Book Notes #91: The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb - William Meller
Taleb's "The Bed of Procrustes" urges us to embrace uncertainty, beware of overconfidence, and thrive in a chaotic world.

Title: The Bed of Procrustes - Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms
Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Year: 2010
Pages: 176

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a compelling exploration of the myriad ways in which we force ourselves and our world into rigid molds, often with detrimental consequences. By the author of the modern classic The Black Swan, this collection of aphorisms and meditations expresses his major ideas in ways you least expect.

The Bed of Procrustes takes its title from Greek mythology: the story of a man who made his visitors fit his bed to perfection by either stretching them or cutting their limbs.

Playful and irreverent, these aphorisms will surprise you by exposing self-delusions you have been living with but never recognized.

With a rare combination of pointed wit and potent wisdom, Taleb plows through human illusions, contrasting the classical values of courage, elegance, and erudition against the modern diseases of nerdiness, philistinism, and phoniness.

It represents Taleb’s view of modern civilization’s hubristic side effects—modifying humans to satisfy technology, blaming reality for not fitting economic models, inventing diseases to sell drugs, defining intelligence as what can be tested in a classroom, and convincing people that employment is not slavery.

There are three reasons why I think this book is worth reading:

1. Embracing Uncertainty: Taleb's book encourages readers to embrace the uncertainty that pervades our lives. It teaches us to accept that the world is not a neatly fitting bed but rather a complex, ever-changing landscape where adaptability is key.

2. Black Swan Events: Taleb popularized the concept of "Black Swan events" – rare, unpredictable, and high-impact occurrences. Understanding these events and their implications is crucial for making informed decisions in a volatile world.

3. Anti-Fragility: The book introduces the idea of anti-fragility – the concept that some systems and individuals thrive and improve in the face of shocks and chaos. Taleb argues that embracing anti-fragility can lead to greater resilience and success.

As a result, I gave this book a rating of 7.0/10.

For me, a book with a note 10 is one I consider reading again every year. Among the books I rank with 10, for example, is Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb - William Meller

Understanding Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book "The Bed of Procrustes" requires a careful reading and an appreciation for his unique style of writing. 

This book is a part of Taleb's Incerto series, which also includes "Fooled by Randomness," "The Black Swan," "Antifragile," and "Skin in the Game." 

The Bed of Procrustes is a collection of aphorisms, which are short, thought-provoking statements or observations. 

Procrustes was a character from ancient Greek stories who had a special bed. But here's the twist: he would stretch or chop off the legs of people who slept on his bed to make them fit perfectly. It sounds pretty strange and not very nice, right?

Well, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author, uses this Procrustes idea to tell us that sometimes in life, people and situations try to make us fit into certain molds or shapes that aren't right for us. He says that it's okay to be who you are and not try to fit into a bed that's not meant for you.

In The Bed of Procrustes, Taleb weaves a tapestry of wisdom, urging us to dismantle the rigid molds we've crafted for ourselves. 

He presents a compelling case for embracing life's uncertainties, warning against the pitfalls of overconfidence in predictive models, and advocating for a world where individuals and systems benefit from chaos rather than crumble under its weight. 

It's a thought-provoking journey into the heart of uncertainty, and a must-read for anyone seeking to navigate the tumultuous seas of the modern world.

Key Ideas:

Fragility vs. Anti-Fragility: Taleb distinguishes between fragile, robust, and anti-fragile systems, highlighting the importance of building anti-fragile systems that benefit from volatility and adversity.

The Ludic Fallacy: He cautions against relying too heavily on mathematical models and probability, emphasizing their limitations in capturing real-world uncertainty.

The Tyranny of the Bell Curve: Taleb challenges the traditional Gaussian distribution and argues that many phenomena exhibit "fat-tailed" distributions with extreme outcomes.

Skin in the Game: Taleb advocates for decision-makers having personal stakes in the outcomes of their decisions, as it aligns incentives and reduces reckless behaviour.

The Ethics of Fragility: He explores the ethical implications of systems that harm individuals while benefiting others and calls for a more equitable and just society.

Main Lessons to Your Career and Life:

Adaptability is Paramount: Learn to adapt and thrive in unpredictable environments rather than seeking false certainty.

Beware of Overreliance on Predictive Models: Recognize the limitations of mathematical models and probabilistic thinking, and be cautious when applying them to real-world situations.

Prepare for Black Swan Events: Be prepared for rare, high-impact events by diversifying investments, developing robust contingency plans, and staying vigilant.

Embrace Anti-Fragility: Strive to create systems, organizations, and personal lives that become stronger when faced with adversity.

Ethics Matter: Consider the ethical implications of your decisions, and strive for fairness and equity in your actions.

My Book Highlights:

"... Love without sacrifice is like theft..."

"... Half of the people lie with their lips; the other half with their tears..."

"... What I learned on my own I still remember..."

"... The problem with experts is that they do not know what they do not know..."

"... If you want to annoy a poet, explain his poetry..."

"... They will envy you for your success, your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks, for your status - but rarely for your wisdom..."


"... Wit seduces by signaling intelligence without nerdiness..."

"... The best way to measure the loss of intellectual sophistication - this "nerdification," to put it bluntly - is in the growing disappearance of sarcasm, as mechanic minds take insults a bit too literally..."

"... A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see..."

Taleb argues that we do the same thing in many areas of our lives. We try to fit reality into our existing models and theories, even when they don't fit. This can lead to many problems, including the suppression of new ideas, the misallocation of resources, and the making of bad decisions.

Taleb offers a number of solutions to this problem. First, he suggests that we be more open-minded and willing to question our existing beliefs. Second, he argues that we should focus on building systems that are robust to unexpected events, rather than trying to predict the future perfectly. Finally, he suggests that we be more humble about our own knowledge and limitations.

In conclusion, The Bed of Procrustes is a thought-provoking book that challenges us to think more critically about how we interact with the world around us. Taleb's insights are relevant to a wide range of fields, including business, finance, politics, and science.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has devoted his life to problems of uncertainty, probability, and knowledge. He spent nearly two decades as a businessman and quantitative trader before becoming a full-time philosophical essayist and academic researcher in 2006. Although he spends most of his time in the intense seclusion of his study, or as a flâneur meditating in cafés, he is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. His main subject matter is “decision making under opacity”—that is, a map and a protocol on how we should live in a world we don’t understand.

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