Author Nassim Taleb

Former derivatives trader explains why he wanted his latest text to serve as a diatribe against modernity.

A former derivatives trader and researcher, Nassim Taleb specializes in the risks of unpredicted rare events. His book Fooled by Randomness became a cult "must read" on Wall Street and has been published in 19 languages. The Black Swan spent more than a year on The New York Times best-seller list and has been described as one of the 12 most influential books since World War II. Taleb is founder of Empirica LLC, a trading firm and risk research lab. Currently a professor of risk engineering at NYU, his latest book is The Bed of Procrustes.


Tavis: Nassim Taleb is a professor of risk engineering at NYU and author of the seminal text “The Black Swan.” That text was an international best seller, translated into over 30 languages around the globe.
His latest is called “The Bed of Procrustes.” He joins us tonight from New York. Professor Taleb, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Nassim Taleb: Thank you for inviting me.
Tavis: Let me start with what might seem a strange and odd place; for me, though, rather fascinating. So in this book, and indeed on your website that so many of us follow, you talk about this hiatus, this diet that you took from the media. So one, I’m honored to have you on a media program, but tell me about your diet from the media and why you went on that diet.
Taleb: Well, about 20 years ago I stopped reading the papers and watching TV, and of course my life improved a lot. My understanding of the world increased, as I wrote in “The Black Swan.” But then I became an author and people invited me to go on television, and I realized that it was not just distracting but it started influencing the way I behaved. I was afraid of not being invited back and things like that.
So I decided okay, you know what? I’m going to produce my work independently from the media, and only show up on TV when the publisher forces me to or when I’m invited back, as in your show, and I enjoy my – book shows are a little different.
It worked very well. The last time I was on TV it was the previous edition of my book, and now I’m back and there’s a serenity.
Tavis: Speaking of serenity, unpack that for me. What does one gain from avoiding the media?
Taleb: Well, avoiding watching the media, I’ve discussed. Avoiding being on the media, just going on the media forces certain behavior on your part. Your fitting your message. When I write, and as I wrote my book, I’m totally – I have no gloves, nothing. I just say things the way I see them, the way they are.
When I go on media, it’s different. I have to accommodate a lot of constraints. Also, I’m afraid of promoting my book too much because I feel guilty not working on my next work. (Laughter) You see, I’m an author, not an actor, and being on media, I feel like I’m acting like an actor.
Tavis: Before I get to the book, I wonder, and I’m asking this because I’m really fascinated by it as one who’s in the media, I wonder whether or not you think there are things to be gained, whether the average American would experience a sense of serenity if they were to back away from media just a bit since we live in a 24/7 media culture.
Taleb: Yeah, a lot of my book here is about non-natural systems, of course it’s a not-natural system. I personally have not watched TV, as I told you, in more than 20 years, and I feel I connect with the world because I use a social filter. It makes me a lot more social.
Of course, I spend time alone, but a lot more social. I try to eat my meals with people, and if people don’t discuss the topic during the meal, it means it’s not worth knowing, you see? So it works as a beautiful filter.
Here I have one of my aphorisms, because it’s a book of aphorisms, about if you want to be cured of reading the newspaper, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspaper and you’ll be completely cured. (Laughter)
Tavis: So you never feel out of sorts, you never feel out of touch, you never feel ignorant of what’s going on in the world?
Taleb: No. No, actually, I feel I understand it a little better. I don’t know why. It happened with a crisis. Visibly, the crisis of 2008. I had enough information and I couldn’t understand why people weren’t seeing the same thing. Here, I talk a lot about subtraction – knowledge works by subtraction. How? By removing, exactly like when you sculpt, you remove the elements from the sculpture that are not part of the sculpture.
Likewise, you remove information from your life to understand what’s going on. You don’t add information, because (unintelligible) information is very dangerous.
Tavis: Fascinating take on that. This new book, as I mentioned, is called “The Bed of Procrustes.” You might want to unpack that title for those who aren’t familiar.
Taleb: Yeah, Procrustes had an inn not far from Athens and he would abduct travelers or invite travelers, depending on – there are a lot of legends in Greek mythology about who Procrustes was.
Anyway, so he would feed people an excellent meal and then he would try to fit them in a bed. Those who were too short, he would stretch them, and those who were too tall, he would cut their legs. So by amputating their legs, he would make them fit the bed 100 percent. So he had a 100 percent fitting bed.
The idea came to me as I was in Italy getting measurements. I was at a tailor trying to get a tailor-made suit and immediately realized that if the tailor was an economist or a social scientist he’d be doing surgery on me to fit the suit, and then he’d have a perfectly fitting suit. (Laughter) So that’s the idea – it’s changing the wrong variable.
Tavis: You mentioned that the book is – it’s a wonderful collection of aphorisms. These aphorisms come from where?
Taleb: From me.
Tavis: Yeah.
Taleb: I wrote them all. (Laughter) I wrote them during a certain period of time, and they’re mostly about sort of like fitting or changing (unintelligible) variables. Changing the customer, making the customer fit the bed. We live in a world of Procrustes where we try to change the brains of children chemically to make them fit the curriculum instead of adapting the curriculum to children and things like that, or trying to change humans so they can fit economic models rather than changing economic models or do away with them.
You see, it’s one-size-fits-all applied to everything in modern life – that’s modernism. So I’m trying – it’s a diatribe against modernism in favor of old, classical, ancient Mediterranean values of courage, erudition and of course elegance as compared to modern values of nerdiness, Philistinism and phoniness.
Tavis: I love aphorisms. I’m curious as to why you thought that the message you wanted to deliver in this book that you just explained now would be best delivered via aphorisms.
Taleb: They just came to me spontaneously. I couldn’t stop them. That was my mode of expression, and an aphorism is exactly the opposite of a sound bite. It says a lot more than it means, whereas the sound bite usually says a lot less. You’re compressing information and losing a lot of it, so reverse Procrustean bed.
Tavis: I’m going to get some examples of these in just a second, because I know the viewer might want to have a sense of what we’re talking about here in terms of the wit and the genius of Professor Taleb. But when you say these aphorisms started coming at you and they just wouldn’t stop, that’s not how you’ve written your other text.
I’m wondering whether or not do you think this way typically, or was this just a period in your life where these aphorisms just started coming for some reason?
Taleb: Well, I think this way – because I discovered that people who take showers discover that there’s an element in them that reveals itself when you just try to let your brain free to wander and do whatever it wants, you see? So because you’re not constraining yourself to try, you don’t have the grind, so in the shower, your brain is free and then it decides what it wants and decides where it wants to go.
So I decided to adapt my life to that mode – just try to do nothing, not force anything on my brain, and whatever comes naturally and spontaneously, go with it.
Tavis: I like that.
Taleb: And they came, and in four or five months I had 500 aphorisms, 400 of which are in the book and 100 I sort of got rid of, but I may probably recycle them back.
Tavis: Well, I want to read some of these. I know well enough to know talking to geniuses like you the last thing you want to do is to ask a genius to explain his aphorisms, much like annoying a poet by asking a poet to explain his poetry.
So I won’t ask him to explain these, but I will put some on the screen that I found of interest just reading the text. In no particular order, these are aphorisms from “The Bed of Procrustes,” written by Professor Taleb.
“An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion.” “Modernity: We created youth without heroism, age without wisdom and life without grandeur.” “What I learned on my own, I still remember.” “My biggest problem with modernity may lie in the growing separation of the ethical and the legal.” “You may outlive your strength, never your wisdom.”
“When conflicted between two choices, take neither.” “It takes a lot of intellect and confidence to accept that what makes sense doesn’t really make sense.” “Love without sacrifice is like theft.” “If my detractors knew me better, they would hate me even more.”
I won’t ask you to explain the last one, but I love the last one.
Taleb: Thanks.
Tavis: (Laughs) The new book from Professor Nassim Taleb is called “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms.” He is, of course, the author of the international best seller “The Black Swan.” Professor Taleb, thanks for coming on. You can now return to your diet from the media. Thank you, sir.
Taleb: Oh, thank you very much. Thanks for inviting me.

[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm