out to them that in Semitic languages the word for “forecast” and “prophecy” are the same
  27. Economics is about making simple things more complicated, mathematics about making complicated things simpler
  28. It is easier to macrobullshit than microbullshit
  29. It is a sign of weakness to avoid showing signs of weakness
  30. The only definition of an alpha male: if you try to be an alpha male, you will never be one
  31. The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments
  32. Contra the prevailing belief, “success” isn’t being on top of a hierarchy, it is standing outside all hierarchies
  33. It is very easy to be stoic, in failure
  34. A verbal threat is the most authentic certificate of impotence 
  35. Wisdom that is hard to execute isn’t really wisdom
  36. If something looks irrational – and has been so for a long time – odds are you have a wrong definition of rationality
  37. Knowing stuff others don’t know is most effective when others don’t know you know stuff they don’t know
  38. Humans need to complain just as they need to breathe. Never stop them; just manipulate them by controlling what they complain about and supply them with reasons to complain. They will complain but be thankful 
  39. Injuries done to us by others tend to be acute; the self-inflicted ones tend to be chronic
  40. We often benefit from harm done to us by others, almost never from self-inflicted injuries 
  41. By setting oneself totally free of constraints, free of thoughts, free of this debilitating activity called work, free of efforts, elements hidden in the texture of reality start staring at you; then mysteries that you never thought existed emerge in front of your eyes. 

What I got out of it

  1. A lot of wisdom to meditate on and absorb – best read a couple lines per day to let these ideas sink in.