The Bed of Procrustes – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms – by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Date read: 8/18/17. Recommendation: 9/10.

Great introduction to Taleb's take on uncertainty, which he discusses in detail in his other books that make up the Incerto series: Antifragile, Fooled by Randomness, and The Black Swan. This book offers a succinct look into how we deal with what we don't know. Taleb examines our tendency to package and reduce ideas into neat narratives that fit within the constraints of our limited knowledge.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.


My Notes:

Every aphorism here is a about a Procrustean bed of sorts–we humans, facing limits of 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.

These aphorisms are standalone compressed thoughts revolving around my main idea of how we deal, and should deal, with what we don't know.

The person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself.

An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion.

To bankrupt a fool, give him information.

An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite.

Your brain is most intelligent when you don't instruct it on what to do–something people who take showers discover on occasion.

In nature we never repeat the same motion; in captivity (office, gym, commute, sports), life is just repetitive-stress injury. No randomness.

If you know, in the morning, what your day looks like with any precision, you are a little bit dead–the more precision, the more dead you are.

When we want to do something while unconsciously certain to fail, we seek advice so we can blame someone else for the failure.

The most painful moments are not those we spend with uninteresting people; rather, they are those spent with uninteresting people trying hard to be interesting.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

People usually apologize so they can do it again.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 a stock broker) who tells you what to do instead of what not 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).

The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the practical, business; the leftover becomes an economist.

The only definition of an alpha male: if you try to be an alpha male, you will never be one.

At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge, or love; sometimes for two, never for three.

Love without sacrifice is like theft.

Our overreactive brains are more likely to impose the wrong, simplistic narrative than no narrative at all.

The mind can be a wonderful tool for self-delusion–it was not designed to deal with complexity and nonlinear uncertainties.

Counter to common discourse, more information means more delusions: our detection of false patterns is growing faster and faster as a side effect of modernity and the information age.

Thus my classical values make me advocate the triplet of erudition, elegance, and courage; against modernity's phoniness, nerdiness, and philistinism.