Alex Preston / bookshelf

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


  • Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases.
  • To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.
  • Academia is to knowledge what prostitution is to love; close enough on the surface but, to the nonsucker, not exactly the same thing.*
  • Your brain is most intelligent when you don’t instruct it on what to do—something people who take showers discover on occasion.
  • 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.
  • There is no intermediate state between ice and water but there is one between life and death: employment.

Counter Narratives

  • The best revenge on a liar is to convince him that you believe what he said.
  • 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.
  • Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with skillfully polished indifference.
  • It is the appearance of inconsistency, and not its absence, that makes people attractive.
  • It is as difficult to avoid bugging others with advice on how to exercise and other health matters as it is to stick to an exercise schedule.
  • When she shouts that what you did was unforgivable, she has already started to forgive you.
  • Friendship that ends was never one; there was at least one sucker in it.
  • Wisdom in the young is as unattractive as frivolity in the elderly.
  • 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.

Matters Ontological

  • It is a very recent disease to mistake the unobserved for the nonexistent; but some are plagued with the worse disease of mistaking the unobserved for the unobservable.
  • 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.

The Sacred and the Profane

  • If you can’t spontaneously detect (without analyzing) the difference between sacred and profane, you’ll never know what religion means.
  • The book is the only medium left that hasn’t been corrupted by the profane: everything else on your eyelids manipulates you with an ad.*
  • The source of the tragic in history is in mistaking someone else’s unconditional for conditional—and the reverse.
  • One categorical: it is easier to fast than diet. You cannot be “slightly” kosher or halal by only eating a small portion of ham.
  • To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.

Chance, Success, Happiness, and Stoicism

  • Success is becoming in middle adulthood what you dreamed to be in late childhood. The rest comes from loss of control. Modernity needs to understand that being rich and becoming rich are not mathematically, personally, socially, and ethically the same thing.
  • “Wealthy” is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use intead the subtractive measure “unwealth,” that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have.
  • What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.
  • You want to avoid being disliked without being envied or admired.
  • Read nothing from the past one hundred years; eat no fruits from the past one thousand years; drink nothing from the past four thousand years (just wine and water); but talk to no ordinary man over forty.
  • A man without a heroic bent starts dying at the age of thirty.
  • 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.
  • People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.
  • It is as difficult to change someone’s opinions as it is to change his tastes.
  • Charm is the ability to insult people without offending them; nerdiness the reverse.
  • Those who do not think that employment is systemic slavery are either blind or employed.

Charming and Less Charming Sucker Problems

  • It seems that it is the most unsuccessful people who give the most advice, particularly for writing and financial matters.
  • There are two types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same.
  • Modernity inflicts a sucker narrative on activities; now we “walk for exercise,” not “walk” with no justification; for hidden reasons.
  • Social media are severely antisocial, health foods are empirically unhealthy, knowledge workers are very ignorant, and social sciences aren’t scientific at all.
  • If someone gives you more than one reason why he wants the job, don’t hire him.
  • Social networks present information about what people like; more informative if, instead, they described what they don’t like.

Theseus, or Living the Paleo Life

  • The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.
  • I wonder if a lion (or a cannibal) would pay a high premium for free-range humans.
  • 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 slaves are fully aware that they are not free.
  • You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits.
  • Only in recent history has “working hard” signaled pride rather than shame for lack of talent, finesse, and, mostly, sprezzatura.
  • Their idea of the sabbatical is to work six days and rest for one; my idea of the sabbatical is to work for (part of) a day and rest for six.
  • For everything, use boredom in place of a clock, as a biological wristwatch, though under constraints of politeness.
  • Decomposition, for most, starts when they leave the free, social, and uncorrupted college life for the solitary confinement of professions and nuclear families.
  • Skills that transfer: street fights, off-path hiking, seduction, broad erudition. Skills that don’t: school, games, sports, laboratory—what’s reduced and organized.
  • You exist in full if and only if your conversation (or writings) cannot be easily reconstructed with clips from other conversations.

The Republic of Letters

  • For pleasure, read one chapter by Nabokov. For punishment, two.
  • There is a distinction between expressive hypochondria and literature, just as there is one between self-help and philosophy.
  • You need to keep reminding yourself of the obvious: charm lies in the unsaid, the unwritten, and the undisplayed.
  • It takes mastery to control silence.
  • Just as there are authors who enjoy having written and others who enjoy writing, there are books you enjoy reading and others you enjoy having read.
  • A genius is someone with flaws harder to imitate than his qualities.
  • With regular books, read the text and skip the footnotes; with those written by academics, read the footnotes and skip the text; and with business books, skip both the text and the footnotes.
  • Losers, when commenting on the works of someone patently more impressive, feel obligated to unnecessarily bring down their subject by expressing what he is not (“he is not a genius, but …”; “while he is no Leonardo …”) instead of expressing what he is.
  • It is a waste of emotions to answer critics; better to stay in print long after they are dead.
  • Some books cannot be summarized (real literature, poetry); some can be compressed to about ten pages; the majority to zero pages.
  • Today, we mostly face the choice between those who write clearly about a subject they don’t understand and those who write poorly about a subject they don’t understand.

The Universal and the Particular

  • The fool generalizes the particular; the nerd particularizes the general; some do both; and the wise does neither.
  • You want to be yourself, idiosyncratic; the collective (school, rules, jobs, technology) wants you generic to the point of castration.

Fooled by Randomness

  • Corollary to Moore’s Law: every ten years, collective wisdom degrades by half.*
  • The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and, what’s worse, the opposite.
  • What made medicine fool people for so long was that its successes were prominently displayed and its mistakes (literally) buried.
  • The sucker’s trap is when you focus on what you know and what others don’t know, rather than the reverse.
  • The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.
  • Finer men tolerate others’ small inconsistencies though not the large ones; the weak tolerate others’ large inconsistencies though not small ones.


  • We love imperfection, the right kind of imperfection; we pay up for original art and typo-laden first editions.
  • Wit seduces by signaling intelligence without nerdiness.
  • Just as no monkey is as good-looking as the ugliest of humans, no academic is worthier than the worst of the creators.


  • We are most motivated to help those who need us the least.
  • To value a person, consider the difference between how impressive he or she was at the first encounter and the most recent one.
  • There are those who will thank you for what you gave them and others who will blame you for what you did not give them.
  • Pure generosity is when you help the ingrate. Every other form is self-serving.*
  • Just as dyed hair makes older men less attractive, it is what you do to hide your weaknesses that makes them repugnant.

Robustness and Fragility

  • You are only secure if you can lose your fortune without the additional worse insult of having to become humble.*
  • Robustness is progress without impatience.
  • Robust is when you care more about the few who like your work than the multitude who dislike it (artists); fragile when you care more about the few who dislike your work than the multitude who like it (politicians).
  • How often have you arrived one, three, or six hours late on a transatlantic flight as opposed to one, three, or six hours early? This explains why deficits tend to be larger, rarely smaller, than planned.

The Ludic Fallacy and Domain Dependence

  • Sports are commoditized and, alas, prostituted randomness.
  • They agree that chess training only improves chess skills but disagree that classroom training (almost) only improves classroom skills.
  • 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.
  • I suspect that IQ, SAT, and school grades are tests designed by nerds so they can get high scores in order to call each other intelligent.*

Epistemology and Subtractive Knowledge

  • It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own.
  • 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).*
  • Happiness; we don’t know what it means, how to measure it, or how to reach it, but we know extremely well how to avoid unhappiness.
  • The imagination of the genius vastly surpasses his intellect; the intellect of the academic vastly surpasses his imagination.
  • The four most influential moderns: Darwin, Marx, Freud, and (the productive) Einstein were scholars but not academics.
  • It has always been hard to do genuine—and nonperishable—work within institutions.

Being A Philosopher and Managing to Remain One

  • In twenty-five centuries, no human came along with the brilliance, depth, elegance, wit, and imagination to match Plato—to protect us from his legacy.
  • Conscious ignorance, if you can practice it, expands your world; it can make things infinite.

Economic Life and Other Very Vulgar Subjects

  • What they call “risk” I call opportunity; but what they call “low risk” opportunity I call sucker problem.
  • The best test of whether someone is extremely stupid (or extremely wise) is whether financial and political news makes sense to him.
  • The main difference between government bailouts and smoking is that in some rare cases the statement “this is my last cigarette” holds true.
  • One of the failures of “scientific approximation” in the nonlinear domain comes from the inconvenient fact that the average of expectations is different from the expectation of averages.*
  • Journalists as reverse aphorists: my statement “you need skills to get a BMW, skills plus luck to become a Warren Buffett” was summarized as “Taleb says Buffett has no skills.”
  • The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the practical, business; the leftover becomes an economist.
  • Don’t cross a river, because it is on average four feet deep. This is also known as Jensen’s inequality.
  • The Sage, the Weak, and the Magnificent Mediocre men tend to be outraged by small insults but passive, subdued, and silent in front of very large ones.†
  • Those who have nothing to prove never say that they have nothing to prove.
  • The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.
  • The traits I respect are erudition and the courage to stand up when half-men are afraid for their reputation.
  • Any idiot can be intelligent. The mediocre regret their words more than their silence; finer men regret their silence more than their words; the magnificent has nothing to regret.
  • When expressing “good luck” to a peer, the weak wishes the opposite; the strong is mildly indifferent; but only the magnificent means it.
  • The magnificent believes half of what he hears and twice what he says.
  • The classical man’s worst fear was inglorious death; the modern man’s worst fear is just death.

The Implicit and the Explicit

  • You know you have influence when people start noticing your absence more than the presence of others.
  • Bad-mouthing is the only genuine, never faked expression of admiration.
  • What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don’t say about themselves.

On the Varieties of Love and Nonlove

  • At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge, or love; sometimes for two, never for three.
  • You will get the most attention from those who hate you. No friend, no admirer, and no partner will flatter you with as much curiosity.


  • The general theme of my work is the limitations of human knowledge, and the charming and less charming errors and biases when working with matters that lie outside our field of observation, the unobserved and the unobservables—the unknown; what lies on the other side of the veil of opacity.
  • Aphorisms require us to change our reading habits and approach them in small doses; each one of them is a complete unit, a complete narrative dissociated from others. My best definition of a nerd: someone who asks you to explain an aphorism.