Monday, October 11, 2010

Fake wisdom

"Half the time," writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The black swan*, " I am hyperconservative in the conduct of my own affairs; the other half I am hyperaggressive. This may not seem exceptional, except that my conservatism applies to what others call risk taking, and my aggressivenes to areas where others recommend caution."

For example, on the stock market, 'safe' blue chip stocks present invisible (and potentially terminal) risks, whereas speculative stocks "offer no surprises since you know how volatile they are and can limit your downside by investing smaller amounts."

There might be some wisdom in this - it is the theme of the book. But this, which follows on the next page, is, I think, more dubious.

"I once received [a] piece of life-changing advice, which ... I find applicable, wise, and empirically valid. My classmate in Paris, the novelist-to-be Jean-Olivier Tedesco, pronounced, as he prevented me from running to catch a subway, "I don't run for trains."

Taleb continues: "I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that's what you are seeking."

The last sentence is good. It makes sense. But my advice on the other matter (for what it's worth) is to run fast and catch the train. (And, more generally, to be wary of anyone who speaks in parables.)

*The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable. (Penguin 2008). Quotations from pages 295, 296 and 297.


  1. The solution is to run elegantly! Best of both worlds.

  2. I once read that Churchill was always missing trains, until the trains finally had to wait for him. But those of us who are not prime ministers had probably better leg it.

  3. Alan, the only elegant running I have seen is athletes on film - and in slow motion.

    CONSVLTVS, I suspected you might have come down on the side of Jean-Olivier Tedesco!

  4. Taleb's main idea, as quoted, seems to be that a thing is not a problem if you choose not to regard it as a problem for you. A missed train is not a misfortune but simply an opportunity to behave nobly ... or something like that. Is that correct?

    I don't subscribe to that school of thought myself. But it sure goes back a long way and it's had an honourable history and it keeps on returning.

  5. Yes, Alan, Taleb is steeped in classical thought. His point is as you describe it I think. As I suggested there is wisdom in not letting the values of other people dictate one's life and thinking, but Taleb is saying more than this and, like you, I don't subscribe to his line of thought.

  6. Running for a train is only painful if you miss it. I don't get the reverse idea. The world is out there, it runs on time, and if you think that's tyrrany of some resistable kind, maybe you're concentrating on the wrong stuff. It's narcissistic actually.

  7. Yes, GC, I was thinking of it in a similar way. I felt that not sufficient weight was being given to our mundane, objective reality (of schedules and so on). Jean-Olivier Tedesco would probably think that running for the train was painful for him even if he caught it (inelegant!). But he became a novelist and didn't have to worry about schedules.