Black Swan author's rules for living

Avi sez, "Nassim Nicholas Taleb, gadfly author of The Black Swan, gives his 10 rules for surviving an unpredictable world with dignity."
1 Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.

2 Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.

3 It’s not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie. If possible, tease people who take themselves and their knowledge too seriously.

4 Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act – if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.

5 Don’t disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time. We don’t understand their logic. Don’t pollute the planet. Leave it the way we found it, regardless of scientific ‘evidence’.

6 Learn to fail with pride – and do so fast and cleanly. Maximise trial and error – by mastering the error part.

7 Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network. Never take ‘no’ for an answer (conversely, take most ‘yeses’ as ‘most probably’).

8 Don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip and, of course, profiles of authors). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants... or (again) parties.

9 Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.

10 Answer e-mails from junior people before more senior ones. Junior people have further to go and tend to remember who slighted them.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: the prophet of boom and doom (Thanks, Avi!)


  1. Funny how #7 says to drop people from your social network who use words like ‘never’ but then the next sentence suggests “never take ‘no’ for an answer.” Looks like I’ll be dropping Nassim Nicholas Taleb from my social network.

  2. “Don’t disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time.”

    Oh, you mean, like organized religions?

  3. Ad #7: So you simply ask everyone if it’s okay for them that you drop them from your network, and you keep those who say “No”. That was quick.

    And it gets even better: If you repeat the procedure next year in order to optimize your social network, you’ll be done in about 0 secs.

  4. This list is beautiful garbage. An itemized rebuttal would be tedious and annoying. Suffice it to say, it’s a series of statements made to elicit a “Hell yeah!” response, but possesses little actual value. In short, it brings to mind self-help books, which are designed not to educate, but to act as comfort food for wounded egos. I look forward to the picking apart of the separate statements by other posters, a process already underway.

  5. eh…what? this is pretty random stuff and i’m not sure really that useful. Sure, lets go to more parties.

  6. “Don’t pollute the planet. Leave it the way we found it, regardless of scientific ‘evidence’.”

    Most scientific evidence (note the lack of quotation marks) seems to indicate that we’re having a negative impact on the planet and should take urgent action for our own sake, not that we’re fine and can do as we please without consequence. What parallel universe is this guy from?

    “Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.”

    Telling me I need luck is not useful advice. If random chance doesn’t work in my favor, I can never achieve my goals? What happened to “never take ‘no’ for an answer”?

    “Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network.”

    Because if someone’s not a blind optimist, they have no worth as a person. What an arrogant, judgmental asshole.

  7. #7 As Oscar Wilde said: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” You should relax. Go eat a donut.

  8. 11. Using stolen money (you needn’t steal it yourself) purchase multiple copies of everything Martha Stewart has ever published. Using these as materials, construct a scale model of a seedy trailer court, right down to the laundry on the line.

  9. Reading Taleb is a hoot – anyone who enjoys a good sustained rant (probably my favourite literary genre) will enjoy reading him, although his ideas are pretty much a synthesis of the ideas of W. Edwards Deming and Stuart Sutherland.

  10. #3, Religions are complicated systems that have been around for a very long time. Organized religions are simple systems that have been around for a relatively short time.

  11. I kinda like 2, 3, and 4 but the rest is just, well, meh. The first one particularly rankles. Scepticism is effortful and costly? Yeah, I suppose if you’re too lazy to engage your brain it might be, for most sensible people it’s little more than a reflex reaction though…

  12. “Don’t read newspapers for the news?” And listen only to overheard gossip and rumor? Is this list an attempt at reverse psychology?

  13. Did Taleb actually compose this list, or was it just Mr Appleyard’s summary?

    If you want to find out whether advice like this is merely banal platitudes, simply reverse each statement and see if that makes it outrageously, obviously disagreeable. If so, you can just reject it.

    “Scepticism is easy and cheap. It is best to be imperfect and foolish about matters of large consequences, and sceptical in the small and the aesthetic”.

    My personal no. 1 rule is “Question all orthodoxy”. At least for today.

  14. I bet if Taleb were to explain these rules, he would win some of you over (yeah, I’m not sure what I get out of them either). I love Taleb’s books and lectures (free online lectures and papers can be found easily if you search).

  15. I attended a WEF session yesterday entitled “Can you trust your Model” where Taleb gadfiled forth with panelists from Wharton, SAS, the National Defense University, the institute for emerging infections, etc.

    His point about “don’t disrupt complicated systems” was presented in this session as being more about the mis-use of complex models as justification for policy decisions… when the model is considered as useful for predictions by executives and politicians as they ignore the modeler’s warnings as to the unknowns and assumptions built into the model. Esp models of chaotic & non-linear systems.

    He was advocating more people being humble and saying “I don’t know, so I can do less harm by not tinkering – let us figure out more” than abandoning their effort.

    I found interesting in this session the consensus that complex models are more useful for honing intuitive sense of how a complex system works than as final justification for policy decisions.

    If the policy maker takes the time to use the model.

  16. I went to see Taleb at the LSE. He’s also made an appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight programme.

    One of the things I noticed about him was that he seemed to struggle with anything except ‘why didn’t people see how Taleb was right sooner’- a subject he got very worked up about to the point of going red. On one hand he accuses people of not factoring in the unknown, or ‘random’ element, yet at the same time he also seemed trapped by his own theory as well as by his own incorrigible pride.

    This list suffers from Taleb’s malady from being incapable of writing a cogent sentence that makes sense to anyone but himself. I’m surprised ‘knowing Taleb was right and why didn’t people know earlier’ wasn’t on the list around number 2 or 3.

  17. It doesn’t hold a candle to Harvard Lampoon’s “Deteriorata”. Especially the line marked with a **:

    – – –

    Go placidly
    Amid the noise and waste.
    And remember what comfort there may be
    In owning a piece thereof.

    Avoid quiet and passive persons
    Unless you are in need of sleep.

    Rotate your tires.

    Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself
    And heed well their advice,
    Even though they be turkeys.

    Know what to kiss … and when.

    Consider that two wrongs never make a right
    But that three … do.

    Wherever possible, put people on hold.

    Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment
    And despite the changing fortunes of time,
    There is always a big future in computer maintenance. **

    Remember the Pueblo.

    Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate.

    Know yourself.
    If you need help, call the FBI.

    Exercise caution in your daily affairs,
    Especially with those persons closest to you.
    That lemon on your left, for instance.

    Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls
    Would scarcely get your feet wet.

    Fall not in love therefore;
    It will stick to your face.

    Gracefully surrender the things of youth:
    The birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan
    And let not the sands of time
    Get in your lunch.

    Hire people with hooks.

    For a good time call 606-4311;
    Ask for “Ken.”

    Take heart amid the deepening gloom
    That your dog is finally getting enough cheese.

    And reflect that whatever misfortune may be your lot
    It could only be worse in Milwaukee.

    You are a fluke
    Of the universe.
    You have no right to be here.
    And whether you can hear it or not
    The universe is laughing behind your back.

    Therefore, make peace with your god
    Whatever you conceive him to be —
    Hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.

    With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewal
    The world continues to deteriorate.

    Give up.

  18. “1 Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.”

    Skeptics are skeptical of people who begin lists of advice with “Scepticism.”

  19. #1 Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences…

    I read this book last year and found its bottom line interesting but already known (by me): The market is unpredictable! Also, if Cory thinks #1 is an ok bit of advice, he will understand why sometimes it takes people like me a bit longer than others to catch on to new and innovative ideas. But I try.

  20. This is mostly bull. But #1 is right, I feel.

    I realised recently that by never taking sides, always keeping my mind open and listening to all the evidence I was expending a lot of mental energy over things that don’t really matter.

    But all this is only for people who are natural skeptics, like me. If you’re naturally credulous or easy going then skepticism can be helpful.

  21. As for #4, I think I’d just as soon dress like a slob for my execution. If you know you’re going to be judged harshly anyway, you might as well be comfortable.

  22. Speaking from experience, hard work will NOT get you a professorship (and probably not even that BMW — which by the way, goes against the leaving the planet alone bit). Seriously people, academia is in trouble. There are hiring freezes in place at the majority of large institutions and for the past 5 years the number of PhDs successfully landing tenure track positions has been 1 in 5! I’m sure that the stats are even worse now.

    This list is pretentious and only useful to those who have already have money and security.

  23. “Maximise trial and error — by mastering the error part.”

    Well I’ve got that part down.

    “It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences…”

    Unless of course, those matters get you killed. In that case you probably should have paid attention to them. Except you didn’t and it’s too late now.

  24. “2 Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.”

    What does agoraphobia have to do with this? Anyway, parties are boring, emotionally draining, and physically destructive if, like me, you’re allergic to tobacco. No matter where the party is, even clearly-labelled non-smoking houses, someone always lights up.

  25. I’m afraid this list is not much use to me. I did like the way #6 encourages us to fail with pride, (can anybody offer me some folksy wisdom re: at what point one should stop fighting an important battle and simply fail gracefully?), while #7 Says we should avoid losers…

  26. @#24 re: Rule #1

    I’d say being skeptical about small things is important. A bunch of small-but-stupid things rapidly become a gigantic clusterfuck.

  27. Skepticism is only expensive in a world where it can thrive and consume all available resources. What /are/ they doing with my tax money? Are my children really safe with people who fear themselves enough to hide their own nature? Was there ever that much water? Will this toy make my child sick? Why do they need to charge that much for an ATM withdrawal? For that matter, what are they doing with my tax money? Was that medical slip-up really a mistake or the result of someone with an agenda? Will this politician keep his promises? Are they spying on me? Am I safe from this powermonger’s thugs? Am I complicit in someone else’s suffering from a trustee’s evil deeds?

  28. Has it occured to anyone that this list could have been written by Aleksei Vayner himself? Especially #7: “When someone tells you you can never achieve something, cross them out of your life, because they are directly interfering with your success.”

  29. the bit about pollution bugs me. We can’t just leave it as we found it anymore since it was already pretty f@cked by the 70’s

  30. Ah heck, I guess I’m a loser. Well, better to have BB break it to me with this list, than to find out from my mother. :x

  31. The divine right of kings, illiteracy, inequality, and slavery have been around for a long time. It’s also true that trying to change this traditional way of life leads to unforeseen consequences. Does this mean that the French Revolution was wrong?

  32. I find that people who say “No”, “Never” and “Impossible” too much are often more interesting than the ones that sport a “too-positive” all-optimistic behaviour. Frankly I think those are annoying, and a little bit of pessimism is something that often goes with Cynism and sarcasm, two of the things I consider as great signs of wit and intelligence.

    Oh, I just remembered an excellent example from movies. Take “Little Miss Sunshine”. The funky old man says something along those lines regarding the stupid “self-help” guy in the flick.

    Nevertheless, being grumpy all the time is useless and annoying also. But I do prefer a grumpy pessimistic guy than the Richard Simmons type.

  33. Ohhh. . . it’s all in good fun people, after all, “rules are made to be broken.”

    I like Aleister Crowley’s 3 rules better, certainly easier to remember: “1. Do What Thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law. 2. Love is the Law, love under Will, and 3. There is no Law beyond Do What Thou Wilt.”

    Of course they haven’t really helped me much either, far as I can tell.

  34. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a personal hero of mine. I would highly suggest reading his book the Black Swan… especially if you are a scientist. His skeptical agnosticism of most things is an extremely profound world view. I know that after I read his book I pulled back on a lot of my views and was able to start picking out what was faith and what was actual knowledge. I know that I try to be a vastly more open human as a result of reading his book.

    I would offer up what I got from his book as, approach knowledge without any sort of faith. If you are going to have belief or faith in something, be able to tell yourself it is belief and faith.

    So for instance, I instinctively flinch Libertarian on most things. That is where my belief and faith live. What I have been better able to do is recognize when my gut reaction is a gut reaction is based off of true knowledge or something far less concrete.

    So, I naturally flinch towards being pro-gay rights. This belief is based on true knowledge. I have many gay friends and recognize the misery they suffer when the world treats them like freaks and the joy they experience where their sexuality is of no consequence. I am pro gay rights because I know that me and my friends will be happier in a more liberal world. This isn’t idle speculation or faith, this is knowledge.

    On the other hand, I also flinch towards free markets. Offer me two options and I will find the one with the least government intrusion more aesthetically appealing. A lot of this is built simply upon belief. I can certainly cite people who will back me up, but the honest truth is that in a massively complex system like the economy, I don’t really know how it is going to respond to any change. I still flinch towards free markets, but I recognize it as having a large component of faith and look to other options with far more open eyes than I ever have.

    Once you start picking apart your own beliefs and knowledge, you will start to see it in others too. It becomes pretty clear when to dismiss someone as a fanatic and a believer. As a scientist, it is a valuable skill to have to realize when colleagues have jumped from knowledge to faith.

  35. Well, I for one welcome our new laid-back…

    I enjoyed the list. Yes, it serves to reaffirm much of what I already believe. Yes, it’s glib. Sure, it may not be funny to everyone.

    Not sure why so many of you are talking it so seriously and so personally, but with those attitudes you might find yourselves falling quickly from my social network. Oh yeah, I don’t have a social network. As you were (ranting).

  36. I don’t usually comment, but I felt compelled to as this is one of my least favorite boingboing posts ever. More than half of these rules are nonsense. If I DID go to a party and met this guy, I would curse serendipity for bringing us together.

  37. Baldhead#39:

    the bit about pollution bugs me. We can’t just leave it as we found it anymore since it was already pretty f@cked by the 70’s

    You think it’s fscked now … you ain’t seen nothing yet. Just keeping things as they are now, environmentally, would be a pretty amazing achievement and a good thing.

    Tragedy of the commons on a global scale. We might be able to pull it out in time, but I think things will just get increasingly shitty. Too many people.

  38. Seriously, folks, I think most of the people here would really like Taleb’s books. I’m reading his Fooled By Randomness right now, and I have found it to really give voice to some things I’ve thought a lot about since I’ve become an adult. His central worldview is that hard, careful work, focused on the long-term, is the key to success. Fly-by-night, take-the-money-and-run, easy-money lifestyles lead to fantastic success followed immediately by crushing failure. You know, like the way the banks and corporations of the US have completely screwed us, and unlike the fact that your dentist still has a well-paying job.

    A lot of what he is writing about now is about how we should be very careful about received knowledge. The authorities sometimes have no better idea what’s going on than you do; they just have done a more extensive lit review.

    This is evident to me every time I go to an academic conference and see famous researchers talk. Oftentimes their research is no better than what I’ve done (and I know mine is not that great), but they’ve been doing it longer and have been successfully cherry-picking their data for 20 years until they have become the “expert” on their topic. Then you’ll hear them spouting truisms to the faithful (yes, there is no other word for their fans), all the while knowing that you’ve just completed a 2-year project that clearly found the opposite, but it’s not going to be published because it disagrees with the “expert.”

    Now, I live in a vile little backwater of academia, but I don’t think the hard sciences are any better. The vast majority of researchers are nothing special, and have just gotten good at getting funding and raises so they don’t have to leave college (I’d like to think this doesn’t apply to me, but in my heart of hearts, I know it does). We all get together and tell stories and mod them up or down, and reality is created. It’s bullshit and, when you’re dealing with important questions (thankfully, I’m not), it’s extremely dangerous.

    Anyway, I think that people who haven’t read Taleb are kind of misinterpreting some of his points up there. He’s a smart and interesting guy, although he does like to troll quite a bit (so do I). But I think that if you pick up one or both of his books, you’ll be very impressed.

    Finally, allow me to present the rules I follow, which have served me well (there are some in there that people aren’t going to like, but there you go). “Words of Advice for Young People,” by William S. Burroughs:

    People often ask me if I have any words of advice for young people. Well, here are a few simple admonitions for young and old.

    Never interfere in a boy and girl fight.

    Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. What they mean is they want more money. Much more.

    If you’re doing business with a religious son of a bitch, get it in writing. His word isn’t worth shit, not with the good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal.

    Avoid all fuckups. You all know the type. Anything they have anything to do with, no matter how good it sounds, turns into a disaster.

    Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill. Tell them firmly, “I am not paid to listen to this drivel. You are a terminal fool.”

    Now some of you may encounter the devil’s bargain if you get that far. Any old soul is worth saving at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying. So you can take the offer as a compliment. They try the easy ones first, you know, like money, all the money there is. But who wants to be the richest guy in some cemetery? Not much to spend it on, eh, Gramps? Getting too old to cut the mustard. Have you forgotten something, Gramps? In order to feel something, you have to be there. You have to be 18. You’re not 18, you are 78. Old fool sold his soul for a strap-on.

    How about an honorable bargain? “You always wanted to become a doctor. Now’s your chance. Why, you could have become a great healer and benefit humanity. What’s wrong with that?” Just about everything. There are no honorable bargains involving exchange of qualitative merchandise, like souls, for quantitative merchandise like time and money. So piss off, Satan, and don’t take me for dumber than I look. As an old junk pusher told me, “Watch whose money you pick up.”

  39. At parties, don’t keep repeating yourself over and over and over again. Especially if you think your point makes you cleverer than everyone else. (Or so goes my quick summary of The Black Swan). People will think you’re annoying.

  40. Wow, tough crowd. Black Swan is a fascinating read. Taleb admits that it is flawed, and it is. He seems to be attempting to systematize a science of uncertainty, but not really succeeding. How would you expect any such attempt to succeed?

    That said, he’s stylish and cocky, and his insights are profound. He seems to be pretty clearly from money and some of his bets have paid off big enough that he doesn’t have to worry about it like you and I do. Or like I do anyway.

    There’s a great bit in Black Swan about how he got his f*** you money in the crash on ’87. I totally envy that sporker.

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