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.